I just finished Caged Lion by John Howard Steel and it is full of information and stories that may interest you as a student. If you're curious about where Pilates came from, what Joe Pilates was like, and how Pilates has survived and evolved over time, the book (and this podcast episode!) are for you!
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[00:00:00] Hello, and welcome to Pilates Students' Manual, a podcast helping you get the most out of your Pilates classes. I'm Olivia and I'll be your host. Join the conversation and share your thoughts on Instagram @pilatesstudentsmanual. You can support the podcast by visiting buymeacoffee.com/OliviaPodcasts. Let's learn something new.
Hello, hello everybody. Welcome back to Pilates Students' Manual. Today I'm going to be talking about the book Caged Lion about Joseph Pilates and his [00:01:00] legacy. The book was written by John Howard Steel, who's one of Joe Pilates students, one of his last living students, I would say. It's a bit of a memoir talking about John's experience, learning Pilates from Joe, and also Joe inside and outside of the studio, and then how Pilates grew changed, evolved from Joe's death onward to almost present times.
The author, John, has a really interesting perspective because he was a student of Pilates and he never became a teacher. He's done Pilates for almost 60 years, his entire adult life, but he never felt the desire to teach Pilates. He just knew that this is something that he wanted to do, that this was an important thing that he not only continue in terms of doing it for himself, doing the exercises, but also something that he wanted to make sure was [00:02:00] preserved after Joe's passing. John was a really integral part in keeping the studios open, the gym's open, and continuing Joseph Pilates' legacy after his passing in 1967.
The other part of the book that I found to be really interesting, and as a student of Pilates, you may also find interesting, is a little bit of Joe's biography. Because we know from the episode last season, the what is the history of Pilates episode that Joe has this mythic and legendary quality about him and that he was a storyteller. And he would tell stories about where Pilates came from and his inspiration for it and not any, or all of it, could be verified. So the author, John did some digging and had some hypotheses about the origins of Pilates, the person, and also Pilates the method and the exercise system.
[00:03:00] So I have read the book. I've also seen some of John's book tour and his like publicity tour talking about the book, answering questions about the book. So I wanted to share with you today some of my takeaways from the book, and also encourage you to read it for yourself because it's really interesting to learn more about a thing that you already love doing. And if you love it from the exercise side of things, you may be interested in how the exercises have changed both during Joe's tenure as the teacher, and then beyond as different schools of Pilates and different teachers have made their own changes and adaptations to the system.
Pilates nearly died out multiple times after Joe's death because Joe was the face and the only teacher of his system. When he was gone, you know, how will this system [00:04:00] continue? It's such a contradiction that Joe wanted everyone to do contrology, as it was then called. He wanted everyone in the country, everyone in the world to do it, but only certified two people to teach it.
When we think about teacher trainings now, that if you love Pilates and you're passionate about Pilates, the studio that you go to definitely offers teacher training. And if they don't another one in your city or town definitely does. And it is a hundred percent a rigorous process to become a teacher, but it's also readily available, that you can take advantage of it and do that pretty much whenever you want. So the fact that Joe's system was not secret because he's teaching it to people, but wasn't laid out and wasn't passed on in a way that it could continue easily after his passing is just such a contradiction to me in my mind.
One of the things that this book covers that I won't go into a [00:05:00] ton of detail, but I do think you might find interesting, is when I was talking about the history of Pilates and I was like, Oh, and then the gym changed hands a bunch of times. And you know, then there was a lawsuit and now we have Pilates, as we know it. Because John Howard Steel, the author, was such a big part of keeping the gym going, the changes of ownership actually became a bit more interesting. That stuff that I tend to gloss over, but you really see how these passionate individuals who don't even teach Pilates, but just cared so much about the system cared so much about Joe and Clara that they wanted to continue that system. That's really cool.
I think that's a super huge testament to the power of Pilates and people's attachment to it. After those changes in ownership, one of the ways that Pilates was able to not go extinct, one of the ways Pilates, the method, was able to survive was by changing. And that's something that Joe [00:06:00] probably wouldn't have been really thrilled about.
John shares, you know, at the end that if Joe were to walk into a modern Pilates studio with music playing, with teachers talking to the students, with brightly colored clothes and well lit spaces, that this is all not stuff that he really was known for is in his studio.
And also just like the variations of the exercise. I mean, Joe also taught the exercises with variations, even though he had a system. And like we see in his mat work, like we see in his reformer work, that there was a set series of exercises. He taught variations. He offered modifications. It was written in stone, but it wasn't written in stone. You know? So when Ron Fletcher took Pilates to California and he got the okay from Romana and Clara to open his studio in California, the style of Body Pilates that Ron Fletcher taught was Joe's [00:07:00] Pilates, but also was his take on it.
And, you know, we hear from John as well that Romana's Pilates was Joe's Pilates, plus, you know, some ballet inspired flourishes because Romana was a ballerina. So it wasn't like the exact way. But Romana, Ron Fletcher, Kathy Grant, Eve Gentry, all of these people, these Pilates elders, have put their spin on Pilates. So if you follow Fletcher Pilates method, it's going to differ slightly from Romana's Pilates. It's going to differ slightly from maybe Mary Bowen's Pilates, and that's not all bad.
What we saw with Ron's Pilates studio in California is that he was able to adapt it and market it to a much, much wider audience. And even though changing it may have not been what Joe wanted, by changing it Joe's dream of everyone doing contrology could then be [00:08:00] realized. You know, the fact that Pilates is now in hospitals, in physical therapist's offices. I've had so many people come to my classes and they're like, Oh, I'm doing Pilates because, you know, I worked on the reformer when I was, you know, rehabbing my knee injury.
