top of page

The birth of Pilates coincides with the advent of Physical Therapy. Wait....what?

Updated: May 3

The profession of physical therapy was first developed in the early 1900s.

Physical therapy developed as a field for citizens to help patients recover from polio and assist in rehabilitating soldiers returning from the First World War. There was a two-year requirement for certification—an associate's degree of sorts.

Joe Pilates developed his movement method as a rehabilitative exercise during the flu epidemic and WWI. He designed it to balance the body and mind, and legend has it through his technique; he kept his internment camp healthy during an epidemic. He coined his technique, Contrology, now known as Pilates, which holds itself revelatory, especially to the prognosticative person at your dinner party who wants you "just to TRY IT!"

Pilates, a true believer in his method, knew it as revelatory. And like fired-up believers today, he was most likely annoying at dinner parties.

“All new ideas are revolutionary,” he wrote in a promotional pamphlet in 1934. “When the theory responsible for them is proved through practical application, it requires only time for them to develop and to flourish.”

Physical therapy is a revered science, while Pilates is often recognized as something sold to us at the strip mall or a passing trend on Instagram. But, it is more.

Depending on participant experience, physical therapy or Pilates can be an art form, a natural healing practice, or a straightforwardly and thoughtfully choreographed exercise program or prescriptive workout regimen. In contrast to Pilates, P.T. is legitimized by regulatory bodies and PhDs, while Pilates certifications can be achieved in a single weekend. A gift from, Capitalism! Or it can be comprehensively studied over a minimum of 750 hours or through 2.5+ year apprenticeships.

Pilates is missing regulatory agencies as the movement had historically been passed on from mentor to mentor/person to person. Regulation is so young in our industry that I taught Pilates through UW Madison Wisconsin Continuing Education Department without a Pilates certification more than 20 years ago. Certification not being required was pretty standard back then. If you want to watch Pilates instructors argue, ask the group to whom Pilates left his method.

Today, there is fervently active work on regulation within the industry. Still, I'd argue that the lack of a trademark thus far created beautiful inventions and creativity within the pedagogy...things most easily found outside regulatory bodies. Humans are unique and can often require a unique approach. And so much of medicine is drawn from averages.

We might make an average together, but no human is a simple average being.

For example, a T-score for bone density is an average bone density taken of groups of primarily white people from a particular socio-economic background. (Evidence is mounting that the T-score is not the optimal diagnostic parameter for clinical decision-making. Ask your doctor about this.)

My average temperature of 97.6 is expected; 98.6 is just an average.

"That original study in the 1860s was done before antibiotics were available. Therefore, many people had infections that couldn’t be treated, which would have affected temperatures if chronically sick,” says Heidi Zapata M.D., Ph.D., a Yale Medicine infectious disease specialist.

Pilates Instructors are not allowed to "diagnose or treat," but we D.O. get to address the why of an injury of repetition or chronic pain. PTs often are left to treat the simple fact of an injury. Excellent PTs also manage the why, and I collect a list of those who practice consideration for the whole body, but addressing the why is not easily billable. Have you ever wondered why you and your P.T. only work on one side of the body when healing a muscle or joint issue? Your insurance often does not cover time spent on the other side.

One problem with how we look at healthcare is that we are not taught to see our bodies as our lifelong responsibilities. (Though an endlessly confounding and adventure-filled commitment, where good and bad luck is real.) How is a white-coated man or a woman in a building the expert of the unique body through which I've experienced my entire life? Why do we not see cognitive dissonance? Doctors are indeed the most informed about disease or bodily trauma, but you are the expert of you. How can we have unique fingerprints and tongues (yes!) but all go after the same T-score? Well, because we have so much to learn. Medicine is working hard. So must we.

In life, we take our bodies on an experiential journey and are rewarded with a place to live and endless sensations. With Pilates or any mind-body practice, you can begin a relationship with your body outside of simple good and bad sensations and soon care for and help aches and pains on your own. Empowerment.

I thought I knew my body as a lifelong dancer, and that assumption held back my practice for many years. I completed choreography and felt advanced, and then two things happened. My mentor Michelle Larson told me that she had never seen Pilates faked so beautifully in her time as a teacher trainer. I was skilled in moving my body into positions, but my movement intention and integration of breath were missing. And then, a few years later, I taught at a primarily Peak Pilates studio in the D.C. area with terrific teachers and apparatus/equipment... and I discovered a practice that helped me make it, not fake it.

Nonsequitur, this is for practitioners and teachers, it's my blog, so I'm allowed to let this out... please do not say machine when talking about equipment/apparatus: a machine does something for you on its own. Also, you LAY things down, and people LIE down- One day, I will spray paint this on the wall of my studio in frustration- or perhaps I can commission something embroidered, a politer way to protest.

I'm waiting for those party invites...and while I wait... you SHOULD try the Pilates apparatus. Maybe just one time? My final point, if I had one to begin with, is just like P.T. exercises, how you practice Pilates matters.

Who you do Pilates or P.T. with matters (though a Physical Therapist should be chosen to diagnose and help heal anything acute).

You matter.

Do your research, have fun, and thanks to class packs, you need not marry a specific studio.

Learn far and wide.

But please look for comprehensively trained instructors. And ask them how often they practice themselves.

Check in with your unique human being every day.

And to return to an earlier point, back to that Peak Pilates studio in D.C., we begin our Peak Pilates teacher training at Purple Door Pilates in September. Please reach out or stop by the studio to learn more. Become an instructor or immerse yourself in the study. Find a mentor.


Caroline and Zoey

107 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

DOMS or “delayed onset muscle soreness” is the muscle soreness we are all all taught to be proof that our exercise "is working".

bottom of page