Mat Pilates…Reformer Pilates…Studio Pilates…Classical Pilates…Clinical Pilates…Contemporary Pilates… Help!
Joseph Pilates always said that he was 50 years ahead of his time and that he thought everyone should do his method of exercise, which he termed “Contrology”. The Pilates Method wasn’t actually referred to as this until after Joe’s death. The jury is out within the Pilates industry about what Joe would think of Pilates in the 21st century, as it has evolved into many different forms over the years. Yogalates anyone…? A common question that people have is “what’s the difference between mat and equipment Pilates?” So that question will be the primary focus of this blog together with a bit of a journey around the other types of Pilates as well.
But first a quick history lesson…
Joseph Hubertus Pilates (1880-1968) created and developed a system of physical conditioning throughout the early to mid 20th century that is now known globally as Pilates or the Pilates Method. Joe called his system “Contrology” and it was a holistic approach to health, espousing regular exercise, attention to posture, breathing, nutrition and even recommending regular exposure to the outdoors. One of Joe’s more famous quotes is that “physical fitness is the first requisite of happiness”. Now I may be biased as an exercise professional, but it is hard to argue with that.
Heavily influenced by yoga and other Eastern philosophies that embraced what we now call mind-body exercise, as well as observations of animal and children’s movements, Joe believed that Pilates was “the complete coordination of mind, body and spirit”. Joe first developed a series of floor exercises that are the foundation of any Pilates mat class, and are the origins of all exercises that evolved thereafter. These original mat exercises are traditionally done in a set order and this order is still followed in any “classical Pilates” mat class. More modern approaches, sometimes referred to as “contemporary Pilates”, will vary greatly in the sequence and order of exercises, but still abide by the original philosophy and principles.
Joe was a prolific inventor of exercise apparatus and furniture. A Pilates studio typically will have various combinations of the unique equipment that was invented by Joe, and is now manufactured by many companies around the world. Pilates performed in a studio (referred to as studio Pilates) will include a full body workout using any combination of the equipment, with any individual needs like injury management embedded within the class. The teacher will decide which equipment will be used and this choice may be influenced by the number of clients in the studio at any one time and the sharing of clients among the equipment. So, on the simplest level the difference between mat Pilates and studio Pilates is that mat Pilates is purely that, Pilates floor exercises performed on a mat. Sometimes small props are used like therabands or magic circles, but strictly speaking, mat Pilates performed in its original way is purely the mat work repertoire. The inclusion of equipment from the fitness industry e.g. Swiss balls, is not technically Pilates, however, Pilates teachers who follow contemporary approaches will often incorporate non-Pilates small items of equipment into their mat classes or studio classes, whilst still adhering to the Pilates principles.
A Pilates session or class is meant to be a whole body conditioning experience. Intense focus and concentration is required for the deliberate striving towards smooth flowing controlled movement, with the end goal of improved posture, flexibility and strength. As Joe said, “it is the mind itself that builds the body”, so absolute concentration is a cornerstone principle of Pilates. For me as a Pilates practitioner, the key difference between group classes like a mat or reformer class and studio Pilates is that the group classes are pure physical workouts with everyone doing the same exercises. In studio Pilates, the sessions are individually tailored to the client’s needs, as we are trying to change the way a person’s body works, instead of simply giving someone a workout. We identify weaknesses, biomechanical or postural issues and gradually recondition the body using specific Pilates exercises. The beauty of studio Pilates is that the variety of exercises is endless due to the vast choice of repertoire available across all the equipment, and someone can move through the full spectrum of movement, from rehabilitation to high intensity athletic conditioning. The Pilates equipment has the use of springs that act as resistance like strength training, or, the springs can be used to assist someone to perform a movement. Mat classes can be both gentle, restorative introductory exercise, or, extremely challenging. The absence of the spring resistance from the equipment can be a blessing as resistance is removed, or, an exercise can become extremely difficult, as there is no equipment to help you. An advanced mat class can be one of the hardest forms of physical exercise out there!
So what way is better you probably want to know? Both ways of doing Pilates, mat and studio, are beneficial, but if you want to identify and address your body’s unique needs, then studio Pilates is always going to be more effective. Group reformer or mat classes can be a great cost effective way of doing additional sessions, to top up your studio Pilates.
Now that I mention reformer classes, I have to say this: if you really want to demonstrate your Pilates expertise, never, I repeat never, refer to a reformer as a bed. A true Pilates aficionado will never ask, “do you have the beds?” or, “so, do you use a reformer bed?”. Yes, the reformer evolved from hospital beds, but that is it. A reformer is not a bed. The end.
Finally, keep in mind that not all Pilates teachers are created equal! Pilates is an unregulated industry, with qualifications and teacher training varying widely, from 2 day short courses to government accredited Diplomas and Advanced Diplomas. It is worthwhile to do your research, and seek out teachers who are accredited with the two professional associations, the Australian Pilates Method Association (APMA) or the Pilates Association Australasia (PAA).
Our approach at Absolute Health & Performance is highly personalised and individual. Our Pilates approach like all of our services is bespoke and unique to you. You are like no other. Yes, the aim is for every teacher to help a client to learn the Pilates principles and for every client to get the Pilates techniques “in” their body, but how this is done depends on your learning style, your personality and your health. Whether you like the private 1:1 method of studying Pilates using the full spectrum of Pilates equipment, or boutique small studio classes with a maximum of 3 participants, or mat classes, we are here to help you along the Pilates journey. The beauty about Pilates is that it is always here for you. Once you start, you’ll wonder why you didn’t start years before.
Written by Absolute’s Pilates specialist Liz Hewett