The Eighth Avenue “Contrologist"

The Eighth Avenue “Contrologist"
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The Eighth Avenue "Contrologist"

By Evelyn S. Ringold

I crossed Eighth Avenue to number 939, and walked up one flight to Pilates Studio of Natural Rejuvenation. I had an appointment with Joseph Hubertus Pilates, pronounced Pil-AH-dees and often shortened to “Joe”. Described variously as a physical culturist without equal, an inventive genius, an intuitive healer and as an egomaniac, crackpot and quack. Pilates at age 83 is doing what he has been doing for approximately 50 years – teaching the svelte and the paunchy, the young and the no-longer young, the coordinated and the clumsy, his way to stretch and move toward bodily well-being. Pilates calls his work ‘Contrology’, and it all derives, he says, from his fundamental belief that the body must be controlled and trained through discipline of the mind.

In the tradition of a man who builds a better mousetrap, Pilates has remained in the same Eighth Avenue studio he settled in America in 1926. He has confidently waited in the same spot to be “discovered” by one generation after another. He has, in fact, been discovered by a long succession of the rich, the famous and the beautiful. His pupils have included theatrical stars (Katherine Hepburn, Sir Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh and Jose Ferrer), celebrities of music and dance (Gian-Carlo Menotti, Roberta Peters, Maria Tallchief, Vera Zorina) and prominent New Yorkers named Guggenheim and Gimbel.
These and many others, as the old files attest, have climbed the dimly lighted stairs to Joe’s place on the second floor to stretch neglected muscles, flex a recalcitrant spine and twist into pretzel-like positions under the uncompromising shouts of Pilates: “Stretch! Stretch more! Think! Push a button in the mind. Breathe in the air … out the air.”

While Pilates’ pupils currently include the president of a posh 57th Street store, a best-selling author, a chic Vogue editor and a much-photographed Mrs Vanderbild, they also include businessmen, housewives, wrestlers, teachers, West Point graduates - people, in short, who come to lose their fat pads and find their body tone at Pilates’ fountain of youth. They may pay no attention when Pilates says “nobody who does my exercises correctly can have a heart attack or a cancer,” but they do his exercises and, quietly, they may be hoping he is right about any collateral benefits. 

With America being exhorted to get off its collective seat and support the renaissance of push-ups and sit-ups, I thought it would be timely to get off mine and drop in to watch Pilates at work. He has been saying for over 35 years, “Ach, always in America, aspirins and pills. Backaches. Heart attacks. Sunken chests. Rings under the eyes. Here you take better care of your cars than your bodies.” I wanted to hear the message first hand.
As I opened the door to his studio one day recently, I could hear Pilates before I could see him: “The spine, you must exercise the spine! The whole body goes up. So. Smooth! Breathe in the air … out … No! No! Stand here. Watch. Everything should be smooth like the cat”. On an exercise table against the windows I could see Pilates, in turtlenecked shirt and boxing shorts, on his hands and knees demonstrating with remarkable grace how to stretch “so”, like a cat rising off its haunches onto tensed front paws.
The student, whose splay-footed stance and shapely figure suggested she was a dancer, watched Pilates with bemused attention of a subject in hypnosis. “Breathe in the air! Be natural!” Pilates said. With an audible gulp, Pilates breathed in, exhaled, and continued talking - sill on all fours. “In this country nobody breathes right. You must clean out the body here.” He poked the student in her trim midriff and pronounced: “Garbage! Here is 90 per cent garbage.” He swiveled about and bounded to his feet “See? One movement. A thousand moves a day we make. Nine hundred and ninety are not necessary. Then you wonder why you are tired. A hundred years you should live. This” – he waved his hand across the studio – “this is the beginning.”

