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
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.
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
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, Jos� 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
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