Why do so many exercise programs feel more like something we should be doing in a Hindu temple?

MR asks: “I’m wondering about Pilate.  I was reading some of the blogs but didn’t feel that they totally answered if Pilate’s is not acceptable.  I have Leslie Sansone’s Walk Away the Pounds DVD which includes a section called You can do Pilates. I didn’t know this was an issue. Should I no longer do the Pilates on her DVD?”

Being a former fitness instructor, I’m continually fascinated (and frustrated) with how most U.S. fitness programs are turning into a quasi-Hindu temples. We just can’t seem to get a good workout these days – in a gym or on a DVD – without being pummeled by Hindu and/or other eastern religious beliefs. It’s all about yoga, pilates, yogalates, tai chi, om chants and namaste greetings. I don’t know about you, but I’m getting tired of feeling like I just stepped off a plane in Mumbai every time I walk into an exercise class at my local gym. Not that I have anything against Hindus or Mumbai, but I go there to work out, not to be indoctrinated in someone else’s religion.

Imagine the outcry if we decided to begin every exercise classes with an invocation to Jesus Christ. What if we insisted that everyone make the sign of the cross “just to work out” their triceps? We’d probably be sued, or fired – or both – in very short order.

Anyway, getting back to MR’s question, the problem with pilates is not that the exercises themselves are New Age, but that their creator, Joseph Pilates, was heavily influenced by yoga and Zen meditation when he invented it. How have these beliefs influenced the exercises?

He was also a big endorser of the power of positive thinking, a movement that eventually morphed into the New Age’s Human Potential Movement. This movement is a spin-off of the New Thought movement of the 1900s in which people believed that if the mind could conceive it, a person could achieve it. How much of these practices are present in a typical pilates workout?

Leslie Sansone, who produced MR’s DVD, does not appear to be involved in the New Age, although she does have a You Can Do Yoga video; however, she specifically says it has “no breath control or mind/body work.” Her large collection of workouts includes one that features Christian themes, and I could find none that espoused walking with any other religious belief system.

Although this does not appear to be the case with MR, the overarching problem with pilates is that it is just too heavily infiltrated by New Agers, which means you’re bound to encounter instructors who incorporate New Age concepts into their workouts. Some do it openly, such as in Yogalates or Pilates with Chi. Others are more covert about it and employ more subtle suggestions such as introducing eastern breathing techniques or seemingly innocent visualization exercises.

In one of the more outrageous cases I’ve read, one instructor of a children’s pilate workout told her class she wanted to help them “develop a relationship with the inside of your body.” Thankfully, a parent was standing in the back of the room and raised the roof over it.  

There is no easy answer when it comes to pilates and a person who is interested in becoming involved in this kind of resistance exercise must be willing to work out more than just their muscles. Their powers of discernment will also have to be put to the test. They must educate themselves on the difference between eastern and western meditation techniques as well as the risks associated with alterered states of consciousness, visualization and other trance induction practices that are likely to show up in mainstream yoga and pilates classes.

For those who just want to exercise and not be bothered with all this fuss, forget pilates. Having been a fitness instructor for many years I can tell you that the best resistance exercise continues to be the use of free weights(particularly if you’re post-menopausal). Nothing even comes close to this as far as building strength and shaping the body. Tubes and bands are also excellent choices.

Pilates are more of a fad than an innovation, so don’t think you’re missing something if you decide to pass on pilates. There are plenty of workouts far superior to this one that come with no potential religious baggage.

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