APMA Education Corner - Caged Lion - a Book report by Geri Taylor

If you are interested in Pilates, read this book.  John Steel, a client, family friend and long-time advocate for Pilates, tells the story of his friendship with Joseph Pilates, what Joe was like as a person, the transition time after his death, and the lawsuit to recognize the word Pilates as a description of the form of exercise.

Here are a few excerpts from the book that informed me, amused me, and made me think about how and why I teach and do Pilates.  Let me know what you think. 


(John Steel’s words)

 “Joe's instructions were bare bones: “Do this or do that”, and I did it immediately without thinking or questioning why.  Joe was like a metronome for exercise: hypnotic.” 

“I got in a groove.  To do what he asked I had to tense some muscles, relax others, breathe at the right time, keep my mind focused on the movement of the moment and suppress all unrelated thoughts.” 

“Joe was an instinctive teacher, what one would call a natural. The most significant lesson that I took from him was his always positive, never negative corrections.  No one ever did anything wrong, just like there is no wrong note in jazz.  Joe corrected by suggesting how to do it better.  Simple direct instructions.  He refused to explain the purpose or mechanics of an exercise.  He didn’t demonstrate.  This wasn’t impatience or efficiency: Joe wanted you to figure it out, to feel and then absorb the solution. 


(John Steel’s words)  

“Joe knew breathing could be better regulated with the conscious mind in control, based principally on what the body was doing.”   

“Timing my breathing by attaching it to movement was easier than I could have expected.  Joe had me breathing semiconsciously by using my body motion to assist the inhales and exhales.  Any movement contracting the chest forces an exhale, while movement expanding the chest assisted the inhale.  Now and then I got into a groove, breathing in sync with the exercise. Because of the pace and the breathing, I was able to relax and work hard without straining.” 


(Joseph Pilates words) 

“You know sex is as important as doing Contrology.  From day one man had to use his physical being to survive and from day two to have sex.  

“Now I will tell you my secret.  One day I thought that if I could get exercise to be as much fun as sex, everyone would do it a lot, and then the world would be a healthier, happier place.” 

“So, I made many exercises like movements in sex.  That tricks the body into moving naturally and fluidly.  Just think, John, about the positions of the women you see doing the exercises.” 

“And I mostly use the Magic Circle for women.  I put it between their knees or ankles, or ask them to hold it in front of them, and tell them to squeeze. When they ask why I called it the Magic Circle, I tell them is has a magical effect on their thighs or breasts. But the real reason is because of the magic that happens when they have sex." 


(John Steel’s words) 

“On our walks Joe would fix my walking posture, and he had comments about everyone who passed by.  To Joe, people on New York sidewalks are specimens of bad bodies and bad physical habits.  Everyone needed some correction and Contrology would fix them in a jiffy.” 

(Joseph Pilates words) 

“See that lady over there? Her head is tilted because she takes a longer step with one foot, which causes her to put that hip forward, and that requires her to tilt her head to keep balanced.  One day probably, already, she will have a bad back.  And then she will go to a doctor who will tell her that she has a curved spine and give her a brace and a big bill.  Two weeks with me on the Reformer and Cadillac and the bad back will be gone and her head will be straight when she walks.” 


(John Steel’s words)  

“Joe’s version of his background omits any information about his captivity: how he passed the time, what he did, or any other aspects of his life.” 

“But Joe told one story about his experience on the Isle of Man: the success of his exercise program in protecting his fellow prisoners from an epidemic.  That story appears to be made up.  There are no mentions in newspapers or camp reports of an epidemic on the island or Joe promoting or heading an exercise program.” 

“As part of his alleged exercise program, Joe claimed he used the springs on his barracks cot to develop an early version of the Reformer.  This story also turns out to be highly improbable.  Springs were not used on beds until after WW1.  And when they were used, they were short and stiff and no use on an exercise machine.” 


(John Steel’s words) 

“Today’s Pilates, in all its various forms, still requires total concentration, instruction, spontaneous response, and still requires disassociating yourself from your day-to-day life and all its worries and concerns.” 

“If the true distinction of Pilates is that it is an exercise routine that, even though difficult, provides psychic enjoyment, we can define Pilates not only by what it is, but also by what it does.  Here is my definition: “Pilates is a system of coordinated movement, concentration that fully absorbs the actor in what he or she is doing, adds grace and efficiency to daily life, relieves stress, increases circulations, augments self-esteem, becomes a habit, and most importantly is fun to do.” 

“There is no “one” Pilates: there is no “classic” Pilates: there is no better or worse Pilates.  Just as it was when Joe was essentially the only teacher.  Pilates is not what you get, it is what you give to yourself.  Joe wanted it that way.”