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Whenever Watchman Fellowship addresses the area of alternative and new age medicine, one topic people are especially interested in is the influence of New Age and Eastern religious concepts on exercise systems. This influence may be seen in such practices as yoga, tai chi, qi gong, and the various eastern martial arts. Sometimes New Age influences are less obvious, however, and more ambiguous. In these areas what Christians should do in response is not so clear, and discernment and wisdom are needed to decide a course of action. An example of this turned up recently when we received an inquiry asking for information on Joseph Pilates and the Pilates exercises. Because of the popularity of the Pilates exercises, we felt that there were probably others besides this individual with the same question. So, in this article we will explore the history and practice of Pilates exercise, then describe the causes for concern that illustrate the need for discernment among Christians searching for an exercise program.
The Pilates exercises were originally developed by Joseph Pilates, who was born in Germany in 1880. As a child Pilates was plagued by rickets and asthma, but later was motivated to strengthen his weak body through gymnastics, wrestling, and yoga.1 This led to a lifelong commitment to exercise that developed into the Pilates exercise program, or the Pilates Method.2
During World War I, Pilates was interned in England because of his German origin. The internment gave him opportunities to pursue his interest in exercise:
While interned in England . . . Joseph became a nurse. During this time, he designed exercise apparatus for immobilized patients by attaching springs to hospital beds. This system formed the foundation for his style of body conditioning and specialized exercise apparatus. . . .3
After the war, Pilates and his wife, Clara, moved to New York City to start the Pilates Studio, a school and gym dedicated to teaching Pilates’ exercise techniques. By utilizing his background in gymnastics, yoga, and injury rehabilitation, Pilates formed what he believed to be the perfect exercise regimen, “incorporating . . . the Eastern emphasis on controlled breathing, controlled movements, and highly focused attention, and the more Western use of resistance.”4 Incidentally, the Pilates Studio was located in an area of Manhattan that also contained a number of ballet schools. Pilates’ techniques became popular among the dancers, who found his emphasis on graceful movement and posture an excellent complement to their own profession. The popularity of the Pilates Method among dancers continues today.5
After Pilates’ death in 1968, his wife Clara and others he trained continued his work. However, some Pilates followers felt that the system could be improved upon, and that some of Pilates’ assumptions about the human body were not in accord with modern medical research. Others refused to change the tradition, insisting that the Pilates exercises be practiced exactly as Joseph Pilates had done in his life. As a result, today there are many schools of exercise claiming the name of Pilates, some teaching the traditional Pilates method and others (e.g. Stott Pilates) adapting Pilates to current medical findings.6
Pilates is currently enjoying a great deal of popularity, and has been embraced by a number of celebrities: Sharon Stone, Courtney Cox, Minnie Driver, Madonna, Julia Roberts, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Hugh Grant, John Cleese, Rod Stewart, Carrie-Anne Moss, and many more.7 Denise Austin, producer of numerous fitness videos, has two Pilates videos, and Chuck Norris may be seen on infomercials advertising his own variation of a Pilates exercise machine, the Total Gym.
The Pilates exercises may be divided into two categories: exercises on a floor mat (“mat work”) and exercises involving equipment (the “Barrel,” the “Cadillac,” the “Reformer,” and the “Chair”). However, both categories were developed around the same basic principles and involve the same kinds of bodily movement.8 The Pilates exercises are also divided into levels—Basic, Intermediate, and Advanced—each with an increased level of difficulty.
While other forms of exercise focus on building muscle bulk (e.g. weight-training) or cardiovascular stamina (e.g. aerobics), the Pilates Method stresses the importance of deliberate movement in which both mind and body are fully engaged. According to Pilates instructors,
The Pilates Method is a conditioning program that improves muscle control, flexibility, coordination, and strength. The basic principles of Pilates conditioning are to increase awareness of the body as a single integrated unit, to improve alignment and breathing, and to increase efficiency of movement. . . . The exercises are based on the principle that by developing a strong and flexible torso with a stabilized core (abdominal, back and pelvic muscles), the whole body can be balanced, aligned and conditioned for optimal performance.9
Because of its emphasis on flexibility and strength, the Pilates exercises are popular not only among dancers, but also gymnasts, football players and other athletes who want to focus on these aspects of exercise.
