How to Speak Pilates: A Crash Course

Joseph Pilates
Contrology Inventor Teaching.

A few months back I took a spin class and nearly fell off my seat when the instructor barked out “pull your navel to your spine”. What they hey? How does a spin teacher even know what "navel to spine" means? That’s a phrase reserved exclusively for Pilates classes, isn’t it?

Actually no. Pilates techniques and language have become ubiquitous since its early days. Fast forward to the early 21st century and you will find hallmarks of Pilates everywhere.

 The media can't stop talking about it and your neighbor is addicted. Here’s what you need to know to hold your own when the word "Pilates" comes up in a social setting. 

There's No Pie in Pilates

First - pronunciation. It's not Pilots. Or PIE-LATES. It's pronounced Pi (short "I") - lah-tees. Three syllables. With that out of the way,here are the must-know facts;

Pilates was a Real Guy. Named Joe.

In 1926 a German national by the name of Joseph H. Pilates came to New York to file his patents for his unique exercise method.  He had developed a series of body weight moves along with some creative resistance techniques borrowing from gymnastics, yoga, martial arts and more. He was intent upon manufacturing his specialized apparatus. Interestingly, he was inspired by and had strong ties to the boxing community. He died in 1967.

What's the Real Name?

Joe opened his business on 8th Avenue in New York City.

He called it Contrology Studio. Actors, dancers and fitness enthusiasts came to work out in Joe's system of corrective exercise which would later come to be known simply as Pilates. But, Joe himself, never called his method Pilates. He called it Contrology.

You Can Work out With Joe Pilates

The original work that Joe created is always available.

There are multiple sources. One is his own book, Return to Life.  Everything you need to learn about a home Pilates workout is in that single book. Be warned, this is not a sympathetic gentle movement routine. You will start off grunting and if you make it to the end, you’ll have worked up a good sweat.  Joe’s original work was nothing like the derivative works that followed. He was hard core. If you want to learn the work from an instructor and work with the apparatus you can seek out a specific lineage of instructors who are trained in the original work. One of the best sources to find a studio that offers this type of training is the Classical Pilates Directory.

Cliff Notes and Review

  • Don't call it Pie-Lattes.
  • There was a man. His last name was actually Pilates. He was not a dancer. Actually he spent more time focused on the boxing community than the dancing community. 
  • Joseph Pilates came to New York from Germany. This one man is singularly responsible for the millions of people doing his method every day worldwide.
  • You can still learn Joe's original method. He left lists of exercises and photographs and trained many teachers to carry on his work.  He also wrote books. 

Bonus Information

in his lifetime, Joe Pilates created dozens of pieces of fitness equipment.

His invention, the Universal Reformer has become increasingly popular over the decades inspiring myriad spin-offs, copies and hybrids.  Although manufactures and designers have spent decades reinventing, and reimagining the Universal Reformer for the modern world, those who worked on the originals will tell you nothing comes close. Far from slick and smooth, the Reformers of Joe’s time were raw and gritty providing resistance and friction that produced a solid muscle burn and a good deal of grunting. 

You are now armed with some credible Pilates facts and hopefully you can set the record straight when you hear Pilates misinformation.


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