Becoming a Pilates Influencer

If Joseph Pilates were alive today, I bet his Instagram feed would be lit! I mean, even back in the early 20th century Joe was meticulously documenting his life’s work; clearly aware of how to appeal to the masses by showcasing his Contrology- chiseled body in nothing but white skivvies. And let’s not forget the voyeuristic appeal of limber bodies on his S&M-like apparatus. I’m sure he’d quickly gain likes, followers and influencer status!

Leverage Your Talents & Resources

Joe wasn’t the only physical culturist of his time but he was definitely a hustler; determined to differentiate himself and gain the respect and followers he felt his Method deserved. He was convinced that Contrology could make the world a better place if everyone practiced it. So he leveraged his talents and resources to gain maximum exposure. Besides teaching Contrology at his NYC gym beginning in 1927, he published his first book “Your Health” in 1934 that outlined his philosophies, principles, and theories about health and fitness; not to mention his condemnation for the medical profession. From 1941-’43 and then ’47-’51 he spent Summers teaching at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival at the invitation of it’s founders, Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis. At the same time, he also purchased approximately 56 acres of land adjacent to The Pillow where he owned a country home and small gym where he taught and built equipment.

It seems as if Joe knew he had the potential for a much greater audience, though, even if that meant not teaching everyone personally. Because in 1945 he published his second book “Return To Life Through Contrology” where he clearly defines what his Method is, plus the results of consistent self-practice. Through photos and step-by-step instructions he guides his growing number of followers through his original 34 Mat exercises saying “You may derive all the benefits of Contrology in your own home. The only unchanging rule you must consciously obey is that you must always faithfully and without deviation follow the instructions accompanying the exercises and always keep your mind wholly concentrated on the purpose of the exercises as you perform them.”

Offer Products & Valuable Content

But Joe wanted to make even more of his work accessible to the masses. In her research, which includes Sean Gallagher’s Pilates Archives™, Elaine Ewing discovered that “Between the years 1941-1946 (approximately) Joe attempted to sell equipment and exercise charts for home use through a variety of catalogues. On his charts he gave clear and precise instructions on how to do, not just the exercises, but Contrology in general. Anyone who bought his equipment would be able to complete the exercises if they followed the directions exactly.” Here’s what’s been discovered in catalogues thus far:

  • Bench Mat
  • Spine Corrector
  • Junior Reformer
  • Resister
  • Wunda Chair
  • Massage Table (1/2 Cadillac but it’s unclear if this came with a chart)

Elaine suggests that based on the above equipment he sold thru catalogues “one could potentially create an entire home studio and follow along with the charts, and never have actually met Joseph Pilates or practiced his method with him, another teacher, or within a studio.”

Know Your “Why”

Joe may have gained his followers slowly and organically but I think his influence has had so much staying power because he started with a clear sense of “Why”. His “why” was not ego-driven! His ambition was to help people “Return to Life Through Contrology”. So everything he created was infused with his desire for people to experience maximum health, optimal physical function, and longevity. He wanted people to live fully with “complete coordination of body, mind, and spirit”. His Method was more than just movement exploration, kicking people’s asses, or performing core-based exercises in random order. He considered his Method to be “corrective exercise”; systematic and intention-driven. He even said “The benefits of Contrology depend solely upon your performing the exercises exactly according to instructions – and not otherwise.”

Not Just a Pretty Face

Like most creative entrepreneurs, Joe’s success didn’t happen overnight. He wasn’t just a pretty face with the luck of corporate financial backing to help him launch a chain of Contrology gyms across the nation. His rise to “influencer” status happened first by embodying his own Method. He practiced what he preached. There are even pictures of him practicing advanced exercises well into his eighties! But his work wasn’t about fueling his own ego (although I hear he had quite a healthy one!). It was about offering accessible solutions for health, happiness, and longevity. So he created a comprehensive exercise system, maximized his teaching opportunities to “Wow!” his clients, and used early 20th century media to document and distribute his Method. I think Joe’s intention was to go viral.

Going Viral With Integrity

More than fifty years after his death, it feels like such an important responsibility for us as 2nd and 3rd generation teachers to help Joe accomplish that goal; especially as the term “Pilates” has become generic and often gets confused with any core-based exercise. What and how we choose to teach influences people’s perceptions about what the Pilates Method is and the purposes behind Joe’s work.

While Joe didn’t have the benefit of Smartphones, Facebook, or Instagram to help his work go viral, nowadays it has the potent ability to either amplify the intelligence and comprehensive nature of his work or diminish it entirely. I say, let’s go viral while honoring Joe and his life’s work with integrity!

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