Why Joseph Pilates’ Legacy Will Live Forever

Joseph Pilates’ legacy includes a lifetime of developing and teaching exercise to a wide range of clients. He trained injured dancers, professional athletes, and opera singers; to businessmen, kids with scoliosis, and even breast cancer survivors. And within that process, he invented a cohesive exercise system and specific equipment for physical and mental conditioning. Meanwhile, he meticulously documented, patented and copyrighted his method because he’d proven it’s efficacy to the extent he confidently stated:

You will truly be building upon the solid foundation of Contrology which itself is built upon scientific principles so true, sound, and unique that the science and art of Contrology will live forever.”

As a teacher and practitioner of his work, it feels like an honor and a responsibility to make sure his Method “will live forever”. I’d hate for it to become completely obscured by fitness fusions, trends, and redesigned iterations of his equipment. And for thousands of Pilates teachers like me, it’s important that his name, Pilates, remains synonymous with the Method he developed, documented, and passed on. So I consider myself lucky to have spent the last weekend of September with thirty-one other like-minded Pilates teachers at the first annual Pilates at the Pillow™: The New Science and Lost Art of Joe’s Work. Pilates teachers from Australia, Greece, Iceland, Mexico, Bermuda, Brussels, Canada, and the U.S. descended upon Jacob’s Pillow and Joe’s original studio in Becket, MA for this inspiring and historic event.

Pilates at the Pillow™

It was here that Joseph Pilates spent his Summers in the 1940s teaching his method of “body conditioning” to dancers. We even got to take turns posing in the only place we know for a fact that Joe taught group classes. Look familiar?

The Science of Pilates Endures

Sean Gallagher’s science-based lectures reminded me of the amount of study and critical thinking Joe invested into developing such a comprehensive and cohesive system. As far back as the early 1900s he was already focusing on core-based, functional training that developed spine stability and mobility, proper breathing, efficient circulation of blood and lymph, plus mental acuity. It’s as if new science is still catching up with Joe’s understanding of what the body needs to function optimally and experience longevity. In fact, it seems as if he designed his Method to be more than just an exercise system; but a lifestyle and a mindset. And he wanted everyone to embrace it.

Joe’s “Lost” Apparatus

That Joe wanted his Method incorporated into everyone’s daily life is evidenced by the equipment he designed specifically for in-home use. To experience some of that “lost” equipment we piled into cars for a quick commute to Joe’s original studio in the woods. I have to admit that his V-Bed was surprisingly comfortable. And the fact that it converted into a Bednasium meant that pure laziness was the only viable excuse for not practicing your Contrology exercises.

Inside Joe’s original studio, Elaine Ewing presented a workshop on The Resister which was beautifully recreated by Pilates Lineage.  Joe designed it specifically for in-home use and sold it through catalogues. The Resister came with an illustrated guide and specific cues for a progressive workout using leg springs, arm springs, and the neck exerciser.

Elaine also guided us through Joe’s Ped-o-Pul workout. Of course anyone who’s been in a fully-equipped Pilates studio is familiar with this apparatus. But how many of us knew that Joe designed a Ped-o-Pul with a bike seat? Not to mention a  documented series of exercises with detailed instructions to challenge you while standing, squatting, and sitting. Also, notice the differences between the archival Ped-o-Pul that Pilates Designs recreated for us (L) versus the traditional one found in studios today (R).

Keeping Joe’s Legacy Alive

Even though some of Joe’s equipment has become “lost”, there’s a reason why his Method has endured for almost 100 years. Ruth St. Denis, a Modern dance pioneer and integral part of Jacob’s Pillow history, referred to Mr. Pilates as “an inspired genius” and “a sculptor of the body”.  My weekend at The Pillow reinforced that same intuitive feeling I’ve always had about the timelessness of Mr. Pilates’ work and the importance of knowing and practicing his entire system. It inspired me to remain curious. It reminded me that the soul of his legacy lives in the intention, precision, and sequencing of his exercises and the deliberate design of his equipment. Not only did Mr. Pilates make sure his Method was complete, but he also left us with the tools to learn it, to experience it in our own bodies, and to pass it on to others so that “Contrology will live forever”.

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