Contrary to the popular belief that Pilates is a relatively recent craze, the exercises that German-born Joseph Pilates and his wife Clara came up with were actually invented a century ago, and first taught in New York in 1926.
While Joseph and Clara were alive they called their method Contrology, and it was partly aimed at dancers to help them improve their technique or recover from injuries.
It has evolved, and today any age, sex or fitness level can practise because there is always a level that’s right for an individual, with even chair-based Pilates classes available at some gyms.
So what is it?
Pilates is an overall exercise regime that builds a strong core, helps with balance, correct alignment and movement and gives you complete body control.
There is a focus on breathing, on posture, on centring the body so that weight and impact on joints and muscles is always carried out optimally – which in turn can help to avert joint and muscle pain later in life.
Every joint and muscle group is targeted, from top to toe.
There’s an emphasis on the core, where Joseph Pilates believed every movement began – and indeed, if you place a firm hand on your belly as you’re walking down the street, you will feel the abdominals contract and relax as you take your steps.
One of the most common problems with an ageing body is lower back pain.
By strengthening the transverse abdominus – a deep muscle that wraps around the body, supporting your lower back – and the multifidus muscles – a network of small muscles right at the base of the spine – you are effectively creating a strong cylinder around your lower back, enabling a more upright posture as if you were wearing a corset. (The muscles in this part of the body are called the corset muscles.)
Many of the exercises in Pilates are aimed at doing just this, and one of the major side effects of a regular workout is the toning you will see from the outside, as well as the strengthening inside.
All the other muscle groups in the back in a good class will be worked on, from the neck, across the shoulders, down the middle and sides and all the way down to the lumbar spine and the power house, the gluteus maximus (that’s right, your backside).
Mind control and balance
So many physical conditions can be averted with simply controlling your alignment throughout your daily movements.
Mothers, for example, who habitually hold a young child on one of their hips rather than balancing the load using alternate sides could be at risk of imbalance or hip joint pain as one side becomes more burdened than the other.
Pilates will teach you to avoid doing this.
It will teach you about the importance of balance – not so that you can become a trapeze artist, but because falling is far more dangerous as you age since your bones are no longer the rubber they seemed to be when you were a child and they will break more easily. If you’ve got balance, you’re not as likely to take that fall.
Pilates teaches mind control. In a good class you will work on every muscle group, isolating them one at a time for a pure, targeted approach.
Sometimes it’s not the muscles that can’t do a particular exercise – it’s the mind that stops the body, and Pilates teaches you to take back control.
Progression from any age, any level
The beauty is you can always find a class that’s right for you. You won’t get hot and sweaty – and you do need cardiovascular exercise a couple of times a week on top of your Pilates – but you will see and feel the progress.
Start with the fundamentals, where a good teacher will build your regime up from the simple mat-based exercises and gradually increase the difficulty at a pace that suits you.