    Pilates has a head start on his own hundred-year program. At 83 his body looks taut and powerful, and he can still handle six-foot, 200-pound men who call out casually, “Hey, Joe, come help me get a good stretch!” His skin, stained and polished to a dark mahogany from exposure to the sun and mountain air, contrasts sharply with his white hair and steel-blue eyes. Confident of his magnificent physical condition and his ability to perform his own exacting exercises better than most men 30 and 40 years his junior, Pilates never misses an opportunity to tell his age and testify to Contrology. “I must he right. Never an aspirin. Never sick a day in my life. The whole country, the whole world should do my exercises. They’d be happier. We wouldn’t need wars. ”   

Pilates provokes extreme reactions in would-be students – enthralled belief or scathing scorn. Over the years he has mesmerized, confounded or antagonized visitors to his studio with the purism of his belief in his way to physical fitness and by his admission, “I am never wrong.” His long life has been one-track: creating, perfecting and preaching the Contrology way to move, walk, wash, dress, eat and, of course, breathe. Neither potshots nor panegyrics have deflected Pilates from devotion to his system. In addition to teaching from seven in the morning to seven at night, he publishes a manual entitled “Return to Life Through Contrology”, sends pounds of printed Contrology materials to influential men in public health and delivers non-stop extemporaneous lectures to anyone at hand.

At first sight, Pilates’ studio apparatus and exercises look exotic ad incomprehensible, but his basic principles are simple. The aim of Contrology is the well-being of the entire body, not what Pilates calls “mail-order muscles.” None of his exercises is done standing on two feet, but always sitting, leaning or supporting the body’s weight (to reduce, he says, the strain on the heart and lungs) on one of the mats, half-barrels or Pilates-designed machines with their Rube Goldberg assortment of springs, pulleys, straps, handles and hooks at his studio. The emphasis is not on moving the arms and legs, which Pilates says are “only four rooms in a 20-room house,” but on keeping all the rooms of the body in good order by flexing and working the spine and torso proper. With Pilates watching, a pupil dare not neglect any part of the body. “Tight the leg,” he will order from across the room. “Tuck in the stomach muscles. The whole body you must use. Here is not for resting.” The exercises, many of which resemble pretzel twists, are designed to tense and stretch hitherto unused muscles, to set the blood coursing to remote, neglected places, carrying off internal “dust” and debris.

There was a public-library hush of concentration in the studio. A man in his 40s supported himself on the back of his shoulders in a contraption Pilates calls The Tower - something like a door frame, fitted with a horizontal cross bar that moves up and down with the pressure and release of the feet. The man alternately bent his legs close to his chest, then stretched them tautly toward the sky over Eighth Avenue. Another student was “hanging” – that is  she gripped steel bars with her hands, and slipped her ankles up and through what looked like padded subway straps: from this “hanging” position she pulled her body into a straight line, breathing obediently to the inevitable Pilates count of “in, two, three, four, … out, two, three, four.” On a padded floor mat, a rosy-cheeked bright-eyed woman, who might have been a young grand-mother, was puffing and smiling as she clasped her arms around her knees and rolled back and forth along the mat like a human ball with Pilates commanding, “Like a wheel. No! You are a square wheel! ”

Many of those who last out the early lessons (sometimes a beginner leaves in frustration and near tears) say that a workout at Pilates’ is not tiring. There are students of 20 years standing who make a point of coming as early in the morning as Pilates will permit - because they find the exercises leave them refreshed and stimulated for a day’s work. Pilates exhortations to “push a button in the mind” and his metaphysical references to Schiller’s “Es ist der Geist Der sich den Korper baut” seem to touch something in his pupils. One man, a sports columnist, confided that after three months he was just beginning to do the work “properly”.
Pilates has been called, half-admiringly, half-accusingly “the intellectual of the exercise world.” He insists that any one with average intelligence can follow his instructions, but when a new pupil is inconspicuously inept, Pilates will often call “Clara! Clara!” – his 81 year old wife and studio lieutenant – and have het take over. Other times he will suggest that the pupil put his name “on the list. We’ll call you”.

Several physical training experts have indorsed a book Pilates has written on Contrology. But the majority of men in the field shrug.  If they have heard of Pilates, and, probably, most of them have not, they consider Contrology simply one more system in competition with their own. Nevertheless, parts of Contrology – the exercises if not the metaphysics that go with it – have become standard practice beyond Eighth Avenue. In dance classes  around the United States hundreds of young students limber up daily with an exercise they know as a "pilates“ without knowing that the  word has a capital “P” and a living right-breathing namesake. Many New York dancers, whether they’re in the back line of a Broadway musical or in the delight of classical ballet, go to Pilates to keep their bodies trim and responsive. George Balanchine, the famous choreographer, works out “at Joe’s” whenever he can, and has recently invited Pilates to teach the leading ballerinas at his school. “Always people touch their toes”, Balanchine explains, “but Joe is more serious, more intense. He understands the human body.” Ted Shawn, one of America’s foremost male dancers, thinks that “Pilates has never received recognition commentate with his greatness!”

