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Pilates for Today

by Dreas Reyneke(more info)

listed in pilates, originally published in issue 82 - November 2002

Introduction

Thirty years ago there were only two pilates exercise studios in London. Now there are several in every borough of the capital. There are also several hundred instructors around in the UK. With our rushed, modern lives, pilates is to the point. It looks after the basics of posture, cardio-vascular system, breathing and reduces our stresses. How do I see it evolve over the last thirty years of teaching?

Pilates and the Early Beginnings of Modern Exercise and Health

I must pay tribute to the great man himself, Jo Pilates, of Greek origin, but born in Germany. At the time of the revived and reinstated Olympic Games which took place in Athens in 1896, Pilates was 16 years old. It must have been the 'hot' news of the day, and Pilates, was training as a gymnast, boxer and circus performer. Gymnastics were included with examples of the parallel and horizontal bars, the balance beam, the rings and the pommel horse, very much like what we see today on the TV but invented as far back as 1813, and introduced to schools by a compatriot. In the early 1800s, Scandinavian schools had already introduced therapeutic exercises into their classes.

The German and Scandinavian examples were the inspiration of the exercise cult which started off during the early 19th century. Their influence swept European culture and the USA. Evidence of that was seen at Harvard with physical culture studies in 1826, Thomas Arnold used it for character building at Rugby in 1828 and by 1923, the professor of Osteopathy at the Chicago University College had published The Therapeutics of Activity, based on Scandinavian principles. Exercises and apparatus used in photographs in this book, look remarkably like those in a Pilates studio. 1923 is also the year that Pilates opened his studio in New York. His studio was frequented by Balanchine and Martha Graham at the time and Isherwood describes going to Pilates in his diaries.

The Pilates Legacy

By 1945 Pilates had created a legacy of 34 exercises, done simply on a mat without any apparatus. I owe him my career of 30 years and I have tried to thank him by writing my book, giving him his rightful place in the history of exercise and the concept of health. A pioneer, he left the most suitable and original method to counterbalance the spreading behinds of sedentary 21st century lifestyles! His survival was never dependent on the cut of exercise attire or whether it was designed by Versace or Armani.

Introduction of Structural Fitness and the Pelvic Floor

In 'Ultimate Pilates', I broke down the exercises into their simplest elements for understanding. Structural fitness has become known as an essential part of being successful with the prominence of professional sports on TV, it was not seriously addressed by Pilates. Even if it was recognized at the time as important, physiotherapy and physical therapy, which deal with the question of structural, fitness developed parallel and dependently with professional sports becoming more prominent to the general public in recent times after the death of Pilates. Nor does Pilates mention the centre of the body's core fitness, namely the pelvic floor. Women's health concerning the pelvis was addressed publicly for the first time by Kegel in 1967 (again after the death of Pilates), when he published pelvic floor exercises. But professional dancers and gymnasts, men and women, have often fine-tuned their sense of balance against gravity in countries like Russia, France and the USA. I considered the inclusion of these two subjects as essential elements of fitness from early on in 1974. Why?

Low Back Pain and the First Way to Deal With It

Concurrent to my early years of teaching Pilates in 1973, osteopathy, chiropractic, physiotherapy and Alexander technique also became widely known. The practitioners of these disciplines became my pupils. We all swapped notes, and we shared each other's skills, as well as a little back pain which we blamed on our jobs! I was learning from everyone. Notting Hill also saw the introduction of the first pre-natal classes for mothers-to-be. Then one day out of the blue, the reality of a serious low back injury landed me virtually in traction.

With pre-natal expertise at hand and medical manuals by my side, I surprised myself. I readily abandoned a cherished pilates concept, namely pulling the 'navel to the spine', as a sacrifice to my newly acquired knowledge of the pelvic floor and the perineum, which are the most important elements of and upright pelvis in good posture. It cured my back. Not since my adolescence could I have been more intrigued by what I had discovered.

Back problems are not always this simple to cure as some originate from degenerative problems caused by postural wear and tear. The strengthening of the inner supporting structures of the pelvic floor should none the less always be one of the steps included towards recuperation.

The Contribution of the Pelvic Floor and the Perineum to the Upright Pelvis

But in pilates terms, how could I use this knowledge? Men had back pain, women often had back pain, they had babies and wanted their figures back.

My then recent experience of a serious back problem, led me to change my interpretation of pilates: I introduced pelvic floor exercises. Men too have pelvic floors, though different from women. "Vive la Difference!" However the difference, the outermost layer of muscle, called the perineum, that stretches in a star shape between the tip of the tailbone (coccyx) and the pelvic bone (pelvic symphysis) in front, has an enormous role to play in our overall well-being and sense of health. It surrounds the sex organs and forms a hammock to support the viscera of the stomach from above. When worked and in good working order it prevents the womb from prolapse and during pregnancy supports, together with the inner muscle structures, the lower spine so that the extra weight can be handled and borne properly for good circulation and comfort. In men it is necessary for helping the condition of the prostate and in both sexes, by its pull on the tailbone, changes the angle of the pelvis to upright. The pelvis is a bowl. In its middle is the centre point of gravity between the hips. Tip it forward and the contents, in this case the guts fall out. Upright, and the lower stomach muscles can do their proper job with the iliopsoas traversing from the anterior lumbar spine underneath the viscera to insert on the femur, counter-balancing the abdominal muscles to keep the organs in place.

