T here’s at least one “Electric Chair” still active in New Haven, but it’s not an agent of capital punishment.
It’s an agent of physical improvement. It rests near three “Reformers,” two “Wunda Chairs” and a “Cadillac” parked at the back of Pilates Haven. Located within the new mActivity gym space in East Rock and offering a determinedly classical approach to Pilates, PH has a near-full range of the practice’s classic rigs.
Pilates is often put in the same box as yoga, tai chi and other non-western disciplines. And while it takes some of its roots from eastern traditions, Pilates wasn’t started on a cloud-ringed mountaintop but rather in a WWI internment camp on the Isle of Man. And while there’s a stereotype that Pilates is predominantly a form of exercise for women, the creator was actually a beer-drinking, cigar-smoking German man who made some of the first Pilates equipment from beer kegs.
That man was Joseph Pilates. Born in Mönchengladbach, Germany, in 1883, he was a sickly child and suffered from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever, making him an easy target for cruel children. Biographies claim bullies would make fun of his last name, calling him “Pontius Pilate, killer of Christ.” The young Pilates turned to a variety of exercise regimes to help improve his health and self-worth, including bodybuilding, gymnastics and yoga. He became keenly interested in classical ideas of balancing the physical body with strength of mind and spirit—concepts he would later use to develop his exercise method, which he originally dubbed “Controlology.”
As he grew into adulthood, Pilates left his frailty behind. He bloomed into a boxer, skier, diver and gymnast, and in 1912 went to England to become a self-defense instructor at Scotland Yard. During WWI, he and other Germans living in England were interned at the Isle of Man as “enemy aliens.” While there, he started refining his exercise methodology and training fellow detainees. Proving his resourcefulness, Pilates even rigged bedframes with resistant springs so that bedridden patients could still exercise.
His handiness would prove, well, handy. After the war, Pilates designed a host of exercise machines from motley materials. The first “Magic Circle,” intended to help practitioners find their physical center, was fashioned from the metal hoop of a beer keg, and a number of pieces of modern Pilates equipment, often used for stretching and back strengthening, echo those early barrels in shape. Many pieces of Pilates’s original equipment, including the first Electric Chair, can still be used at True Pilates New York, founded by one of Pilates’s original core students, Romana Kryzanowska.
Amy Garner, John McCarthy and Greg Webster of Pilates Haven have all been trained and certified at True Pilates New York by Kryzanowska’s daughter, Sari, and so—with three jumps up the pedigree tree—Pilates Haven can trace its lineage back to Joseph Pilates himself. But a Romana’s Pilates Certification is not your average scout badge.
Certification requires 600 to 800 hours of observation and study, and many trainees often end up doing more. The program involves rigorous exams that test both practical teaching skills on machines and mats as well as comprehensive written exams in which test-takers are given hypothetical bodies (a pre- or postnatal woman, a client with severe bunions, a journalist with a sore lower back) and have to devise specific lesson plans choosing from the more than 500 exercises Pilates devised. There are three written exams, each five hours long, and not everyone passes on their first attempt.
Garner, McCarthy and Webster have gone through the sometimes boot camp-like certification process. Garner’s knowledge of the human body became clear as she took me through some exercises, her adjustments of my positioning accomplishing exactly what she said they would. Personalized training appointments can be made for singles, pairs or trios where, depending on a person’s goals or ailments, instructors will work targeted muscle groups using a seemingly endless number of techniques on various devices. Group mat classes are also available as part of a mActivity membership, requiring nothing more than a mat. Whether you go the equipment or the mat route, a balanced, all-around body workout is the goal, aiming to improve not only strength and flexibility but also body alignment and mind-body awareness.
In part because these physical qualities are so vital to artistic dance, Pilates’s techniques caught on (and continue to be popular) in the professional dance community. While in Germany, Pilates trained influential dancers such as Rudolf von Laban, who created the form of dance notation most widely used today, and Hanya Holm, who adopted many of Pilates’s exercises as part of her “Holm Technique.” In America, George Balanchine, the prominent choreographer and co-founder of the New York Ballet, was a regular practitioner of Pilates and had the fitness guru instruct his dancers.
If you can’t dance before you start taking Pilates classes, odds are certain you’re not going to leave a session at Pilates Haven doing plies and arabesques. But if you’ve got specific physical limitations, or a baby on the way (or one just delivered), or otherwise could use a targeted workout with a perspicacious physical trainer, Pilates Haven is a good place to put the spring back in your step.
Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.