These days, however, not all exercises with the Pilates label were necessarily invented by Joseph Pilates. In October 2000, Manhattan’s federal district court ruled that the term “Pilates” was generic (like yoga or karate), and as such could not be used as an exclusive trademark.10 Though prior to this ruling Pilates had proliferated in many forms throughout the world, now Pilates trainers not affiliated with the original Pilates Studio were free to advertise themselves as teaching the Pilates Method. So while the more conservative instructors of the Pilates Studio continue to teach the exercises exactly as they were handed down, others have adapted Pilates to more contemporary views of exercise, sometimes even devising new exercises in the “spirit” of Pilates. Usually these instructors are open about their modifications of the Pilates method—they did that work themselves, after all, and like to get the credit for it! Also, new exercises or techniques based on the Pilates philosophy are typically labeled as “Pilates-evolved,” to prevent confusion with original Pilates material.11 This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though: Pilates adaptors rightly point out that some Pilates philosophy is based on assumptions about human anatomy that the medical community now rejects. For instance, Pilates, in agreement with his peers in the early 20th century, claimed that the spine should be perfectly straight, while we now know that a certain amount of curvature in the spine is both natural and healthy.12 But consumers should still be aware that not all Pilates is the original Pilates, and that what one instructor or exercise video teaches may not necessarily represent the views and practice of other Pilates practitioners.
So far, we found nothing of major concern regarding the history and practice of the Pilates Method. Though most accounts of Pilates’ life mentioned his adaptation of yoga positions in some of his exercises, there was no indication that the Hindu yogi philosophy was also grafted in. As with tai chi, the physical postures of yoga are not of themselves harmful—uncomfortable, perhaps, but spiritually innocuous. The danger in these practices lies in their religious and philosophical teachings, but there is no sign of such teachings in standard Pilates material.
Yet there are reasons for Christians to exercise discernment when deciding whether to participate in Pilates exercises. First, while the Pilates exercises themselves may be spiritually neutral, sometimes those that market Pilates material are not. Second, because Pilates is now a generic term, Pilates “hybrids” have sprung up that blend the exercises with questionable elements.
The first reason for concern, as we said, is the religious affiliation of some companies marketing otherwise innocent Pilates products. For example, when reviewing the Pilates mat exercise DVDs by Ana Caban, we did not hear any overt spiritual teachings. Instead we saw stretching and other basic exercises that help build strength, increase flexibility, and burn off calories. At one point, Caban instructs the viewer to stretch out the arm and “allow the energy to pass out through the fingertips.” This statement is certainly suspicious—this is the sort of language one would expect from a New Age adherent or a yogi. However, this theme is never brought up again, and there is no indication on the DVDs themselves that Caban intends to teach any sort of spiritual viewpoint. Unfortunately, Caban’s personal website (http://www.anacaban.com) tells a different story, particularly in the websites she recommends on her links page. One of these sites, http://www.familysearch.org/Eng/Home/%20News/frameset_news.asp?PAGE=Press/2001-04-11_Ellis_Island.asp, promotes goddess worship, meditation, energy healing, qi gong, and yoga, among other things. Though Caban’s Pilates material may be free of harmful spiritual teachings, apparently she drinks deep from the New Age well. And when we checked out Gaiam, the company that produces Caban’s Pilates DVDs, it only got worse. As it turns out, Gaiam is devoted to promoting New Age ideas and practices:
Gaiam (pronounced "guy-um"), is a fusion of the words "Gaia" and "I am". Gaia, mother Earth, was honored on the Isle of Crete in ancient Greece 5,000 years ago by the Minoan civilization. . . . The concept of Gaia stems from the ancient philosophy that the Earth is a living entity. At Gaiam, we believe that all of the Earth's living matter, air, oceans and land form an interconnected system that can be seen as a single entity. The word Gaiam represents planetary awareness, preservation and support of the interconnectivity of all living things. By nurturing, protecting and respecting our planet, its natural resources and its inhabitants, we enrich our own lives and those of future generations.13
This belief is popular among New Age adherents, particularly those with an environmentalist bent. This idea isn’t merely ecological, however: the “Gaia” theory is actually part of a larger New Age view of the reality:
The cosmology (nature of the world and universe) of the NAM is monistic and pantheistic, which means that everything that exists is of one essence, and that one essence is God. Everything is a different form of that essence (energy, consciousness, power, love, force). The state of God is called by various terms among different New Age groups, i.e., God-consciousness, Universal Love, Self-Realization, the I AM, Higher Self, Brahman, Nirvana, etc.14
In addition to their overtly New Age mission statement, Gaiam promotes a number of practices that readers should recognize immediately as suspect, including yoga, tai chi, qi gong, zen meditation, reiki, reflexology, and feng shui. (Watchman Fellowship has information on all these practices, available on request.) So, even if Gaiam’s Pilates material is largely free of any New Age slant, we believe a discerning Christian should seriously consider whether supporting a company like Gaiam is a responsible thing to do.
