What is Classical Pilates? – a history

Clients searching for a Pilates instructor today are confronted by a bewildering variety of Pilates-based exercise programs, performed on an endless variety of pieces of equipment which use spring resistance to help strengthen and align the body.

In the 90 years since Joseph Pilates began developing his work, the word ‘Pilates’ has become an umbrella for a very wide range of exercise modalities. In fact, the industry is in somewhat of a crisis world-wide, as different strands of Pilates compete for the position of the “real” Pilates method.

At one end of the spectrum, Pilates has been adopted as a tool for injury rehabilitation, taught increasingly by physiotherapists and used in rehab clinics.  In this form, Pilates exercises are broken down, the focus is on isolating muscles. Work-outs are slow, and focused on an area of injury. There is an emphasis on an academic understanding of the bio-mechanics and anatomy behind Pilates exercises and a de-emphasis on the method as a holistic movement-based, rigorous exercise routine.

Exercises are often taught on equipment that has been modified from Joseph’s™ original designs.  These modifications are seen as improvements, but any change in the size or shape of the equipment, or to the spring tensions used, fundamentally alters the bio-mechanics of the exercises, often inadvertently detracting from their original intent.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Pilates mat exercises have been enthusiastically embraced by the fitness industry, with personal trainers and gym instructors undertaking crash courses in ‘Pilates’ and teaching Pilates exercises as a gym workout, without fully understanding the method. In these cases the equipment is often discarded altogether (to make the delivery of Pilates classes cheaper for the gyms), thus removing an essential element in the total Pilates experience for clients.

Pilates has also become associated with yoga and dance. After he opened studio in New York, Joseph Pilates, and his remarkable method of body conditioning, were discovered by two famous dancers, George Balanchine and Martha Graham. Both recognised the power of the method and sent many dancers to train with him. Hence Pilates became cross fertilised with dance and still today is frequently taught by dancers or those with some dance experience. Yet, while there are elements of both yoga and dance in Pilates, it is niether of these.

Within the spectrum of different types of Pilates, Classical Pilates is the stream which remains as close as possible to the way Joseph Pilates himself taught in his own studio in New York from the 1920s to the late 1960s when he died.  Hence it is also called ‘Authentic Pilates’.

Classical Pilates is taught on original equipment and exercises are not modified but taught in part to maintain the tradition of Joseph Pilates work.

The equipment is made to the designs created by Pilates himself to build his original equipment (which was mostly constructed by his brother Fred before the work was taken over by Gratz Industries, which still produces Classical Pilates equipment today). Clara Pilates (who is said by all who worked with her to have been an extremely talented teacher), said that the Pilates Reformer was your partner. “You don’t work on it, you work with it.” Anyone who has experienced good quality Pilates knows this to be the case. This is why modifications to the equipment have such a profound influence on the quality and effects of the exercises.

The different strands of Pilates have evolved from the work of a handful of ‘elders’ – people who studied and worked with Pilates in his time and then went on to teach their own versions of the method to others. The term ‘elders’ refers to those who learned directly from Joseph and were still alive and teaching at the end of the Twentieth Century. The elders are generally accepted to be:  Romana Kryzanowska, Kathy Grant, Ron Fletcher, Eve Gentry, Lolita san Miguel and Mary Pilates (Joseph’s niece – he did not have any children.) Jay Grimes is also sometimes included in this list, though he is younger than the other ‘elders’.

Joseph Pilates did not run a formal teacher trainer program or issue any formal certification to his apprentices. Learning occurred through personal practice and hours spent in his studio, initially observing Joseph and his wife Clara teaching, then, as requested, helping clients with their exercises. The progression from client to apprentice was often gradual, with no formal starting point to teacher training. All of Joseph’s apprentices spent years learning the method in his studio before being invited to assist in teaching.

Classical Pilates has primarily come down through the work of Romana Kryzanowska, who was chosen by Clara Pilates to take over Joseph’s studio after his death in 1968. Romana continued to teach and train teachers in New York until the late 1990s, and is perhaps the person most responsible for keeping Joseph’s original work alive.

In his own time, Joseph called his work “Contrology”™. It was a complete system of body conditioning designed to train the body and the mind and thus improve the wellness of the individual as a whole.

Joseph Pilates was a circus performer, boxer and serious athlete. He drew on many movement and exercise traditions when creating his work: ancient Greek and Roman exercise, martial arts, acrobatics, dance and European Gymnastics (very popular in Germany in his youth).

The historically accurate Pilates method is a full body movement system, based on an ordered sequence of exercises, characterized by flowing movement, technical clarity, rhythm and dynamics.  The exercises all work to inform one another – hence performing the mat alone, or changing the sequence of exercises or modifying the exercises or equipment detracts from the integrity of the method as a whole.

Some common myths about Classical Pilates:

Classical Pilates is too difficult for most people to perform and must be modified. Classical Pilates is demanding and rigorous and many people do find the method challenging when they first try it. This is what makes it an exciting and rewarding enterprise! Pilates has been too often modified due to the lack of skill and understanding of instructors. Like any worthwhile activity, teaching and performing Classical Pilates takes time, care and effort. It is not an easy road to take. Classical Pilates instructors devote themselves to finding ways to ensure their clients perform the original exercises with good technique and are able to progress safely though to higher levels to the best of their ability and in the time it takes them in their own time. Even at the beginner level, which is accessible to most people, great strength and endurance can be built through this approach.

Classical Pilates is dangerous. Classical Pilates is not dangerous when taught by a skilled and experienced instructor, who understands the exercises and how to progress clients from rehab exercises and Pre-Pilates though the different levels of difficulty. Like driving a car, doing yoga or lifting weights in the gym, Classical Pilates takes care, skill, attention and above focused practice.


How Pilates and core conditioning can help your feet

When we stand upright, there is a strong relationship between out feet and our pelvis. Weaknesses and misalignment in one area can adversely affect the other. Weaknesses and misalignment in both can cause havoc in our bodies!

Strengthening the muscles of the abdomen, thighs and lower back, and developing correct alignment in the pelvis therefore helps to correct the way we carry our weight on our feet. Strengthening and realigning the feet helps the pelvis and lower back.

If you are purchasing a pair of orthotics, you can enhance the benefit you gain from them by strengthening your core and correcting your posture.

Pilates is an exercise method developed in the early 20th Century by boxer and physical trainer, Joseph Pilates. The method has been used to train dancers, acrobats, gymnasts and other elite athletes to develop strength, improve posture and move with maximum efficiency.

Since the 1980s, Pilates has been widely adopted by physiotherapists as an exercise system for the rehabilitation of back injuries.

The method is therefore an ideal bridge from rehab exercises, needed for pain and injury, to exercise aimed at improving fitness. (ie from the physiotherapy clinic to the gym).

Joseph Pilates developed two specialised pieces of equipment especially for strengthening and aligning the feet.  Many of the exercises performed on Pilates equipment also work on foot, knee and leg strength and alignment.

Powerhouse Pilates Sydney is a small Pilates studio in the inner west Sydney suburb of Annandale. Classes are small (no more than 3), with lots of individual attention from your instructor ensuring you are working safely.

For more information contact Lea and the team.