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5 Things I Learned From 'Return to Life'


In Joseph Pilates’ quest to educate the world about his intelligent and effective method, he penned the book Return to Life Through Contrology, an excellent phrase that acts not only as a title, but also as an imperative to the reader, and a promise. It is a brief book that manages to encapsulate the heart of his mission with the method of delivery – 34 exercises with concise instruction and pictures.

Is it possible to learn and love the Pilates Method without reading this book? Of course. Hopefully, in this case, you could be under the guidance of a teacher who can instill the instructions from Mr. Pilates into the work you do. And the work of Pilates stands as a testament to the veracity of his Method, regardless of your knowledge of his mission. But it’s a very powerful thing to hear his true intentions in creating this work, his advice on its proper application, and the intended results.

Many different interpretations of Mr. Pilates’ work live in the world today, and regardless your affiliation or lineage we can all come together to appreciate where it all began. In fact, as you look at the message contained in Return to Life you begin to appreciate Mr. Pilates’ role as a founding father of the mind/body modalities of today. The truth of his work influenced so much of what we see now that we could overlook the fact that he was saying it long before anyone else. He was a pioneer in the Western mindful movement phenomenon.

I have been a student of Pilates for many years, and I have read Return to Life many times. It has become a touchstone for me as a perpetual student of the work but particularly in my role as teacher, a way to return to the heart of my calling when I’m feeling lost, confused, or uninspired. I’m always renewed when I’m reminded of his simple but powerful mission – to give you the information you need to Return to Life.

For such a short book there are many, many pearls of wisdom, but here are my 5 favorite Pilates truths as stated in Return to Life.

1. The Pilates Definition of Fitness is more holistic than you might think.

The word ‘fitness’ is a buzzword these days, and if you asked 5 people what it meant you’d get 5 different definitions. You can hear people talk about ‘getting fit’ and generally it equates to ‘getting in shape’. Which probably means something aesthetic. But Mr. Pilates had a different goal in mind with his method, which he called Contrology.

“Physical fitness is the first requisite of happiness. Our interpretation of physical fitness is the attainment and maintenance of a uniformly developed body with a sound mind capable of naturally, easily, and satisfactorily performing our many and varied daily tasks with spontaneous zest and pleasure.”

Please note – nowhere in this description did he mention being a target weight, having a tight, hard ‘core,’ or getting ready for swimsuit season. His intention of fitness was simply to be ready in both body and mind to live your life effectively and joyfully. That is an aspiring, inclusive goal to strive for!

2. The Body (and health) cannot function or be complete without the mind.

This is an idea that put Mr. Pilates way ahead of his time. We are just now catching up to this notion of mind/body interconnectivity in fields of science he had no access to, as they were largely unknown or in their infancy in his lifetime. No voluntary musculoskeletal action happens without the brain first telling the body to do it, and the more specific and accurate it can be, the better! Yet Mr. Pilates made note of the fact that we humans, in this modern day where movement is no longer necessary for survival, had become habitual, inefficient, and ineffectual. He saw the need to educate people in the benefits of bringing the mind to bear on the function of the body, which is the very heart of the mind/body movement seen everywhere today. It’s become another industry, another buzzword, but Joe was definitely on the cutting edge of this, decades ahead of the hype. Contrology, according to Pilates, was nothing less than “the complete coordination of mind, body, and spirit.”

3. Effective movement uses your entire body - every single muscle.

Here is another place where Pilates was ahead of his time. Spot training doesn’t work because muscles don’t function in isolation. The body is a complete entity, and makes use of kinetic chains to stabilize, mobilize, and operate with efficiency. Pilates observed that there were no modern activities that made use of the entire body – even sports. He was very adamant about using every muscle – from the head all the way to the individual toes. “As small bricks are employed to build large buildings, so will the development of small muscles help develop large muscles. Therefore, when all your muscles are properly developed you will, as a matter of course, perform your work with minimum effort and maximum pleasure.”

4. Above all, learn to breathe correctly.

Breathing is the bridge between body and mind. It is both the indicator of our mental and physical state and the means to affect it. It has a myriad of benefits to body, mind, and spirit, and Pilates was fully aware of this fact. “Breathing is the first act of life, and the last,” he wrote, “our very life depends on it … Above all, learn to breathe correctly.” Breathing is the very act of life, and it is also a vital component to moving with ease, stability, uniformity, and maximum functionality. Pilates was talking about it before anyone else. If you’re interested in reading more about Pilates and the breath, follow the links to body, mind, and spirit discussions from earlier blog posts.

5. Decide to remain true to yourself.

In Return to Life, Pilates quotes the philosopher Schopenhauer who said – “To neglect one’s body for any other advantage in life is the greatest of follies.” Truly, in this modern day we are busier than we’ve ever been, more sedentary than any generation before, and living in a world more virtual by the minute. It is easy to keep hustling, to be distracted by the noise, the hype, the deluge of information, and the cerebral pursuits of the online world. But we can’t live without a body, and Pilates believed with complete conviction that the only way to health was through the balance of body and mind. You cannot ignore either and expect to enjoy complete health. And so to perform the work of the Pilates Method is more than just doing your workout. It’s more than staying in shape, keeping a target weight, or satisfying your doctor. It goes beyond the talking heads who tell you that you must push harder, weigh less, look different, or perform better. Pilates is the union of body and mind in motion. It’s the pursuit of complete unity of body, mind, and spirit. It’s a personal journey to your self, and Pilates entreats us – “Decide to remain true to yourself.” It’s a simple, powerful statement – as simple and powerful as Return to Life.

So decide to remain true to yourself. Return to life through Contrology.


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