Pilates For the People: What Is Pilates, anyway?

Earlier this week I had a father and son duo come to see me for Pilates. The son, an elite youth baseball player, got tipped off that pilates might help his core strength and thus improve his game.  The dad just happened to be a very tech savvy videographer. He filmed our entire session live for Instagram. (This was very cool but also made me feel every bit an x-gener).  He said he genuinely thought that people needed to see pilates in action…because most of his friends had no idea what pilates even was, much less how hit could help in athletics.

Whoa. What?

 Is it possible this thing I do every day for a living might be a mystery to some?  Actually, yes, that would be completely normal.  And it’s not the first time have heard this either.

If I don't know what pilates LOOKS like or FEELS like, why would I want to do it in the first place? Pilates enthusiasts are so passionate about telling people why they should want to take pilates (you’ll have lean muscles, look just like Kate Hudson, pitch like Jake Arrieta) but let's lay some foundation first shall we?


So, what does Pilates look like to someone who hasn’t seen it?  Is it like yoga?

Most Pilates teachers say--No. No way, not even close.  How insulting!  Ok, but isn’t it a little like yoga? Ok, fine! Yes.  So much so that I refer to a reformer move known as “down stretch” as “it looks like up-dog but in pilates we call it down stretch because knees are down.” Tell me I’m wrong! Go ahead, here's a link for your 'hater mail'.  In reality Pilates was inspired by boxing, gymnastics, early German calisthenics and likely yoga as well considering yoga has been around for thousands of years and Joseph Pilates lived in 20th century.

The other obvious difference is the use of equipment which looks intimidating at first but turns out to be quite nice.  This also explains the higher price tag--it is essentially small group private training with around 6 per class vs 30 in a traditional group class.  And pilates MOVES. Be prepared to do only a few (4-12) repetitions of each exercise before moving onto the next item, like a dance. Pilates can be a tad verbose (I'm guilty of this!), with teachers typically talking you through the moves versus demonstrating.  With new clients I can see in their faces the moment the realization sets in that, no, I’m not actually going to do this with you.

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What does pilates FEEL like?

When people ask me this I say it's like learning where every part of your body is at all at once. Super body awareness, I explain. When I move my arm, I know what my pinky toe is doing. Like rubbing your belly and patting your head.  And surprise (!) you do not have to be super bendy or fit to do Pilates in spite of all the Instagram pics of models at their best moments.  Fitness marketing is a filthy liar, that’s all you need to know.  Regular people do pilates all over the globe every single day. 

As far as what the pilates session itself feels like, well, that’s a matter of opinion—anywhere for hideous torture to “this feels lovely”. (Usually in the course of the same session.) Yes, you will use your Core/abs to control every fiber of your being, and yes you may be annoyed at your perky teacher who drinks her tea while torturing you in the sweetest voice ever.  Oh, and you will also float out of the studio feeling taller and leaner than when you walked in an hour ago. You will think “that wasn’t so bad” but then wake up the next day feeling sore in uncharted new areas of your body. Do I really have a muscle there?

So, what IS Pilates?

Pilates purists will tell you that pilates is the Method taught by founder Joseph Pilates in its original form, but contemporary pilates schools disagree and take a much broader definition of the exercise.  Oxford dictionary says that pilates is “a system of exercises using special apparatus, designed to improve physical strength, flexibility, and posture, and enhance mental awareness.”

Here’s my personal statement:

Pilates is a mindful movement exercise designed to evenly strengthen and stretch the whole body, creating a sense of well-being and overall health.

I would love to hear from you, students and teachers. What is pilates to you, in just a sentence or two? Join me in helping the world envision this amazing exercise.  Comment with your opinion below.

About the author: Stephanie Vanderbeck, owner of Purely Pilates Center in SouthlakeTX is a pilates teacher #forthepeople and lover of all things pilates.  Get in touch  HERE

About the author: Stephanie Vanderbeck, owner of Purely Pilates Center in SouthlakeTX is a pilates teacher #forthepeople and lover of all things pilates.  Get in touch HERE