Pilates: Cats and Capitalism

Words by Tai Salih


As you flip through a plethora of fitness magazines and scroll through Instagram fitness influencers, you’ll come to find the same messaging over and over again: 
“You are not fit enough.”
“These are the only acceptable standards of health and fitness.”
“These expensive outfits are the only acceptable attire in a fitness space.”
Capitalism has completely invaded the wellness industry making access more challenging. There is a focus on the external Instagrammable benefits and content that includes fatphobic rhetoric. Profits dictate what we should be wearing, how we should work out, and what our ‘#fit goals’ should be. And in doing so, many who are showing up to virtual and fitness spaces are being pushed a very specific narrative about what fitness is and how it should be. 
Most end up partaking in a practice that has long since pulled away from its intention. Pilates, for instance, has morphed in this pursuit of profits; it now caters to fit, white, and able bodied women across the western hemisphere. In doing so, classes have become inaccessible to a large portion of the population. 

The History of Pilates: Internment, Yoga, and Cats

In studying the history of how Pilates came to be we learn that its inventor, Joseph Pilates, traveled to England in 1912 and along with other German nationals was interned in a camp on the Isle of Man during WWI. During his time there, he taught and practiced his physical fitness program for sick prisoners and himself. The development of his practice was influenced by sources as varied as yoga and the movements of animals – particularly cats – at a time when England was hit by an influenza epidemic. 
After his release, Pilates  moved to the US, opened up a studio, and continued to teach his programming. He named the program “contrology” to reflect his belief in the importance of the mind’s control over the body.


Key principles to this approach are: 


Kathy Stanford Grant: Pilates Pioneer

Contrology was originally known to mostly dancers from the New York City Ballet who shared the Body Contrology Studio’s Eighth Avenue address. It was there in 1954, after two knee injuries, that famed dancer Kathy Stanford Grant was introduced to Joseph Pilates. During this particular period physiotherapy was only recently coming into the West and hadn’t yet become a regularly accessed profession. 

Kathy was a pioneer as the very FIRST Black dancer to attend The Boston Conservatory of Music’s dance program in 1930. She later danced at Café Zanzibar and was in Broadway’s first racially segregated show Finian’s Rainbow. When her knee was repaired she fell in love with Pilates programming. 
In 1964, Kathy was one of the first students to become certified to teach the Pilates Method. Her background in dance and her understanding of the body allowed for the fine-tuning of this programming and evolved it into the richly healing practice it was intended to be. 

My Journey to Pilates: Meaning Behind the Movement

My journey into Pilates started with a one-off workshop that I attended at the Toronto Yoga Conference nearly a decade ago. What drew me in was the focus on anatomy and functional movement. Up until then my understanding of Pilates was limited to what I had seen in magazines and across social media platforms. After completing my training, I took what I learned and collaborated with a chiropractic clinic to provide post-rehabilitation Pilates classes to help motor vehicle accident clients strengthen and heal their bodies.
This experience drove home the reminder that Pilates is truly a system for you to heal and nourish your body. When we think of Pilates, we should remember its healing lineage, its humble beginnings – and leave out the noise we find in mass media regarding it.
Tai Salih is a beloved Coach at Sister Fit. She is a 500hr+ CYT trained in hatha, vinyasa, yin, ashtanga, restorative, trauma-sensitive yoga, and post-rehabilitation, Pilates, mindfulness, pranayama circuit, and interval training in addition to several workshops, immersions lead by master-level yogis and Pilates instructors. Tai came to Canada as a young refugee from Sudan. Her passion to heal through her traumas lead her to yoga in 2009. She has dedicated herself to growing her yoga practice and sharing what has helped heal her.