My Pitch for Pilates

One of the discoveries I have been most excited about for how its changed my daily experiences living in Latin America is Pilates on a Reformer machine. It may sound like I’m simply subscribing to the latest exercise fad, but when I first encountered Reformer machines two years ago while living in Mexico City, I had never seen or heard of them before. In fact, I was first drawn to Pilates because of how unusual it looked the first time I saw Reformer machines in action at a Pilates studio on my block. The large glass windows looking onto the city street left the exercisers completely exposed to the gaze of passersby, but somehow as they formed unusual shapes with resistance bands and straps, they didn’t seem to mind. I had friends and mentors who had taken classes at the popular studio, so one day I signed up for the introductory sequence of semi-private classes, and from the first session emphasizing breathing and alignment, I was hooked.

Dance will always be my preferred form of exercise for how it brings intellectual challenges and engagement with other dancers, linking body, mind, and an awareness of others in a way I have not experienced with other activities. But I’ve found Pilates to be a perfect complement, providing more targeted strength training and improving balance and flexibility. Mixed in with my intensive salsa training schedule in Bogotá, throughout my fellowship I have also regularly gone to group Pilates Reformer classes, and as I’ve learned more about ways different teachers prepare Reformer classes and the philosophies that undergird the exercise, I’ve become even more excited by Pilates. A couple of years after my first Pilates introductory session, I find myself preparing for a move back to the U.S. and researching Reformer studios in various U.S. cities, hopeful that a suitable job will arise in a city with affordable and rigorous Reformer classes.

In my first introductory session, the instructor presented an overview of Joseph Pilates and how the Reformer technique arose. I’ve read more on Joseph Pilates since, and I continue to be impressed by how his mission to help injured soldiers evolved into a much more widely practiced exercise technique. Born in 1883 in Germany, Pilates is believed to have been a frail and sickly child who become resolute in his mission to overcome his physical limitations, pursuing gymnastics, bodybuilding, yoga, and other sports. From a young age, he was known for his skills as a circus performer and boxer. And also from a young age he began to develop his philosophy on exercise and physical and mental wellbeing; he was taken by the notion from Ancient Greece of the ideal man, not just for the harmony of physical proportions but also for the importance placed on balance between mind, body, and spirit.

joseph pilates in balance and control poses
Joseph Pilates demonstrating positions for increasing flexibility, balance, and strengthening using the Pilates Reformer machine. 

This background alone sets the foundation for his now-famous method, but circumstances out of his control and the coincdences of history are what pushed Pilates to formalize the method. Pilates was touring as a circus performer and happened to be on English territory on the Isle of Man when WWI broke out, leading to his internment. He led daily exercises for the other Germans interned in the camp, and to include the soldiers who were injured and bedridden, he developed contraptions by modifying bed-springs and placing additional straps on their beds.

joseph pilates bed version of reformer.jpg
An example of the early Reformer machine that Pilates developed to help bedridden individuals regain mobility.

Thus, with an initial drive to rehabilitate the wounded, Pilates experimented with exercises to fix muscular imbalances and improve overall balance, strength, and flexibility, terming his fitness concept “Contrology.” This first apparatus he developed around beds of injured soldiers was termed the Cadillac and gave way to the Universal Reformer Machine, the most common apparatus in present-day Pilates studios.

After WWI, Pilates and his wife moved to New York City, where they opened a gym and quickly became renowned in the professional dance community. Famous dancers including Martha Graham, George Balanchine, and Jerome Robbins were drawn to the method for its focus on alignment, precision, and strengthening small muscles.

pilates studio joe-mary-clara
Their first Pilates studio in Manhattan.


But the method also spread, and by the turn of the century, mat pilates became a popular group exercise class offering and at-home DVD workout. The method using the spring-based machines took longer to catch on for the mainstream public, and since Reformer classes require pricey specialized equipment, a machine per class participant, the classes are generally much more expensive than a yoga or zumba class, for which no equipment is needed.

The support offered by various features of the equipment allows for tailoring of exercises for individuals with limited ranges of movement and prevents injury through low-impact training that targets muscles that are commonly weak in the average person. This makes the Reformer a tool both for physical therapy and rehabilitation as well as vigorous exercise for individuals without any limitations who want strength training and to prevent injuries that may be incurred from higher-impact exercise.

When I found Pilates it was after many years of regularly practicing Yoga. Though there were many things I loved about Yoga, particularly the emphasis on spirituality, meditation, and awareness of your breathing, body, and overall wellbeing, I never felt like I was truly strengthening or seeing results in my muscles the way I hoped. I was beginning to feel concerned that some Yoga instructors who had pushed me had not been so attentive to alignment or small details, and that this could be partially responsible for some persistent soreness and back pain.

During a period when my back pain was sharp and persistent, I asked many Yoga teachers for modifications or clarifications for poses to address my pain, and when different teachers proposed contradictory suggestions, I began to lose my faith in Yoga. I also read many articles about the harm Yoga can do to the body (one of my favorites is this piece from the New York Times Magazine, focusing on a celebrity Yoga instructor who is vocal about the risks of Yoga, and a more recent article reports how Yoga injuries are on the rise), and it was enough to convince me that I should try something new. Luckily, Pilates has the same sense of awareness of body, breath, and mind as Yoga–often I think the body awareness is even more precise in Pilates, though this of course depends on the instructor and the exercises. And I’ve actually found that all of the core strengthening that is central to Pilates has eased my back pain.

I consistently leave the 60-minute sessions at my studio here in Bogotá feeling energized, as though I’ve gotten a good workout, and I often feel a gentle soreness the next day. Within weeks of regular practice, I was pleased with the results I could see and feel. Most workouts I’ve tried don’t keep my attention, but the dynamism of a Reformer class and the focus different exercises require for me to do them exactly as they should be done, keeps my mind and body engaged and my heart rate up. Now I just have to hunt for a suitable Pilates studio wherever I end up in the U.S. And hopefully more demand for Pilates Reformer classes will lower the prices. So go out there and try Pilates and together we will demonstrate the need for more affordable Pilates studios!


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