This is article written about Joseph Pilates by Marie Beynon Ray for The National Weekly’s August edition in 1934. Discover some gems about the man that started the Pilates movement, and how much (or how little) has changed when it comes to self perception, body image and the science of moving.
Have you ever seen a person grow young again?
I met an acquaintance the other day whom I hadn’t seen for two years; almost passed her by because she’d grown – not so much older, but so much younger.
Did she have a facelift? Some funny gland treatment? Perhaps she fell in love? It was none of these things. It wasn’t her face that was younger, but it isn’t the face that grows old first? Then it’s the body, the poor old body which slumps and sags and develops the middle‐aged spread, or the office slouch or the housekeepers’ droop. Whatever you want to call it, I remembered this friend as being the office type; stooping shoulders, head forward, scrawny, strangely hollowed. But not anymore.
“It sounds just too awful,” she admitted, “and at first it was awful,” but what I’ve been doing, since you’re so flattering about my appearance, is going to a gym. I happened to glance in a full length mirror when I was naked and I was revolted. I saw what fifteen years of sitting at a desk had done to me, and I shuddered. I’d always gone for sports in a moderate way but while the exercise made me feel fine, it certainly didn’t stand the test of time. There was that settled, solid, inelastic look about me that is definitely middle-age. That you’ll never climb a fence or leap a brook again look. Besides, all the little lumps and bumps and hollows come with being forty, don’t they? I resolved to take steps, and behold me, the complete dryad.”
Only the day before, I had spoken with a doctor on this same subject, Dr. Kristian Hansson, Director of Physical Therapy at the Hospital for the Ruptured and Crippled and several other hospitals in New York. He spoke of the deformities that come with advancing age; how we become narrow at the chest and wide at the abdomen. If we can manage to prevent this, and we can, our bodies retain their youthful lines into old age. Sports won’t do this but remedial exercises will. The abdomen has muscles, four layers of them, running horizontally, perpendicularly, and obliquely. What a corset! Women who keep this strong and supple as in youth need no other. But when these muscles become flabby the whole body sags, and though we may have no hump on our backs, we are nevertheless deformed. At almost any age we can correct these abnormalities, but the longer we wait the harder it is. If all our lives we practice certain remedial exercises, we can retain a youthful physique.”
I glanced now at the man I had come to see, Joseph Pilates; living proof of the truth of these statements. Standing there in his trunks, he appeared to be in his twenties. He assured me he was fifty four. I couldn’t believe it.
Joseph Pilates originated a system of exercise used by the Hamburg police, he has been painted and sculptured by innumerable famous artists, and he can do more with one hand than many a champion can do with his whole body. Best of all, he is a humanitarian. He wants the whole human race to be beautiful and healthy and, barring acts of God, he can tell them how.
It Can’t Be Done by Games
“Sports are wonderful for the constitution generally,” he said, “but they are of little value for correcting what’s wrong, and there’s something wrong with almost everyone. ‘Corrective exercise’ is a nasty pill to most people, but it’s the only way to build a beautiful, strong, youthful and 100% healthy body. It would be swell if it could be done by games, but it can’t. The doctors back this up. Practically all sports are one-sided. The person that swings a tennis racket all day is forging a lopsided body as surely as the person that wields a pick. The athlete, as much as the man or woman who sits all day at a desk; needs remedial exercises to counterbalance the effects of his or her daily physical habits.”
Women particularly accuse their figures of all sorts of crimes. One complains of sway-back, incurable, she says, since she’s had it from childhood. Another bemoans her prominent stomach; a third is having a masseuse in twice weekly to rub away a dowager’s hump; a fourth makes faces over olive oil, taken to fill out the hollows in her neck; a fifth suffers agonies because of a flat bosom, and others do all sorts of strange and futile things to correct wing shoulders, hollow chests, double chins, bowlegs, or do nothing, just complain, because they think nothing can be done. There are not a multitude of causes and an equal number of cures for this array of deformities. There are, according to the doctors, usually one cause and one cure. Our bodies usually become misshapen through bad posture; we can usually restore them to normal through remedial exercise. Sounds old and trite, doesn’t it? Reminds us of those terrible fifteen minutes in the classroom when the teacher said, “Now monitor, open the windows. Ready for physical culture. Class stand! Position! Heads up, chests out. Breathing in, one, two..” How wrong she was, how wrong she still is, for that matter. Twenty, thirty directions are given to obtain correct posture, and only one (we have the authority of Pilates for this) is necessary; the good, old army order, it wouldn’t get printed, so I’ll translate “Pull the abdomen in.”