The Importance of Movement in Our Technologically Inspired Surroundings

Movement is the ingredient that tells us that we are alive. The movement vocabulary acquired from the embryo and the foetus in the womb, then birthing and onwards using the postural reflexes of crawling and standing upright, are marked by the spine's progress to flex, extend and rotate. Rotation, the last movement skill acquired is the first one that reduces in time and that we lose as we grow older. With technological progress, young and old, sit for hours in cars and aeroplanes, in front of the TV and computer stations. The saying 'use it or lose it' applies equally for young and old. The spine is central to our structure, our movement ability and our posture.

The Spine as Central Axis to the Body

Viewed sideways the spine has three curves that are all reciprocally balanced. Change one and the others are immediately affected. The curves help to disperse the impact of the weight against the ground and gravity throughout the body while running, jumping and simply as we go about our daily tasks. The balance of the head on the atlas, the first joint of the spine at the neck, together with the weight of the torso as it rests on the joint between the lumbar spine and the pelvis, are the two places where the quality of balance against gravity is reflected. One sharp angle here and the whole posture is thrown.

How do we stand or how do we sit at the computer? Our posture and our carriage, how good or bad are they for the individual body in question? Whoever you are, writer, cook, Beckham, Sylvie Guillem, or are forty or ninety years old, the condition of your spine will determine whether you can meet the specific physical postural and structural requirements of your job or go about your daily tasks. Rotation and all movement take place at the joints of the limbs, but also the joints of the spine, through muscle pulls.

For both general and particular fitness, one key element known as structural fitness is of crucial importance.

What is Structural Fitness?

If joints are stable, have the full range of their movement, and the weight centred and aligned from head to toe, then the body is structurally fit. Receptors in the joints and inner ear mechanisms tell the brain how secure the body is and feels in space and against gravity. Cardiovascular endurance, muscle strength, stamina and suppleness, all those will of course determine the degree of your general fitness level or whether you are indeed a match for Sampras. It is an oddity, that in the 19th century, physical education was considered necessary and important. Further back we quote "mens sana in corpore sano". In the 21st century, we watch the World Cup and Olympic Games from our armchairs and from our behaviour seem to demonstrate and consider comfort and non-effort as the norm.

I was surprised, when I reached the newsagents the other morning. Fancy half the nation going to bed the night before, to wake up with a word totally new for some, on the lips while examining their feet. The Mirror front page by their side: "Metatarsal". I asked myself: apart from familiarizing us with the word, did Beckham's unfortunate injury, wisen us up about the importance of structural fitness?

So, a broken bone makes a body structurally unfit, whoever you are.

But even without broken bones one can be structurally unfit.

Where the car is left at the garage because the wheels are not tracking properly, affecting the steering, the tyres and who knows what else, the doctor while noticing your defective posture doesn't offer anything like "I notice your structural fitness is really deteriorating", during a check-up. Your response is bound to be something like: "My what doctor?"

The Role of the Joints in Movement

Muscles, tendons and ligaments overlap the joints to make hinges and the larger bones react as levers. Joints are the centres where bones fit neatly together, attach or move against each other. But only if supported by balanced muscles and tendons, pulling, resisting and supporting the joint for its stability at all times.

What Are the Bones For?

1. Most obviously, they define the shape of the body. Without the bones we'll be blobs. The ribs protect the heart and lungs.

2. Bones, muscles and blood all have specialized roles but collectively they encase and cushion the vital organs.

3. During the growth period the heads (epiphyses) of the long bones in the legs can lengthen fast (taking calcium from the middle section, and unless good nutrition is provided, the loss
might never be made up, leading to brittle bones early in life). Fast growing of the long bones can outstrip the muscle growth. Young boys often walk on their toes as the heels simply cannot reach the floor. The calf muscles have to lengthen and catch up.

4. Blood is also manufactured by cells in the bones and the bones provide channels for lymph and veins.

When the supporting structure of the spine is pulled by the muscles in such a way that the upper back is already badly affected and rotation lost at a very early age, reintegration to proper balance and rotation have to take place through carefully chosen postural wall exercises.

Why Introduce Wall Exercises? Pilates for All Generations

Some older pupils had dizzy spells lying down, turning over and sitting up in the beginning. This posed a major operational problem as pilates exercise is known for being 'non weight bearing'. Sitting upright was one way of dealing with some exercises, but it soon became clear to me that they also felt more secure leaning against a wall. The wall became a replacement 'pilates reformer', a measure for correcting the torso and the head resting in balance on the neck. With the weight on the feet in the familiar upright position and the postural reflexes in play, the wall exercises became their favourites. Soon everyone else was introduced to the wall exercises. The corrections and rules of executing the pilates movements seem easier to understand first in standing upright and later to be transferred in the exercises lying down.

Pilates is Enriched by Today's Knowledge of Health

The pilates ground rules have always set the agenda of where to go and how to deal with each and every individual problem that have presented themselves over the years.

However, over the last twenty years, medicine and alternative medicine have made amazing discoveries of the body's own resources in restoring itself towards health. In Pilates it is only appropriate that these developments should be taken on board. Where necessary it should be enriched and complimented by the resources of autogenics, bioenergetics, shiatsu, acupuncture, rolfing, homeopathy, Alexander, aromatherapy and massage amongst many others, for the advantage of its pupils but also for the practitioner's own positive health when dealing with the seriously and terminally ill.

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About Dreas Reyneke

Dreas Reyneke taught at The Hope Homes School, Johannesburg for polio and congenitally affected children (BA, H.Educ Dipl, Johannesburg Teachers College) for four years. He danced with the Ballet Rambert over a period of 12 years and opened The Body Conditioning Studio in 1973. He has taught pilates for 30 years. He is the author of Ultimate Pilates (Vermillion) and also wrote In-Flight Fitness (Orion) with Helen Varley (Oct. 2001). He can be contacted on Tel: 020 7727-9963; dreas@dreas.fsnet.uk

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