Pilates and Rolfing

Nancy Stotz, MFA, has taught Pilates in private practice, in college dance departments, and in workshop settings. In addition she teaches modern dance and kinesiology. Ms. Stotz holds certification as a Rolfer, Pilates instructor and is a certified Laban Movement Analyst.
Pages: 25-28
Year: 1998
Dr. Ida Rolf Institute

ROLF LINES, Vol XXVI – nº 04 – August 1998

Volume: 26
Nancy Stotz, MFA, has taught Pilates in private practice, in college dance departments, and in workshop settings. In addition she teaches modern dance and kinesiology. Ms. Stotz holds certification as a Rolfer, Pilates instructor and is a certified Laban Movement Analyst.

When I think about the Pilates Method, I rarely think of it as “exercise.” This is a Method, a systematic approach to changing and supporting body structure and function. If I am designing a session for a client with a specific need, I ma) think in terms of anatomy – muscle groups, etc., but, for the most part, I feel the clear emphasis on the movement component, coupled with the intense mental concentration of moving intentionally, teaches the body how to work harmoniously. This translates into increased strength, certainly, but it is a strength that is emblematic of a balance and integrity in the body and mind. The Pilates method is perhaps unique in this emphasis on awareness; while a gifted athlete in any sport or fitness endeavor will undoubtedly experience a high level of bodily knowing, rarely is this awareness a primary goal of their “training.” Pilates is an exploration into one’s body that can lead to profound changes in structure and refinement of function. Pilates trains not only the body, but the mint as well.

The basic principles which permeate the Pilates work are Concentration, Control, Centering, Flowing Movement, and Breathing. These are echoed in the Rolfing work as awareness, support, functional economy, easeful movement and openness.

The following are some of my thoughts on the potential connections between Pilates and Rolfing, preceded by a brief note about the historical person, Joseph Pilates.

Joseph Pilates was born in 1880 in Germany. Anxious to overcome health problems he suffered as a child, Joe studied Yoga, meditation, and vigorous exercise regimens, becoming an accomplished athlete. By 1912, he was living in England where he worked as a boxer and physical trainer. At the outbreak of the First World War, German nationals, including Joe, were interned in England. While in the camps, he continued to train his fellow internees, then went on to work with ill and disabled people in a hospital. He developed exercises that provided resistance and stability for the body, while the body weight was being supported. Joe returned to Germany after the war and continued to experiment with and expand his training programs. When he was ordered to become the trainer for the German army he decided to emigrate. In 1926 he boarded a boat for New York. On the way over, he met Clara, his soon-to-be wife and partner in their life’s work, teaching in their Pilates studio. The studio quickly became a favorite destination for injured dancers, only recently has the interest in this Method spread into the general fitness world.

I first became aware of the Pilates Method when I had a severe hip, sacral, and low lumbar injury from dancing. My body was seriously imbalanced, I was weak, the slightest jarring could set me back instantly. After many hours of Rolfing, (thank you Louis), and forays to the swimming pool and gym, (too cold, too boring), I knew I had to do Something… Most exercise seemed ineffective or worse, the mindless repetition made the whole enterprise un motivating. Pilates, on the other hand, offered a much more comprehensive and fascinating way of working with the body. I grew stronger, and continued to train in the Pilates Method when I was able to return to dance.

Pilates designed his work to be both diagnostic and prescriptive – it is a very comprehensive system. The client is observed moving through a series of structured patterns – exercises if you will – designed to strengthen and stretch the body. We then work to bring awareness to the body patterns in use, stressing the relationships of different parts. There is little or no emphasis on “building” the body as though it were an inanimate structure, the goal is to strengthen essential patterns that support the individuals clear movement intention. While it is possible to use the Pilates work as a superb “workout,” it is the richness of the integration of focus, breath, and flow with the movements that makes Pilates so special, and, I believe, such a great tool for the bodyworker.

There is much usefulness in engaging ones client in movement activity which supports the Rolfing work. Most importantly, movement can provide a link between that which can seem somewhat ephemeral and mysterious, “I feel different, but I can’t say how exactly….” and embodiment – that bodily “knowing ” which is more concrete. Movement is a direct inroad to perception. Virtually every learning experience we have as human beings has a movement component. Often, a client will need to experience activities which stimulate self-awareness in a very real physical sense. A body which is strong and supple from this practice will tend to retain the structural shift; of Rolfing in a deeper way. Inasmuch as Pilates is about learning support from the core and initiating from the intrinsic musculature, it could not be more consistent in intention with the awareness we hope is evoked in our clients through Rolfing.

Often, in my practice, I would come across individuals who had been in a compromised physical condition for years. These include the people who always seem on the verge of collapse, in which the simple balance of agonist/antagonist/synergist is seriously upset. Perhaps they had a condition which led to a state of immobility and atrophy, perhaps a postural problem was so ingrained in the tissue that there was little potential to move in a different way. The structure is very weak, to the degree that these individuals literally cannot stand up. These individuals need to be stronger!