I mentioned Ted Shawn’s comment when I had lunch with Pilates the day of my visit. Pilates agreed with Ted Shawn. “When I am dead, they will say “Pilates was right.” I am 50 years ahead of my time.” When the waiter left us - Pilates had ordered “something simple,” chopped steak and dark beer - Pilates said, “I eat what I feel like eating. If people could live the way I live –smoking, drinking, and loving - they wouldn’t believe it.  Loving! Without it you are dead!” He smiled and then without transition talked about doctors - matter on which he is insistently articulate.  “They know only disease. How can they make people well? Look at them. Soft! Doctors, they don’t know how a muscle feels. I know every muscle in my body.” He rested his hands on his magnificent rib cage and let in the air. The men at the next table glanced at us as Pilates voice carried his message. “Not one doctor, not one osteopath - not one! - can do my first five exercises”. The “first five”- a referent to his own chart of fundamental exercises - is his list for measuring the well-being of every man, woman and child.

Pilates raged , at lunch, against American emphasis on sports – “always throwing the ball. One-handed. This is not exercise”. He claims that athletes have more physical problems than non-athletes when they reach middle-age because of improperly developed muscles. Pilates himself likes to play tennis, but “I play left and right-handed. It is hard to find partners”.
Pilates considers his theory of exercise elated to that of the ancient Greeks. “The mind tells the body. Everything is graceful”. He waved his arms in perfect imitation of a ballet dancer. “But not like this” -- and he jerked backward onto two legs of his chair.
 I asked Pilates to tell me about his childhood. I knew that he had been born near Dusseldorf, Germany, but little more than that, “I am Greek”, he said. “The «е» in Pilates used to be a «u» . My brother and I are the last living descendants of Pontius Pilate”.  His father was  a prize-winning gymnast and his mother a “naturopath”. He said he learned much of what he knows about the human body from animals. “As a child”, he said, “I would lie in the woods for hours, hiding in the leaves, watching he animals move. How the mother taught the young. No human mother takes care like an animal.” He pounded his fist on the table. “A fox, a lion makes the weak ones learn!” He learned from books, too, as a child.  The family physician gave him a discarded anatomy book. “I learned every page, every part of the body. I would move each part as  I memorized. I learned control here -- like Contrology”. Young Joseph was so puny he was forced to build himself up against the threat of TB and the attacks of bigger boys. By 14 he had done such an impressive job that he became a model for anatomical charts.  Pilates was touring England with a German circus troupe – he was doing a Greek statue act with his brother – when World War I broke out. He was interned, and while in the camp taught wresting and self-defense, and began devising the system of original exercises that later became his life. Pilates claims that not one fellow internee who did his exercises died during the influenza epidemic. “When a germ enters a healthy body, the blood is circulating the germ is carried off,” he believes. He offers himself in evidence: “Never sick a day.” He is dead-set against taking shots against disease: “Not in me from sick come enter!”

Pilates said, as he finished his dark beer, that he sees more backaches today. “We sit wrong! We work wrong. That is how a cripple begins. In Russia women are pushing 200-pound wheelbarrows. Why don’t we make our bodies strong instead of throwing a ball?” Pilates sat back puffing at a small cigar he had set into the bowl of his pipe. But he leaned forward at my last question isn’t tension the single biggest problem in modern living? “Of course! Of course!” he shouted. “Noise! Rush! Worry! Soon we could put a wall around the United States – one big lunatic hospital!” He shook his head. “How can we have world peace? No one is happy. No one is healthy. Not one man in the United Nations can do my first five exercises!”
After lunch we walked out into the winter sunshine. Pneumatic drills hammered in the streets, taxis honked. Pilates said, “I couldn’t stay alive if every weekend I didn’t go to the country.” He took a deep breath of Broadway air, as though he were already in the clearer atmosphere of his home in the Berkshires. He patted me on the shoulder as we parted and encouraged me to do his “first five”.
On the way home I spotted a new physical fitness book in Doubleday’s window. The girl on the cover, whether she knew it or not, was doing Pilates.        



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