So there's rehabilitation Pilates, that Pilates has become more accessible to more bodies types. You know, when I think about the clinical reformers that basketball players are using, or football players are using, or baseball players are using. That we're creating equipment that accommodates greater body diversity. That's so important. And Pilates continues to evolve. It hasn't finished evolving. I would go so far as to say that every teacher is making micro adjustments to the system based on the people that they're working with and where they are.
Coming up after the break, I'm going to take you on a journey of what Pilates was like in Joe's studio from John's [00:09:00] perspective. And also talk about the unique element of Pilates that makes it inspire such a passionate following, both in students and teachers and in the Pilates community. That's coming up next.
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[00:10:00] What was your first experience with Pilates? Was it in a studio? Was it a video? Was it on TV, or an infomercial? Was it an ad on Facebook?
Where did you first hear about Pilates, and then what made you try it? And if you tried it, why did you try it again? Why did you keep doing it? If you became a teacher, what inspired you to be a teacher? There's definitely something about Pilates that draws you in that makes you want to keep going, that intrigues and inspires and makes you curious.
Also thinking about those interactions, if you did Pilates in a [00:11:00] studio and you met your teacher in person, and maybe they're a staff at the studio and you did your class, pretty much the opposite of that experience, I'm guessing, is the author of Caged Lion's first Pilates experience.
John was needled into going to Pilates because his mom did Pilates with Joe and she thought that it would help him. So being a good son, he goes. The building is grimy. The studio is dimly lit. Joe doesn't even say hi when he comes in. He just like tells him to get changed and like go in the changing room. Then he puts him through a grueling exercise session that is so strenuous that our boy, John, throws up afterwards, like big yikes. That's not something on its face that I would be like, "Ah, yes I would like to sign up for all of that, please."
But there's something about Pilates that even when gruff Mr. Pilates himself is teaching it, that brought [00:12:00] people back. Not as many people who probably could have come back if there was like a little bit of customer service element. But, you know, the idea was that in the sixties, you know, Joe died in 1967, that Joe didn't really have time for people who weren't invested in the system. He wasn't trying to market his system anymore. He just wanted to teach it to people who cared about it.
So, what is that thing that sets Pilates apart that makes it so different from other systems of exercise? You know, in the book, he namely compares it to calisthenics and yoga. What sets Pilates apart? I'd love to hear your answers. I'm going to pontificate about it a little bit, but I don't have a direct answer for it as well.
It has something to do with the way that I feel when I do it and what I feel after I do it. So talking a lot about the progressions from last episode and like, how do you know you're progressing and asked to do with how you feel, how you move.
[00:13:00] In the book, John says, it's something about this mental component, this total absorption, that you are totally engrossed in the movement, in the breath, in the exercise. That you can turn off your brain, you can just be and move. I do think that's really powerful. I don't know if that's the only thing for me.
I don't even have a great answer for what it is. In my opinion, but there's something about Pilates, I would say, without a doubt that makes me want to continue doing it, continue exploring it, and in my case also continue teaching it. There is something valuable there for me when we think about that principles of Pilates, the fact that they layer on top of each other so well. That you have your concentration, you have your centering, your breathing, you're moving precisely, you're moving in a controlled way. There's a flow to the exercise. There's a flow to the whole series of exercises. [00:14:00] There's something deeply meditative about it.
We heard it about it in Carla Shifflett's interview, where she talked about, you know, this meditative aspect. In one of the interviews, John also talked about this dynamic meditation that is Pilates, that you just get on the equipment and you just do your exercise and the rest of the world is on pause while you're doing it. I think those are all really powerful things. And that might be it for you. I don't want to discount that and say, yeah, but that's not it. It might be it for you.
For me, it's the mental component of puzzling out my body, partnered with my desire to understand my body and be friends with my body. And I know that when I do Pilates, it's something that makes me feel good while I do it and afterwards as well. Maybe that's it for you. I do think that there's a personal thing and that [00:15:00] when Pilates clicks with someone and really connects and resonates with someone, there's something there. There's something going on that makes you want to come back, makes you want to do it again, makes you want to continue on this Pilates journey.
Overall Caged Lion, Joseph Pilates and His Legacy is a really informative read. It's so interesting to see these master teachers and these people that you read about on Wikipedia, their real life experience. It was interesting reading about Joe and Clara's apartment and John going on walks with Joe down Eighth Avenue and watching the animals at the zoo. And hearing from Joe, the benefits of his exercise system, why he developed it, he didn't really talk about how he did, and then listening to John's hypotheses on how contrology could have come about. Because while he was learning it, he wasn't asking so where did this come from? It's only [00:16:00] afterwards you want to know more. And unfortunately the person who could answer those questions is no longer with us.
Highly recommend that you give this book a read if you're able to buy it from your local bookstore even better, but it is available on Kindle on Amazon as well.
I'd love to hear your thoughts about what you love about Pilates. What keeps you coming back to Pilates? Definitely let me know so we can talk about it on live on Wednesday. Check out the Instagram for more information about that.
Big thank you, as always, to my supporters on Buy Me A Coffee. It means so much to me that you visited the Buy Me A Coffee page and donated to this project. This podcast is hopefully offering some value to you as a Pilates student and giving you more ways to connect to your Pilates practice. I appreciate your support and all the ways that you support the podcast. Have a great week and I'll talk to you again soon.
[00:17:00] Thanks for tuning in to this week's episode of Pilates Students' Manual, a podcast helping you get the most out of your Pilates classes. Be sure to check out the podcast, Instagram @pilatesstudentsmanual and subscribe wherever you're listening. Interested in teaching Pilates too? Check out Pilates Teachers' Manual, available everywhere you listen to podcasts. I hope to see you next episode. Until next time. [00:18:00]