Pilates - the full range

Stefan Knight
Since opening the Vineyard Pilates Center four years ago, Stefan Knight has introduced many Islanders to an exercise program that he sees as a balance between weight training and yoga. Photos by Kathy Retmier

By Julian Wise - February 15, 2007

When Stefan Knight made Pilates instruction his business, it was more than a commercial pursuit; it was a commitment to bringing the healing benefits of the fitness system to those seeking greater health and mobility. Four years after founding the Vineyard Pilates Center at Woodlawn Market in Vineyard Haven, hundreds of Islanders have experienced the physical and mental benefits of this popular exercise philosophy.

Despite the high profile of Pilates in recent years, Mr. Knight finds it an ongoing challenge to communicate the essence of the discipline to those who only know about it from hearsay or mass-market advertising. It's especially difficult to encapsulate the philosophy of Pilates in a 30-second sound bite in line at Cronig's or getting on the ferryboat. "The longer you're in the business and the more you learn, the more difficult that question is to answer," he says. "Articulating what Pilates is about is like describing the taste of salt. You can talk about it all day long, you can read articles about it, you can read a book about it, but it's not the same. At the end, if you don't taste salt you don't really know what you're talking about."

Stephan Knight
Mr. Knight works with a client.

Furthering the analogy, he adds, "You can taste salt, but if you don't use it as it's designed to be used, you still don't really get it until you put it on something in a way that's appropriate. You can over-salt something and it doesn't taste good. You can under-salt something and it doesn't bring it to its full potential."

The Pilates system was pioneered by Joseph Pilates (1880-1967), a German emigrant who overcame childhood illness to found the Pilates Method (originally called "Contrology") with his wife Clara at their fitness studio in New York City. Contrology was based on the principles of strengthening core postural muscles and developing control, concentration, centering, precision, flowing movement, and conscious breathing. Dancers George Ballantine, Martha Graham, and Jerome Robbins studied with Pilates and sent their students for training and rehabilitation.

In his text "Return to Life through Contrology," Pilates wrote, "Physical fitness is the first requisite of happiness," and noted, "Because of poor posture, practically 90 per cent of our population suffers from varying degrees of spinal curvature, not to mention more serious ailments.... Fortunately, the spine lends itself readily through correction." The text goes on to articulate his vision of health and vitality, in which people are invited to live their lives free of aches and ailments by performing exercises that realign and restructure their muscular-skeletal system.

For Mr. Knight, Pilates has become the culmination of a process that began when he worked as a personal trainer at several Island gyms. After observing patterns of muscle and join pains in his clients he pondered a career in physical therapy or chiropractic medicine. While weighing his options, he studied at the Massage Therapy Institute of Colorado, training in Swedish, myofascial, deep-tissue, and neuromuscular reflex therapy. He discovered The Pilates Center of Boulder was located nearby and joined a nine-day workshop. "It blew me away," he recalls. "It was exactly what I wanted it to be."

In Pilates Mr. Knight discovered the perfect balance between the bulkiness of weight lifting and the looseness of yoga. "Yoga left me too flexible too fast," he says. "I felt wishy-washy." He enrolled in a rigorous curriculum of bodywork, logging 1,060 hours of massage instruction, 900 hours of Pilates training, and 1,500 hours of Rolfing coursework. "I was drawn to Pilates because it encouraged people to take an active role in their healing process," he says. "The western medical model doesn't necessarily encourage that."

In learning the philosophy behind Pilates, Mr. Knight began to see fitness as something that comes from within rather than from without. "Fitness is not about a sculptured body," he says. "I want a body that functions well, that enjoys being within itself."

Joseph Pilates saw the body as a source of joy and pleasure rather than a burdensome collection of aches and pains. By increasing mindfulness and efficiency of movement, practitioners can exercise their body in life-enhancing ways.

"It's definitely a challenge," Mr. Knight says. "I've never met a body that cannot be deeply challenged by it, and I've never met a body that was too injured for it."

His clients have ranged from teens and triathletes to 90-year-olds. Mr. Knight attributes the system's success to the lifelong passion that Joseph Pilates brought to his work. "If anybody works on something for 60 years, they're probably going to come up with some really smart ideas," he says.

One of the major misperceptions about Pilates is that anything with the Pilates label on it represents the founder's original vision. Due to a copyright technicality, the name Pilates is public domain, leading to a profusion of videos and fitness equipment that bear little resemblance to Joseph and Clara Pilates's original philosophy. "Consumers need to be careful about where they go," Mr. Knight says, noting that some Pilates instructors become certified with weekend seminars and online courses. "People take the form and they continue to dilute it until the form becomes formless."

While many perceive Pilates as an exclusive pursuit for the wealthy, Mr. Knight says his studio is accessible to all, regardless of economics. One can attend a class for the price of a 12-pack of beer.

Another misperception is that Pilates is too rigorous for beginners and one needs to get into shape before studying. Mr. Knight views this as putting the cart before the horse, setting up a perpetual impediment to getting started. In reality, anyone can begin any time, regardless of their present condition.

"Mr. Pilates said that physical fitness can neither be attained by outright purchase nor wishful thinking," says Mr. Knight. "You actually have to do it. There's no one else that can do that for you other than you."

Mr. Knight says that daily, seven-day-a-week practice isn't necessary to reap Pilates' benefits. "I don't do it every day," he says, "but I know that when I do, I feel dynamite. If I only do it once a week, I also experience benefits."

Pilates is not a "bunch of sit-ups," Mr. Knight says. The exercises are core-related, focusing on the abdominal and pelvic region, the lower back, inner thighs and other areas that support the body's structure. Pilates retrains the nervous and muscular system while elongating muscle tissue to give it a different resting length. While it's not a weight loss system per se, many practitioners find themselves making healthier diet choices to correspond with their improved physical wellness. "If you do healthy movement, your body will crave healthy foods," Mr. Knight says.

Many are finding Pilates beneficial in addressing joint and back pains, especially those whose livelihoods depend on physical exertion. Pilates looks beyond the specific ailment to address whole body alignment.

"When there's a joint problem, there's an inappropriate firing pattern around the joint," Mr. Knight says. "Our joints are supposed to channel energy from one bone to another. When force is spilling out of the joint there's going to be an injury over time."

While many with a back or joint injury point to a specific incident that's responsible for the injury, i.e. the lifted cinderblock or the bad turn on the basketball court, Mr. Knight says these incidents are often the straw that breaks the camel's back.

"Injury is always an accumulation of something that's happened for a very long time," he says. "Everything is preexisting. There is never an isolated incident in the body. It's an accumulation of compensations. Pilates is rehabilitative by nature. We are always looking at biomechanics."

In the past year Mr. Knight has traveled the country giving instructor trainings to other Pilates teachers. His future goals include continuing his national trainings while expanding Pilates awareness in the Island community. He has managed to commit himself to the Pilates philosophy without becoming rigid or dogmatic. "When we think we 'get it,' it's a dangerous place to be, regardless of who we are," he says. "I don't want Pilates to be intimidating. I want it for everybody. I want construction workers to know this is an option."

"I absolutely love my job," he adds. "I have thought about other professions, but I feel that there is nothing else I could be doing that would bring people more benefit in 50 minutes than this job. I can't top it."