Joseph Pilates created a wonderful system of movement and exercise that continues to inspire students and teachers alike. While parts of his program are truly visionary, several of his beliefs have not turned out to be true. Today I look at Joseph Pilates' books Your Health (1934) and Return to Life through Contrology (1945) and examine his theories on movement and wellness.
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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 at @pilatesstudentsmanual. You can support the podcast by visiting buymeacoffee.com/OliviaPodcasts. Let's learn something new.
Hello, hello everybody. Welcome back to the podcast. Today, we're going to be talking about things that Joseph Pilates got wrong, and that sounds really serious. And I [00:01:00] do immediately want to qualify that and say, you know, I am a Pilates teacher. I think that the Pilates method is really incredible. I believe in the amazing things that it can do. You know, I wouldn't have become a Pilates teacher otherwise. But I also recognize that Joseph Pilates did not get everything right.
A listener actually reached out to me via email and said, you know, you mentioned in one of your episodes that Joseph Pilates didn't get everything correct. And I was wondering if you could share a little bit more about that because every time I've looked for it, there's really scare-based articles that are like, Pilates is bad for you. Pilates will hurt you, you know, things like that. And it's obviously not that.
So I think I mentioned that when I was discussing the book about Joseph Pilates and his legacy, Caged Lion, earlier this year. And I do think that as a teacher, there are a lot of practices that Joe had, whether it was his, you know, really aggressive touch cuing or not knowing [00:02:00] students' names, there's some things that I didn't agree with about his teaching, for sure.
And today I'm going to be looking at Joseph Pilates in his writing, both his book, Your Health, which came out in 1934, and his book Return to Life through Contrology, which came out in 1945. In both of those books, like the beginning part of Return to Life where he's doing his little introduction before he describes the exercises and in Your Health where he's really outlining his theories for his exercise and also selling his exercise method and selling the furniture that he also designed, his chairs and beds.
I just want to take a look at those two books and see what are some of his prevailing theories, what are things that have stood the test of time and are good to go. Definitely things that, you know, I still believe. I'm reading and I'm like, yeah, that sounds good, that sounds exactly [00:03:00] like what I'm seeing when I'm working with people.
And then also some things that have not stood the test of time, knowing that, of course, Joseph Pilates was not a doctor, was not a psychic, or a Messiah. I'm not gonna pretend that he was any of those things. He was a man and he had a really great idea for a system of exercise.
Yeah. Some things I agree with, some things I don't agree with. Our understanding as a whole has evolved, like the way we think about the body has changed. The way we think about exercise and what we think about things that are like good for us have changed in a lot of ways.
And so through the lens of this podcast and a way of helping you succeed in your Pilates classes and giving you tips and tricks for your Pilates classes, I do think it's interesting to know where Pilates was coming from, sort of his theories beyond just the exercises, also the beliefs that he [00:04:00] had about the body and about wellness and how much of that is really held up in the time. We're still doing Pilates. There are definitely still benefits, but some of our understanding has changed and not all of his theories were correct. So we're going to dive into that today.
First book I'm going to look at is Your Health, which came out before Return to Life. I do think that Joseph Pilates was right about a lot of things. Like I found myself nodding along and being like, yeah, we're still seeing the same things that you're talking about in 1934. Namely the importance of preventative medicine, not that doctors are not worth going to, like, there are some situations that you absolutely should go to see a doctor. And we know as Pilates teachers, or if you, as a student, have ever asked your teacher about something, they might say, you should check with your doctor, or you should see a physical therapist about that. Like, one of the things we do as teachers is refer out to those medical professionals.
But at the same time, exercise can definitely be a component [00:05:00] of preventing disease and preventing unwellness. When Joe talks about the importance of exercise for your mental and physical well being, that Pilates is a mind and body exercise. He laments quite strongly, like he writes in a very bombastic, aggressive, provocative way in all of his books. And this idea that our modern society, his modern society, you know, in the thirties, but also our modern society now that we really spend a lot of time focusing on our mental well being, that a lot of the academic work that we do, the professional work we do is very much about our mind. And there isn't really an emphasis on your body.
Like if you're spending your time sitting at a desk and doing work that is valuable and important, but it doesn't involve moving your body. You know, he talks about this imbalance that you've spent all your energy, developing your mind and your body is [00:06:00] languishing. He would say something strongly like that, that the first requisite of happiness is physical health and just having a body that isn't in pain and that his exercises will, of course, solve that.
His points that doctor are working with sick people. Like you don't go to the doctor when you're well, you're only going when you're sick and so their recommendations are often for people that are already sick. And begin nipping all of that in the bud: what can we do to prevent ourselves from getting sick in the first place? His answer, Contrology, as he called his system of exercise, now called Pilates after him.
