Pilates, Iyengar, Feldenkrais

Pilates trained in anatomy, body-building, wrestling, gymnastics and boxing. He came to believe that modern life-style, bad posture and inefficient breathing lay at the roots of poor health. Pilates believed and mental and physical health were interrelated.

Joseph Pilates was born in 1883 in Germany, of Greek ancestry — his father was a gymnast and his mother was a naturopath. Pilates himself was unhealthy as a child, and he suffered from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever. He dedicated his life to building up his health through body-building, yoga, gymnastics, and kung-fu (what we would now call ‘qigong’).

That Pilates suffered from poor health as a child is a similarity he shared with the Yoga Grandmaster B.K.S. Iyengar, who also suffered from very poor health in childhood (including tuberculosis, typhoid and malaria). Fearing that he would not survive, Iyengar was sent by his family to study Yoga when he was 16 years old, meeting his yoga master when he was 18, and developing the Iyengar system of yoga (using props, belts, blocks, etc) from his own dedicated personal training and system of building up his own health.

Although Pilates appeared to be self-taught, he was undoubtedly influenced by the physical culture of his youth — including the belief prevalent at that time that physical exercise was very important for the cure of illness.

The tradition of ‘corrective exercise’ or ‘medical gymnastics’ was exemplified by the Swedish gymnast, anatomist and physiologist — Dr Pehr Henrik Ling (1776-1839) who developed the Swedish Massage system with its techniques of effleurage (long, gliding strokes), petrissage (lifting and kneading the muscles), friction (firm, deep, circular rubbing movements), tapotement (brisk tapping or percussive movements), and vibration (rapidly shaking or vibrating specific muscles).

Interestingly, these are also basic techniques of tui na and Chinese massage. The origins and greatest influences of Dr Ling’s work was certainly those of his Chinese friend “Ming” who had introduced him to Tuina and martial arts.

Joseph Pilates was also said to have been influenced by Eastern practices and Zen Buddhism, and he was certainly greatly influenced and inspired by the Ancient Greek ideal of development of body mind and spirit.

Pilates was interned during the Great War (1914-18) and it was during this time that he began developing the floor exercises that later became known as Pilates mat work. During this time he began to work as a physical trainer and healer, rehabilitating detainees who were suffering from disease and illness, and it is said that despite their initial weak condition poor health (and perhaps minimal rations) they all survived the influenza pandemic of 1918 (even though this outbreak took a very heavy toll among other barracks and armed forces — by its end over a year later, being said to have killed more people than the Great War itself).

Briefly returning to Hamburg, Pilates collaborated with experts in dance and physical training such as Rudolf Laban, and worked training police officers. However Pilates decided to leave Germany having become disillusioned with the social and political conditions at that time and being pressured to train members of the German Army.

In 1925 Pilates emigrated to the United States, where he founded a studio in New York and taught until the mid 1960’s. It is here that he was sought out by the elite dancers of the time, and his method of physical training became famous, both for the strength and grace it developed in the practitioner, and also for its effect in rehabilitation from injury.

Joseph Pilates was a pioneer of his day and he himself exemplified the principles of his method of training, with the use of specialized equipment, trained and passed his skill and knowledge on to future generations.

Pilates was the original forerunner of everything we understand today by the term ‘core-stability’. Long before the term ‘core-stability’ was ever coined. Pilates developed this approach to training to the most advanced level. It was not until the 1980’s that exercise and sports science caught up with his pioneering work that was kept alive chiefly by dancers and elite athletes.

An important point that should be made here is that, although very helpful for athletes to increase their training performance, by increasing their core-stability through Pilates methods — very basic core-stability and Pilates exercises are very useful in rehabilitation from injury, especially recovery from lumbar disc herniation and chronic low back pain.

Caution should be advised here — for a disc injury during its acute stage — where other ‘exercises’ e.g. the Astronaut position (lying on your back with your feet on a chair) may be more appropriate. Physical therapy is also helpful. Once the acute stage has passed, and the pain (and any numbness, pins and needles, etc) has begun to diminish and settle down, it is only then that ‘gentle’ core-stability and strengthening exercises should be begun (e.g. raising the arm with core engaged). The reason is that core exercises can increase the pressure on the disc — if it is still very acute.

However, core-exercises are an essential component to recovery, and prevent recurrence of injury. In terms of their benefit, the difference between 0 and 1, is greater than between 1 and 10, i.e. we do not have to be athletes, only attain a basic level of core-stability.

The other integrative exercise and postural retraining systems that could be mentioned are:

More information on Feldenkrais

More information on the Alexander Technique

If you are lucky enough to find a class in your area — then this might be worth investigating.



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mike inman   osteopath


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