Regarding the second reason for concern, Pilates “hybrids,” the case is less ambiguous. Two hybrids, Yogalates and Yogilates, combine Pilates with yoga.15 (These are actually two separate entities, not a typographical error.) Another hybrid, Pilates with Chi, merges Pilates with the Taoist philosophy underlying tai chi and qi gong. Here the need for discernment is more apparent, because the New Age influence is directly integrated with the Pilates product, not merely associated with it through a common publisher or distributor.
We hope all of our readers will understand by now why “Is Pilates appropriate for Christians?” cannot be answered with an unreserved “Yes” or “No.” In reality, the situation is not so simple. On one hand, Pilates is an exercise program that uses basic stretching and body movements. Is Pilates an “evil” exercise program? No, Pilates is only one of many good exercise programs available to the public. On the other hand, there are several companies and individuals that use the Pilates name, and not all of them have the same perspective and the same agenda. This is where discernment is important for a Christian. Is the person or company selling Pilates material also promoting beliefs that are contradictory to the central tenets of Christianity, particularly New Age beliefs? Have the Pilates exercises been blended with some other spiritual teaching? Hopefully, if the latter is the case, Christians should have no difficulty making up their minds. Participation in the philosophy of yoga or tai chi participation in a non-Christian religion—Hinduism and Taoism respectively—and no Christian should have doubts about the inappropriateness of that action. But if “good” Pilates material is sold by a “bad” person or company, a Christian must answer one question for themselves : If some products of a New Age company are not contradictory to Christian beliefs, can I use those products from that particular company without affecting my Christian walk and testimony? In this case, we say, “Let each man be convinced in his own mind” (Roman 14:5), but our prayer is that this research will enable our readers to make their own informed and conscientious decision.
Our readers are probably aware that Watchman Fellowship frequently receives requests for information on a wide variety of groups, organizations and beliefs. Often these requests point us to an area we’ve never explored before, which means we have to engage in research. While many may have the impression that we at Watchman Fellowship possess an exhaustive master list of all things heretical, cultic, and otherwise spiritually harmful, this simply isn’t the case. Like researchers in any other field, our task requires academic “spadework” and we have to do some digging in our extensive library, the Internet, and other resources that are available to us. Even in our research, though, we don’t always find a clear and final answer: “This is a good thing” or “This is a bad thing.” We have to weigh the evidence, ask questions, examine arguments, and make judgments. This process of discernment is not mystical or mysterious—in fact, any Christian willing to take the time to learn can acquire the same skills we use at Watchman Fellowship.
This article on the Pilates Method is the result of an information request that led us into new territory. (New to us, at any rate!) We present this article not only as information on the Pilates Method, but also to show how we research a new topic: investigating its history, its practice, and its associations with other groups and beliefs. As you read, we hope you will appreciate the complexities of discernment and the importance of thorough research before making any recommendation or condemnation. To paraphrase King Solomon in Proverbs 18:13, “Whoever makes a judgment before weighing all the evidence behaves both shamefully and foolishly.” We hope our readers will, like us, take this proverb to heart.
Steve Godwin serves as Senior Research Analyst in Watchman Fellowship’s Birmingham, AL Office and continues to work as a hospital RN. E-mail him by clicking here.
David Grubbs serves as Publications Editor in Watchman Fellowship’s Birmingham, AL Office. He is also pursuing his MA in English Literature at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.