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What is Pilates?

Updated: Jan 14

Woman doing Pilates on a Cadillac
The Cadillac

The answer to this is a little trickier than you’d think, and hopefully, I can give the answer without upsetting anyone. There has been a long-standing debate as to what is “allowed” to be referred to as Pilates and what is not. So, let’s get into it!

Where Did Pilates Originate?

Ok, hear me out. You must know a little about the history of Pilates if you want to understand what it is. I'll make it brief.

Woman doing a backbend on Pilates Wunda Chair
The Wunda Chair, invented by Joseph Pialtes

Pilates was not called Pilates when it was first created. It was once known as Contrology, and was created by a man named Joseph Pilates. Pilates was born in Germany in 1883. He was very active from a young age participating in sports like boxing, fencing, and wrestling, and eventually ended up becoming part of a circus. During World War I, Pilates and his fellow circus members were interned, and this is when he began to hone his technique and teach it to the internees. Later he served as an orderly in a hospital, working with patients from their hospital beds. Using random things he could find, such as bed springs and ropes, Joseph Pilates turned the hospital beds

A modern Pilates reformer machine
A Modern Pilates Reformer

into early versions of the Pilates machines we know today, like the Cadillac and the reformer. Next time you want to throw some household items away, think twice! Maybe you can use them to invent something epic!

Joseph Pilates later made his way to New York City with his wife Clara and opened a Contrology studio. Contrology was popular with athletes and dancers because of how effective the techniques were in gaining strength and control.

After Joe Pilates’ Death 

Joseph Pilates died in 1967, but his wife Clara kept the method going and passed it on to apprentices. Contrology didn’t take on the name “Pilates” until after Joseph Pilates’ death. The Pilates “elders” who were taught directly by Joseph and Clara, began their own training, and Pilates began to become popular, especially in the 90s.

Naturally, there was a debate about who was allowed to use the word “Pilates” to describe the workout that they were teaching. There was an attempt to trademark Pilates, but it was ruled in 2000 that Pilates is a generic term, not a brand.

Classical, Contemporary, and Other

Now, there are two main styles of teaching Pilates - classical and contemporary.

Woman doing the Pilates exercise, The Hundred
The Pilates Hundred

Classical Pilates aims to adhere to Joseph Pilates' original teachings, while contemporary Pilates incorporates other athletic-inspired movements. Like a game of telephone, though, some Pilates teachers have strayed far away from the exercises that were originally taught and believe that as long as the movements are slow, controlled, and dancer-like, then it’s Pilates (this has been my observation).

Megaformer, XFormer, etc

If you search for Pilates in any major city, you’re bound to find a studio that has large, reformer-inspired machines called Megaformers, XFormers, or Sweatlanas (there are also other brands and variations of the Lagree Method-inspired machines). The exercises, which include planks, lunges, and squats, done on these machines are meant to work your muscles to fatigue. You often get the shakes when doing these workouts, and they are highly effective as strengthening workouts, but the core of the many exercises is not what a Pilates purist would actually call Pilates.

So, to answer the question, “What is Pilates?” I would say, and this is my own opinion, that Pilates is a method that includes exercises performed on a mat or apparatus that were created by either Joseph Pilates, Clara, or the elders who learned from them. These exercises are meant to strengthen the body and keep the spine healthy. If you do variations of these exercises, I still believe that it’s Pilates. If you mix random exercises with the original method but still stay within the 6 Pilates principles (centering, concentration, control, precision, breath, flow), I still believe it’s Pilates. Once we get into methods that have nothing to do with Joseph Pilates' teachings, I'm reluctant to call it Pilates. Don't get me wrong, I'm happy to take any of these classes, though. But, as a judge ruled, anything can be called Pilates. Ultimately, if everyone is moving and staying healthy, which is what Joseph Pilates wanted, does it really matter?

If you'd like to try an at-home Pilates mat class, try mine right here.

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