Here is a portrait of the average man or woman, you can look in the mirror and decide whether you’re a mild or an exaggerated case. Head forward, two or three inches out of alignment with the spine; shoulders rounded, chest hollowed, spine curving noticeably forward at the waistline, abdomen protruding. So universal is a noticeable forward curve of the spine that doctors, and sculptors, who have an even surer eye in these matters, have accepted it as the natural and normal thing. It isn’t. How do we know? The most beautiful bodies don’t have it. Normal children don’t have it. And those who have a normally straight spine have far better control of their bodies than those who don’t. Practically every fault of the figure comes down in the last analysis to this matter of a normally straight spine. There are slight natural curves, not noticeable in the naked body but which an X‐ray picture reveals. The straighter the spine the better the figure.
To straighten the spine what we chiefly have to do is to “pull in the abdomen.”
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But of course it has to be done in a special way. The hips must be thrown forward, without bending or locking the knees, and tensed; the lower abdomen held it, thus forcing the chest high and the head up, without lifting the shoulders, and that position must be held as long as possible. And because it’s such a little thing to do, you have to do it constantly. “Pull your abdomen in,” you must say to yourself dozens, hundreds of times a day, till pulling it in becomes a habit and sinks down into the subconscious where your breathing is taken care of. But you can encourage yourself with the assurance that every single time you do it, you’re a little farther ahead.
Ask Your Doctor
You can’t get away from it, a few remedial exercises must be done daily, that is if you care two pins about having a twenty-year-old figure at the age of fifty. Of course, they must be exactly the right exercises; so here are a few, hand-picked by Joe Pilates from the several hundred in his repertoire; the ones he has found surefire for achieving the twenty-year-old silhouette. But he warns that they must be properly executed. That is, correctly and with great energy, not the mere airy imitation of a series of motions which can be performed for years and get you nowhere. And another thing, no exercises should be taken except on the advice of a physician, particularly intensive abdominal exercises, which, if the individual is not in good condition, may even do harm. Heart trouble, hernia, etc. might make certain exercises inadvisable. So it’s make sure before going ahead. It also helps to have an authority point out your defects.
The best exercise for straightening the spine
Lie down and try to make the whole length of your spine touch the floor, likewise the shoulders and arms, stretched above the head. Of course you can’t do it, but trying is what counts, one day you may unexpectedly succeed. Mark that day with a gold star. With the arms stretched above the head, raise the torso slowly, but s‐l‐o‐w‐l‐y, from the floor, keeping the legs on the floor and the knees unbending. As you raise, the arms come slowly at right angles to the torso, the toes are pointed forward, the chin comes down on the chest. The exercise loses all value if the legs are bent, so just at first you might get someone to hold them down for you.
Now, sitting up, still with the legs stiff, try to touch your toes with your fingers. Keep on trying. Eventually you should be able to touch your wrists to your toes and your forehead to your knees; your arms always at right angles to the body. Now go slowly backward, chin down, arms rising. The whole thing is a slow rolling movement, and it will not only correct sway-back but will reduce the abdomen and poise the head correctly.
The Kitten Coil
Much as these corrective exercises will do for you, your little daily habits of breathing, sitting, standing, walking and sleeping can do even more. Yes, the right sleeping posture can in itself be corrective.
“Most people twist and turn in their beds all night; forty to sixty times in eight hours,” Pilates told me. “Why? Because they’re sleeping in the wrong position and are not relaxed. You’ve seen a cat turn and turn about till it got itself into a perfect curl of deliciousness, the ‘kitten coil’? That’s how we should sleep, at perfect rest within a circle; the knees drawn up, the back curved forward. That is the position which requires the least expenditure of effort, and least use of muscle.
