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To Keep In Shape: Act Like An Animal

To Keep In Shape: Act Like An Animal

December 21st, 2009  |  Published in Pilates

…Says Joe Pilates, a unique man with an unusual system of exercise called “contrology.”

Robert Wernick

There is a happy band of people in this world, of which I am one, who are distinguishable anywhere by their springy step and “saved” look, a look that marks them off from contemporaries who shuffle and shamble in languid corpulence beside them. We know that we are saved because of our faithful sessions at the Joseph H. Pilates Universal Gymnasium on 8th Avenue in New York City. For it is there that Joe Pilates, a white-thatched, red-cheeked octogenarian, and Clara, his wife, and Hannah (she came in for a lesson 25 years ago and stayed on) bark their stern commands as we twist 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 his specialty. Contrology has something to do with rational tension and relaxation of the muscles, and it comes from a profound knowledge of bodily kinetics learned in no classroom. Joe figured out the principles, he says, three quarters of a century ago in Germany by watching children at play and animals in the forest. Later when he was a boxer and circus tumbler he found his exercises relaxed him after an exhausting day. Later still, interned with his circus and hundreds of other Germans on the Isle of Man during World War I, he took charge of physical training, and no man, he says, who exercised by his principles came down with influenza in the great epidemic.

But what are the principles? “It’s all up here,” Joe says, pointing to his head. You won’t get them out of a book, you have to show up in person in the temple of contrology, a block up from Stillman’s, a gym run on very different principles, and let Joe’s scornful finger prod your poor bare flesh.

“Typical,” he says in his 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 15 cigars.

“So you want to learn. Lie down on the mat. Don’t flop down, go down smoothly, like this, cross the arms, cross the legs. So. 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 takes months to learn exactly which straining set of muscles and tendons is the object of that up!

In the meanwhile, you are ever under someone’s scornful eye and encouraging grunts, learning the Pilates ropes—the varieties of pulls, twists, bends, crouches, which he claims use 25% more muscles than circus acrobats and from two to four times as many as any form of athletics. No jumping or running; in fact, almost everything is done flat on your back or your stomach so as not to strain the heart. No weights (“Do animals lift weights?”) No bulging biceps—Joe is interested mainly in all the body muscles that hold you upright. The exercises are graduated and have whimsical names: the Teaser, the Forward Rocking, the Hanging, the Saw.

Looking down from the walls of the gym are paintings, photographs, sculptures of Joe, naked or loinclothed: spear-fishing at 56, representing the Spirit of Air on the floor of the Nebraska state capital at 60, javelin throwing at 70, skiing at 78. There are also photographs with admiring testimonials from distinguished alumni—Yehudi Menuhin, Jose Ferrer, Roberta Peters—and photostats of newspaper articles describing the horrors of American posture. Through sweat-filled eyes, as you are upside down on one machine, you might see a famous ballerina or actor bent double on another machine. They all receive the full lash of the Pilatean philosophy:

“It’s the stiffness. You must open the chest more, two inches more. Up! No! With this muscle”—poking a protuberance about his midriff that will never exist on you or me—”straight the knees! Where are you going—like an elephant?”

“Oh, Joe,” wails a ballerina, “now you’re calling me an elephant.”

“I wouldn’t insult the elephant. An elephant could walk through this room, and you wouldn’t hear it. An elephant walks delicately. But you—clump, clump, clump! Americans! Baseball players! No wonder they come to my gym with arthritis! Ulcers! Animals don’t have ulcers! Animals don’t go on diets! Straight the knees! Out the air!”

The final accolade

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 interspersed with a few gruff congratulatory murmurs. Kindly Clara will admire your 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 get your ankles into two loops hanging down from above, stretch your body, grab 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 after hand, with gasps and moans and a final yell of triumph. In the hush of admiration Joe bellows out his final accolade: “Now you are an animal!”


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