Balance is the key. In both Pilates and Rolfing, we look for the imbalance in the tissue, and its reflections in the whole system. In the Pilates system, the goal is to balance the relationships of stabilizing factors to mobilizing forces. Stability/Mobility is a theme that permeates both Pilates and Rolfing. How can the body be freed? What can we do to support this openness? How can the inner motivations of the individual be brought to full outer expression in the world?


The body appears voluminous to the Pilates practitioner, as well as to the Rolfers eye. Not merely surfaces to be contoured, the body, ideally, is alway, approached as three-dimensional. The capacity for improvement in the unending, constantly shifting relationships of support and span is of concern in both modalities. Joseph Pilates recognized that balance in the body was essential for optimum performance. He also realized that integrated movement was a result of flexibility balanced by stability. Conscious work to initiate properly, with appropriate follow-through, can change patterns in the body by making available ways of moving that are more functionally appropriate.

How the person does a movement task is far more important than an external motivation; for example, to lift a heavy weight. The quality of the movement is of paramount importance. Precision, accuracy in alignment, correct initiation and sequencing, are all stressed in the Pilates Method. Repetition, a staple of conventional exercise programs, is rarely emphasized, rather, the focus is on using the whole body in an integrated fashion. Educating the body by bringing great awareness to movement patterns is a wonderful inroad to structural balance.

It is the emphasis on core strength that makes Pilates such an effective system of conditioning. The work demands a degree of pelvic stabilization and abdominal control, a refinement in the sense of support, that frees the mover to explore ranges of motion perhaps unavailable or potentially dangerous in a weakened, unbalanced structure. The exercises strengthen the deepest layers of the abdominals, when these are engaged, the torso has a sense of dynamic support. The typical abdominal exercises such as the crunch do little to access these layers of Transversus Abdominus and Obliques. In the Pilates Method, the abdominals are engaged in a way that supports the torso, we are not merely shortening the front surface of the body. A balance between the engagement of the abdominals and the extensors of the back is stressed. Lengthening the torso, reaching the head, tail, and limbs away from the center of the body, gives the sense of moving from the core. This core engagement enlivens the awareness of the entire structure, and brings a feeling of whole body integration in movement. Ordinarily the extrinsic muscles are often used, inappropriately, to initiate movement, often in a rigid, bulky manner. In the Pilates Method, a subtler, yet deeper sense of core is found, enabling the client to soften and mobilize the extrinsics.

Emphasis is also placed on the lengthening and strengthening of the hamstrings. Individuals with a weak lower back and anteriorly tilted pelvis benefit greatly from the work to engage the hamstrings for support and grounding in the legs. The inner line of the legs is kept in awareness, adductor strength and span at the lowest attachments in the pelvis helps to balance all the muscular relationships at the hip joint. Appropriate alignment of the legs is necessary for efficient locomotion. In this Method, great care is taken to maintain the relationship of the heel to the sit bone, and to eliminate any faulty tracking of the hips, knees, and ankles. This support from below, coupled with the deep engagement of abdominal core muscles, enhances initiation from the Iliopsoas for locomotor movement. Many of the exercises emphasize strengthening Iliopsoas, Joseph Pilates recognized the importance of integrating the legs through to the core/spine/breath.

Spinal articulation, that is, the ability to move the vertebrae individually as opposed to moving several at a time in a large segment, is an important goal of the Pilates work. Successive rolling through the spine in both flexion and extension is a component of many exercises. Length, as opposed to compression, is maintained throughout the exercises. Again, the idea of movement, not just position, is important. The Pilates client is constantly encouraged to “reach” through the spine. Along with the goal of articulate movement in the spine, we also work to achieve the awareness of a “neutral” spine. Many of the exercises are done with the client on their back. Typically, this takes the spine into a position of flexion, with the lumbars pressed to the mat. While this is acceptable in the beginning stages of learning the Method, the extensors must be in balanced engagement with the use of the abdominals. How often have we seen the well-meaning and zealous exerciser do zillions of crunches to support their back, only to stand up with the result of under tucked pelvis, posterior lumbars, and a weakened structure? Add too many squats and Lat pulls and we have the classic bound look of the “body builder.”

Movement can be initiated by lengthening and releasing muscles as well as by contracting the muscle. In a well balanced structure there is a the ability to do both. Stretching the bod3 is a key component in the Pilates Method. Perhaps because of my dance background, I tend to encourage my clients to stretch every day, and always include stretching as part of the work in the beginning of a session, to prepare the tissue to open in movement. Additionally, if there are tightnesses in the structure that impede the client’s progress in a particular exercise, I will design stretches to support the goals of that sequence.