He developed this furniture. So a lot of his book is also a sales pitch for his furniture has chairs in his beds. But he's not wrong that chairs promote bad posture and you know, even ergonomic chairs are designed to help you sit for a long period of time, but not necessarily sit in a way that is good for your body, [00:07:00] just in a way that you don't feel like you have to move.
Like you can see how inspired he was by the Greeks, that there was this attitude for physical health and activity and movement, and also this mental rigor as well. And his system of exercises, finding balance in those two things.
He talks about the importance of teaching children good habits. Not only are they the next generation, but the habits that you form in childhood can be really long lasting. So if we teach our children, well, then there'll be set to jet for life.
Jumping to Return to Life and talking about some things that he, a hundred percent, in his introduction got right. That you can exercise without fancy equipment or a gym membership. A hundred times yes. All Pilates came from the mat Pilates exercises, which if you read Caged Lion, it's hypothesized that he may have developed them while he was imprisoned during World War [00:08:00] I, as a German soldier who was in England, possibly putting mines in a British harbor, as you know, a German soldier would during World War I.
So he was imprisoned possibly, allegedly, perhaps. And as a person who's so interested in physical wellbeing, you know, he's got to do something. He's in a prison cell, pretty much. What exercises can he do with just his body weight and the floor? And that's possibly where the mat exercises came from. So that's nifty. The equipment exercises are an extension of what you can do on the mat.
He's right that no modern activity requires us to use all of our muscles. Definitely not our jobs. Definitely not repetitive exercises, things like swimming or running, where you're doing the same action. You're not moving in a different way because the activity itself requires you to move in a very precise manner over and over again. Something like golf, where you're constantly rotating, but only in one direction.
For [00:09:00] athletes or for, you know, your golf game, yeah, of course you want to get really good at doing it at one side, but you also don't want to do it at the expense of the other side side or to the point of injury.
He's right about getting sunshine. We know about vitamin D and of course also wearing sunscreen when you're out there. But that, yeah, being outside is really important for our health, whether it's communing with nature or just going for a walk. We know that from quarantine that just getting out is really important.
He also has some thoughts about eating. One of them is just eating what you need. And just a quick anecdote before the break, I played soccer in high school and I played soccer in middle school and elementary school as well. So I was really accustomed to like running many, many miles a week. And then when I stopped playing soccer, because I had a knee injury. I was still hungry for the amount of food that I needed when I was running miles and miles and miles every week, even though I wasn't running [00:10:00] miles and miles and miles. And I did gain weight and there was an adjustment period from what I actually needed in order to like sustain my body when I wasn't doing this really intense calorie burning exercise all the time. Right. There's like an adjustment period.
So he talks about if you started and you were working on a farm as a child, and you're eating all this hearty food, and now you sit at an office job, you don't need to eat the same kind of food. So like logically I'm like, yeah, I'm with you there too, Joe.
Coming up after the break. However, I'm going to talk about things that I'm not with Joe about, and that's in both Your Health and Return to Life. That's coming up next.
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So what did our man Joe get wrong? Affectionately called JP by the Pilates Elephants podcast, which I think is awesome. So what did our man JP not quite [00:12:00] get right?
Um, he's got some stances that I definitely don't agree with when it comes to vaccines. I'm not sure exactly what the vaccine situation was in 1934, but you know, he has some strong language about poisoning our children with vaccines, and I strongly disagree with that.
Weird anti-masturbation mention, like, all right, Joe. He had something strange about like, not using soap to shower and just like scrubbing yourself vigorously with a very like firm bristled brush. John Howard Steel mentions in Caged Lion that Joseph Pilates like busted up into his shower and like gave him a good scrub with the bristly brush. And I'm like, I dunno, I feel about that, Joe. Seems like a lot of boundaries that you're crossing that I would like you to not cross with me.
There's also something interesting about, I know of from yoga, like a neti pot, where you take water and you [00:13:00] pour it into one nostril and then it comes out of your other nostril, but he talks about it like snorting water while you're in the shower. And like, I don't know. I always make sure that I have either like distilled water, or I've boiled the water. You don't just want to be like putting stuff in your sinuses. Like that's really sensitive tissue and you're like putting water and stuff up there. But, you know, whatever.
He's got some like thoughts on parenting, which, I mean, I am not a parent, so I don't want to weigh in. Over feeding your children, like yeah. Something about like bundling babies and like locking their joints in place, taping their elbows and knees and hips. And I was like, I don't know if we do that anymore. Do we do that? I hope we don't do that unless there's like something in particular going on. So that's all some interesting stuff that I highly recommend you look into for yourself in Your Health.
