Great question, ML!
Yoga and pilates are somewhat related in that the inventor of pilates, Joseph Pilates, was heavily influenced by yoga and Zen meditation when he created the technique. He was also a big endorser of the power of positive thinking, a movement that eventually became absorbed in 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.
In his book, Return to Life Through Contrology (Contrology was the original name for pilates), Pilates wrote: "One of the major results of Contrology is gaining the mastery of your mind over the complete control of your body."
Pilates, who was born in 1880 in Germany, was the son of a prize-winning Greek gymnast and a mother who practiced naturopathy. A sickly child, he resorted to body building, yoga and gymnastics to improve his health. By the time he reached adulthood, he was already well-advanced in the practice of physical fitness.
Just before WW1, Pilates was living as a German national in England and making a living as a boxer, circus performer and self-defense instructor. When war broke out with Germany, he was interned with other German citizens in a camp where he began to train people in his fitness methods. It was here that Contrology - or pilates - began to take shape.
He later immigrated to the U.S. where he met his wife Clara and the two founded a studio in New York where they taught Contrology. They had many famous patrons, such as well-known dancers George Balanchine and Martha Graham. Pilates died in 1967 at the age of 87.
The biggest problem with pilates is not that the exercises themselves are New Age, but that modern versions tend to incorporate yoga and other Eastern techniques as well as New Age practices.
One example is "Yogalates" which fuses yoga with pilates. As this site explains, "Yogalates is sometimes thought of as a fusion practice of 'East meets West,' because it merges the ancient Indian practice of yoga with the Western practice of Pilates..." In addition to including popular yoga poses, "Yogalates may also feature breathing exercises, guided mindfulness and relaxation, depending on the teacher and style."
"Pilates with Chi" merges pilates with the same Taoist philosophy that underlies tai chi and qi gong, which is based on a pantheistic belief in a "universal life force energy" that allegedly permeates the universe.
There is no easy answer when it comes to pilates. 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 likely be put to the test in deciding whether or not a teacher is sneaking New Age or Eastern beliefs into their workouts.
The good news is that no one needs pilates to achieve an excellent core workout. Having been a fitness instructor for many years I can tell you that the gold standard for resistance exercise continues to be the use of free weights. Nothing even comes close to this as far as building strength, shaping the body, and boosting the metabolic rate (for those who are interested in losing weight). Regular use of free weights also improves bone density which is particularly important for post-menopausal women.
And forget those old wives tales about how weights will "bulk" up a woman's body. The use of light weights will do no such thing. The kind of muscle we're all afraid of developing will only come about as a result of a sustained program of very heavy lifting.
But if you're still worried about it, tubes or exercise bands are also excellent choices and can work just as well, if not better, than pilates in shaping the body.
Pilates are more of a fad than an innovation so if you don't want to be hassled by teachers or workouts that incorporate foreign religious beliefs - either overtly or covertly - consider skipping pilates and pump a little iron instead.
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