Joe Pilates

Learning to be an Animal

There is a happy band of people, of which I am an aspirant member, who are distinguishable anywhere by their springy step and "saved" look from the mass of their contemporaries who shuffle and shamble in untidy corpulence around us. We know that we are saved because we faithfully attend exhausting but exhilarating sessions at the Joseph H. Pilates Universal Gymnasium on Eighth Avenue in midtown Manhattan.

For it is here that Joe Pilates, a white-thatched red-cheeked octogenarian, his wife Clara and Hannah (who came in for a lesson 25 years ago and stayed on) bark their stern commands as we twist and stretch and complain through the exercises forming the core of what Joe, with his Germanic taste for scientific nomenclature, calls Contrology.

Don't ask me what Contrology is. Don't ask Joe either, for orderly exposition is not one of his talents. It has something to do with rational tension and relaxation of the muscles, and it comes from a profound knowledge of bodily kinetics begun three quarters of a century ago when Joe as a child in Germany began observing his fellow children at play and animals bounding through the forest. Later, when he was making a living as a boxer and a circus tumbler he began developing a series of exercises to relax him after an exhausting day.

The full principles of Contrology were revealed to him during World War I. His circus was caught traveling in England when the war broke out in 1914, and Joe and all the others were interned in an abandoned hospital on the Isle of Man. Here, as weeks lengthened into months and years, he watched his fellow-prisoners sink into apathy and despair, with nothing to do but stare at the bare crumbling walls of their prison, nothing to break the daily monotony but the inadequate meals (for the German submarine blockade was slowly starving England) and an occasional walk around the bare courtyard with nothing to look at but an occasional starveling cat streaking after a mouse or a bird.

It was the cats which did it. For though they were nothing but skin and bones - even the most animal-loving prisoners could hardly spare them anything from their own pitiful rations when their own children were begging to be fed - they were lithe and springy and terribly efficient as they aimed for their prey. Why were the cats in such good shape, so bright-eyed, while the humans were growing every day paler, weaker, apathetic creatures ready to give up if they caught a cold or fell down and sprained an ankle? The answer came to Joe when he began carefully observing the cats and analyzing their motions for hours at a time. He saw them, when they had nothing else to do, stretching their legs out, stretching, stretching, keeping their muscles limber, alive. He began working out an orderly series of exercises to stretch the human muscles, all the human muscles. He began demonstrating these exercises to the dejected figures around him, and since they had nothing else to do, they began to do the exercises too. Awkwardly and timorously at first, but under his firm supervision they became more and more confident, more and more bouncy, like cats. They ended the war in better shape than when it started, and when the great influenza epidemic came sweeping over all the countries that had fought in the war, not one of them came down with it.

Once free, he came to America because that is the place to be when you have a new idea. He designed and built machines for carefully graduated stretching exercises, he rented a loft, he opened his Universal Gymnasium, up the street from Stillman's Gym, an institution built to other specifications. Little by little the word got around, people began coming in, people from professions which demand complete and precise control of the whole body, ballet dancers, opera singers, Laurence Olivier, Yehudi Menuhin.

When I came to join this band, he greeted me as he did everybody else. He lay down on his eighty-ear-old back and commanded, "Step on me." I hesitated. "Don't be afraid," he said. "STEP!" Gingerly I put one foot on his belly, one on his chest. "You see," he said. "It's easy."

Later I stood before him in the mandatory black trunks and he poked a scornful finger into my poor bare flesh.

"Typical," he said in ringing Teutonic tones. "Just like all of them! Americans! They want to go 600 miles an hour, and they don't know how to walk! Look at them in the street. Bent over!. Coughing! Young men with gray faces! Why can't they look at the animals? Look at a cat. Look at any animal. The only animal that doesn't hold its stomach in is the pig. Look at them all out on the sidewalk now, like pigs.

"By exercising your stomach muscles you wring out the body, you don't catch colds, you don't get cancer, you don't get hernias. Do animals get hernias? Do animals go on diets? Eat what you want, drink what you want. I drink a quart of liquor a day, plus some beers, and smoke maybe fifteen cigars.

"And what do Americans do? They play golf, they play baseball, they use half of their muscles, a quarter of their muscles. They get fat, they go jogging, they go on crazy diets, they jump up and down in crazy exercises, they have bad backs, they have beer bellies, they slouch, they complain, they have hernias.

"So, you want to learn how to do better. It's all up here, in the head. Lie down on the mat. Don't flop down, go down smoothly, like this, cross the arms, cross the legs. Now, legs in the air! Grab your ankles! Of course you can't reach them, no American can. All right, grab your calves. Make it your knees. Straight the knees! Bend forward! Now reach! No, you have to think first! Think! Up!"

It may take months to learn exactly which straining set of muscles and tendons is the object of that Up!

In the meanwhile, the neophyte is ever under someone's scornful eyes or encouraging grunts, learning the Pilates ropes - the varieties of pulls, twists, bends, crouches which he says use 25 percent more muscles than circus acrobatics and fifty or seventyfive percent more than baseball (pfui!) or golf (double-pfui!), No jumping or running, which put unnecessary strain on the heart; in fact, almost everything is done flat on your back or your stomach. No weights ("Do animals lift weights?") No bulging biceps.- Joe is more interested in muscles that will hold you up up than those that will let you knock another fellow down.

The exercises are graduated and have whimsical names: the Teaser, the Forward Rocking, the Saw, the Hanging.

Looking down from the walls of the gym are paintings, photographs sculptures of Joe, naked or loinclothed: spearfishing at 56, representing the Spirit of Air on the floor of the Nebraska state capitol at 60, skiing at 78. There are also photographs with admiring testimonials ("To the greatest,""to the one and immortal Joe"from distinguished alumni, and photostats of articles from American newspapers documenting the horrors of American posture. Through sweat-filled eyes, as you are upside down on one machine, you might see a famous publisher or producer or anchorperson bent double on another. They are all receiving the full lash of Pilatean philosophy.

"Its' the stiffness. You must open up the chest more, two inches more. Up! NO! With this muscle" poking a protuberance about his midriff which will never rise on you or me - "straight the knees! Where are you going - like an elephant?"

"Oh Joe," wails a famous ballerina. "Now you're calling me an elephant."

"I wouldn't insult the elephant. An elephant could walk into this room, and you wouldn't hear it. An elephant walks delicately. But you - clump, clump, CLUMP! Americans! Baseball players! Joggers! Weight-lifters! No wonder they come to me with arthritis! Ulcers! Animals don't have ulcers! Animals don't go on diets! Straight the knees! Out the air!"

So the minutes pass -- flipping and wriggling through the Corkscrew, the Jackknife, the Seal. It's not cheap ($5 a session, which lasts about 45 minutes) but as you go your two or three times a week, the weeks become months, and the abuse becomes scattered with a few congratulatory murmurs. Kindly Clara will admire you new sleekness, gruff Hannah will say, "Well, about time." Perhaps your head is a little higher in the street, above all the young gray faces. Aches and twinges disappear. A day comes when you are able to swing your ankles neatly into two loops hanging down from a bar way up there, stretch your body, get a firm grip on two upright poles - and climb up. You reach the top with grunts of pleasure and suddenly whoop in terror, "How do I get down?" "The same way you got up." Down you come, hand under hand, with gasps and moans and a final yell of triumph. In the hush that follows, Joe bellows out his final accolade:

"Now you are an animal"

©1962 Robert Wernick

Sports Illustrated, February 12, 1962

Joe Pilates would have been in his 120's today (June 22, 2003) if he had not died of smoke inhalation when his house caught on fire, and nothing in the intervening years would have caused him to change his philosophy.