Pilates, nowadays, is a diluted word. Or at least that’s what I’m told while I’m hanging in the harness of a strange torture device. As it becomes more frequently prescribed, and more desired by more people, there are more than enough opportunities to do something that goes by the same name but is anything other than.
When I was invited to do a “classic Pilates” class, I wasn’t entirely sure what that would mean. What exactly was the ur-Pilates and what had happened to it in the meantime? Were the classes I sometimes dabbled in at my gym not actually Pilates? Well, potentially. But I can confirm nothing by that name I’ve ever done compared to the original.
Gaby Noble is a Pilates teacher with a studio in London’s Chalk Farm, where I met her for a go on traditional Pilates equipment, which looks like a state secondary school tried to build a set for a stage production of Fifty Shades Of Grey: there’s a lot of light wood, a lot of gunmetal grey cushions and a feeling of something both kinky and antiquated. Although the machines in the gym were fresh and brand new, the archaic feeling is not an accident: “[Joseph Pilates] developed it for post-War injured men,” explained Noble. Originally designed as physiotherapy for survivors of the First World War, Pilates’ New York studio became the domain of the dancers at the school across the road and thus a very particular image of Pilates – of Jane Fonda, spandex, QVC shopping programmes – was born.
Now Noble is here to try and take Pilates back. It’s not yoga. It’s not only for women. It’s the perfect complement to anybody who has a sedentary lifestyle or just isn’t stretching enough with the right parts of the body. After only an hour of being clipped into various torture devices I can safely attest: I’ve never known my body better than I did after classic Pilates.
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Noble came to Pilates instruction after a car accident six years ago. Having already taken it up as part of her previous fitness regimen, she had always been told she’d make a good instructor and decided to give it a go. Now her studio teaches a broad church of people about this particular brand of exercise: everyone from the remedial to the professional sports person. I, almost certainly, belong in the former category, as shown by the fact that approximately ten minutes in she asked me to do a stretch I physically could not get my body to do. Perhaps my office job has not made me great at stretching.
“Pilates can be done every day. Because of how we sleep and our posture when sitting at our desk, our organs are getting squashed,” explained Noble. “It’s like the graveyard for our organs. We need everything open to make them work efficiently.”
While my previous experience of Pilates had focused on stretching with minimal equipment, every exercise Noble put me through involved a different device. The first section involved a series of stretches involving the “Cadillac”, which looks like the sort of thing people in full body casts are suspended from. Next I was moved over to the “Reformer”. “The reformers are derived from hospital beds in the olden days to strength the soldiers when they came back,” explained Noble, and the similarity is not lost. A lot of the work here involved trying to move my body via parts of my body I had long presumed had no dynamism at all. You might as well have told me I was going to have to do burpees with my earlobes and yet here I was moving my entire body via the flats of my feet.
Next we moved on to a series of chair-like pieces of equipment, including the ominously named “wunderchair”. This contraption is part of a series of devices, including the “bay chair” and “barrel”, which are particularly good for sportsmen. “I work with a lot of boxers who need to connect with their shoulders,” said Noble. “The barrel opens the chest up.” Noble is one to know: she works with Premier League footballers, MMA fighters and the greatest sportsman of all, Harry Styles.
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At the end, after another section on the Cadillac, Noble asked me how I felt. I told her – and meant it – that my body had never felt more connected. She smiled and said that’s exactly what she hopes somebody feels like afterwards. To her, she said, Pilates is like a moisturiser for your muscles.
While there are many different ways to skin the proverbial cat of Pilates, the classic form really spoke to me. Noble, too, also has an excellent way about her: she never pushed me without providing evidence I could do whatever she asked me. To do something that involves so much balance, control and knowledge of the human body can feel very unusual, but I couldn’t recommend it more.
This content was originally published here.