The biggest issue that I take with Joe in Your Health is: it's his belief that the spine should be like a straight line, [00:14:00] like rail rod straight. Definitely science has proved that we don't want our spine to be straight. Joe's argument is that when babies are born, their spines are straight lines. They don't have any curves.
And this is curves beyond scoliosis because your spine can be curved in a lot of different ways. So we think about this in the planes of movement, your spine can be curved in the sagittal plane, which is if you think of a skeleton for an anatomy class, that curve, and it's the curves that we see in our neck and our low back and then our rib cage, like there is an S shaped curve that way. I do believe that those are the curves that he was talking about eradicating and not so much, like, I mean, also in addition to the scoliosis curves, but he's not talking about scoliosis is like, Oh, we need to bring that back to balance. He was like, Oh, we need to make the spine a straight line. And I would [00:15:00] say, that's not right.
I'm like, when he's talking about babies having a straight spine, babies are not walking upright and gravity is not pressing on them. We know that the curves of our spine act as shock absorbers, that because we are bipeds and we stand upright all the time, our spine curves are adapted to that body position.
It's the same way if you were going to jump and then land, you would bend your knees. When you land, you wouldn't try to jump with your legs straight and then land with your legs straight. Even thinking about that, I'm like, that's super jarring. Like that is not what I want. I want to be able to cushion in that landing. And that's what our spine does by having curves.
I'm not upset about his whole idea about wanting your spine to be flexible. Like, yes, we want our spine to move in all [00:16:00] directions. We want it to be able to flex and extend and rotate and laterally flex, and all of these things, generally. I mean, sometimes you have something going on in your spine. If you have a herniated disc or something's going on, and maybe you shouldn't flex your spine, but, in theory, we do on our spines to move a lot. But the fact that they have curves, the curves are not abnormal, which is what he calls them. Yeah. That's not, mm-mm, that's not a thing, Joe.
And again, Joseph Pilates was not a doctor. And even if you were a doctor in the thirties, like, I don't know what you would be saying necessarily at the time, but we do know now that having curves in our spine is good. It's a good idea.
No-nos again on the spectrum of strongly agree to strongly disagree, like the strongly disagrees I have from Return to Life. Again, he's got some stuff about trying to get back to a straight spine. It's not going to happen, Joe. Not with gravity, not with being upright, but I mean good on you for taking strong stances. They just were not correct.
He has some [00:17:00] stuff about food and nutrition, and this is something I've talked about over on Pilates Teachers' Manual. Some of this stuff is like scope of practice. Like you're also not like a registered dietician. You do not need to be telling people exactly how to eat. He says some kind of harsh stuff about losing weight, which we also know to be a lot more complicated than just, you know, you should exercise. We know that body weight is not an indicator of health, and you could be just exercising and also overweight and you could be not exercising at all and what we've decided is like the pinnacle of human physique. Like it doesn't really matter. We know what matters is how you feel and what your body can do and what it does for you.
Yeah. Again, the stuff with a stiff brush, like it makes me flinch. I am definitely not a stiff brush kind of gal.
And then just some language that, I mean, again, in the thirties and then, you know, Return to [00:18:00] Life in the forties, there's a lot about your body being a machine and your body being something- I don't know. Comparing the body to a machine is just a bit simplistic, especially what I'm learning about trauma, what we're learning about the brain's connection to our movement. That it's a lot more complicated than you do a bicep curl your elbow bends, you know. Like that's part of it and the way that our bodies moves is part of it. But if you're just saying that you're a machine, I think that the picture is a little bit bigger, a little bit more intricate than just that.
So again, the qualms that I have with Joe's philosophy are actually pretty small compared to like the breadth of what he believes. But those couple of things that I mentioned are definitely things that I strongly disagree with and I think that science has shown are not necessarily correct.
This doesn't [00:19:00] mean that Pilates isn't wonderful or that Pilates doesn't have, you know, fantastic qualities. I do think that the method of exercise, especially the way that it's grown and has become more adaptable to more bodies and more ages and more abilities, like I do think that Pilates method has definitely shown that it can withstand the test of time, but those theories that Joe had have not been proven true.
So, thank you so much, Taylor, for that question. If you do have questions about Pilates things, feel free to reach out to me on Instagram or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks as always to my supporters on Buy Me a Coffee. It was so great getting to see you on Zoom. If you haven't checked out that Buy Me a Coffee page, definitely do. There's newsletters there and all kinds of good stuff happening. Thank you [00:20:00] for your words of encouragement and for your donations. Have a great week and I'll talk to you again soon.
Thanks for tuning into 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 at @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. [00:21:00]