“Sitting properly can be a remedial exercise,” continued Pilates. “Say you’re at the movies, all you have to do is to sit as far back as possible, spine upright, feet flat on the floor, knees bent at right angles, and every so often say to yourself, ‘Pull your abdomen in,’ and hold it as long as you can. Or say you’re sitting at your desk, or the dining table, no need to bend the head and acquire a dowager’s hump. Bend at the hip joint as they do in the German army, using the biggest joint and muscle in the body, and this will prevent you acquiring a big abdomen.
“You’re walking along the street. Glance in the shop windows, not to lower your sales resistance, but to observe your posture. Most women use shop windows as mirrors anyway, but merely to see if their hats are on straight rather than if their heads are on straight. In most cases the posture won’t be right from one window to the next. Correct it every time by pulling in the abdomen and holding it in as long as you can. Time yourself. It will be only a few seconds to begin with but hold it a few counts longer each time until you work up to a hundred. With each effort the muscles will become stronger and ‘standing up tall’ will become a habit.
“You’re waiting for a trolley. This need not be time wasted. You can do your exercises without attracting the attention of the police. Most women stand with the weight on one leg and hip thrown out, someone has told them it’s cute. Most men stand with the legs apart, hands in pockets, stomach thrust forward, looking jaunty they think, in reality just tiring themselves out. But try this; rest your weight on both feet equally, heels together, toes apart, neither allowing the knees to sag nor pressing them backward. Then sway like a flagpole, shifting the weight slowly from one foot to the other, without thrusting the hip out. Occasionally raise the released foot from the ground and swing it about a bit, but always, always pulling your abdomen in.
“How much can be accomplished by daily habit is shown by the people of the East who habitually sit cross-legged on the ground (the best of all sitting postures), who bear burdens on their heads or carry weighted poles, who sleep on the ground. They have straight backs and beautiful carriages. The beach is an excellent place to practice corrective postures. Sit cross-legged in the sand, back straight, and try raising from this position dozens of times without touching the ground with the hands but holding them out straight in front of you. Sit upright on the beach, legs crossed, with a sandbag on your head as you read or sew, pulling in the abdomen.
“Swimming can be made a corrective exercise if you swim all strokes; breast stroke, back stroke as well as the crawl. One stroke only, like tennis, makes the figure lopsided. In the free-and-easy environment of the beach, even more eccentric behavior passes without comment, and you can even try this exercise if you like; or do it in the privacy of your room. It’s one of the best for straightening the spine, which is to say, acquiring the perfect figure.
For a Queenly Carriage
“Get a broomstick, suspend a sandbag holding about three pounds (1.5kg) of sand by a cord from each end, and tie it across a deck tennis ring. Wearing this contraption as a hat, balanced on the head by the rubber right, learn to walk about the beach or room. The cords should hang just where the arms, with with elbows pressed tightly against the sides, can reach them to help balance the pole at first.
“Slowly, slowly stretch your left foot forward as far as you can; when the toe touches, shift the weight slowly to your left foot. The leg bearing the weight always stiff but never locked. Cultivate a slow, stately progress. If you keep the hips forward and tense with your abdomen pulled in, everything else, external and internal, will fall into place. This exercise done ten minutes each day, will produce such a consciousness of queenly carriage that soon you’ll walk beautifully without your pole. To get the correct posture, it helps to stand against the wall, trying to make the whole length of your spine touch.
“A second exercise with this weighted pole will correct bowlegs, knock knees and flat feet due to faulty muscles. Heels together, toes apart, rise up on your toes, up and down, each time a little farther down till finally you are squatting on your heels, your backbone trying to be straight (each day a little straighter), your abdomen pulled in, and your hands raised to the pole in the beginning. Ten minutes.
“The average person uses only 25% of the mechanical motions of their body; the champion in any sport uses 50%; the acrobat on the high wire or the trapeze uses 75%, but when a man or woman can use all the apparatus in this gym as easily as he can write his name, he uses 100% and then I call him ‘normal.’ The apparatus isn’t necessary, you can do almost as well at home without it, it just makes exercise easier and more fun. Up to eighty years, everyone should be able to touch the floor with both palms without bending the knees.
In order to be able to do that, I advise them to start right now, whether they’re six months or sixty years; running around the room on all fours, like an animal, palms flat on the floor, knees unbending.”
What do you think of Joseph’s advice? Does it still hold up today? Please share your thoughts with the Polestar community on the Polestar UK Facebook Page.