Embodiment and kinesthetic awareness are key to the refinement possible in the Pilates work. The Method teaches self-support by having the client constantly focus on the movement experience of the exercise, not merely the goal. While there can be very specific, attainable, physical goals in Pilates, i.e., flatter stomach, stronger back, etc., the essence of Pilates is the embodiment of clear, efficient function in a balanced structure. I believe this is only truly available when the individual is brought to a deeper kinesthetic awareness.


First, a word about the apparatus. Joseph Pilates developed many exercises which could be done on the Mat. These require the client to provide his or her own support and/ or resistance. While the Mat work is a comprehensive system in and of itself, the genius of Joe Pilates is amplified by the extraordinary equipment he designed. The Universal Reformer, Joe’s original invention, is a bed-like platform, with a sliding carriage that the client can lie, sit, kneel, or stand on. The carriage is attached to the frame with springs which provide resistance. There is an adjustable bar to push against, also straps with handles and loops. The variety of movements one can do on the Reformer is almost limitless. While typical fitness machines only allow a very limited range of movements, working only a specific muscle or group, the Reformer truly provides a whole body workout. The Trapeze Table is about the height of a massage table, only wide, and has a metal frame reminiscent of a four poster bed around it. Attached to the frame are springs, bars, trapezes, and straps. Many of the most complex movement patterns are done on the “Trap” table. The Wunda Chair, Barrel, and Magic Circle are additional pieces of equipment. The machines provide support as well as resistance. For example, when teaching a client the Rollback, (in which the client rolls from a seated position, one vertebrae at a time, to a lying position), one can have them hold onto the bar which is suspended from springs. The resistance of the springs gives enough support to enable the client to really articulate through the spine, the weak individual will either crash back in a big undifferentiated piece and/or grip the hip flexors instead of engaging the abdominals. The support/ resistance provides for awareness of proper muscle use first, strength comes later. In fact, as one becomes stronger, in some of the exercises the amount of resistance is lessened. As the client becomes more self-reliant, less support is needed.

The Pilates Method uses the concept of closed kinetic chains to give a sense of stability to the functional movements performed in the exercises. A closed kinetic chain means that a weight bearing surface of the body is in contact with a surface fixed in space. This encourages balanced, three dimensional muscle use. For example, a typical knee strengthening exercise is one in which the knee is extended with a weight attached to the foot. This works the Quadriceps primarily. In contrast, when performing the “foot and leg” work done on the Universal Reformer, the client lies on his/her back on the moving carriage, the feet are supported on a bar, and the client straightens and bends the joints of the ankle,, knee and hip. Initiation for leg extension is shifted to the hamstrings as they move the hip joint. This moves the initiation closer to core, and the coupling of the hamstring work with the extensors of the knee spreads the load of the work. We are therefore using both flexors and extensors in sequence to create the movement. This way of working also stresses tracking the limbs in their most desirable alignment, we put load on the structure when it is in optimum length and alignment. The resistance heightens the kinesthetic sense of the movement, giving information to the neuromuscular system. With the hands-on guidance of the Pilates practitioner, tactile cues are given to help track the body in ever-increasing refinement.


I am going to briefly touch upon ways in which Pilates could enhance the goals of a few of the standard Rolfing sessions

In the first session of Rolfing we may stress the opening of the torso through the breath, the three-dimensional sense of core which is accessed via this most fundamental of movements. In the Pilates system, the breath patterns are essential to the effective use of the exercises. Each Pilates sequence has a breath pattern, and it is the conscious use of breath which helps the client bring the awareness of core volume to their work. A typical Pilates session may begin with a process of bringing awareness to the breath, as the client moves into the more strenuous exercises, the breath patterning is vigorously attended to.

The second session addresses issues of support and foot and leg alignment, as they relate to balance in the body above. All the foot and leg work on the Reformer, (in which the client lies on her back on a moving carriage, feet supported on a bar, flexing and extending the ankle, knee and hip joints), reinforce these goals. The client is encouraged to find appropriate abdominal and back support for the neutral spine, and is additionally guided to balance use of the inner and outer muscular lines of the legs.

One more example of a specific goal of a Rolfing session being supported by a movement in Pilates….If the third session can be said to be about balancing the front and back of the body by working the “lateral line,” we can look for exercises that require the client to concentrate on support front to back – the Pelvic Bridge for example. In this move, which can be done either on the mat, the Reformer, or in modifications on the Trapeze table, the client is lying on his or her back, knees bent, heels pointing at the ischial tuberosities. The client reaches the knees over the feet, shifting the pelvis forward, and allowing the hips to come off the floor. Attention is given to the balance of support between the hamstrings, back extensors and the low abdominals. Care is given to back alignment, no hyperextension is allowed. The client then rolls through the spine, imprinting each vertebrae into the mat, until the spine returns to neutral. This is an elementary movement that supports sagittal pelvic shift in locomotion and width and openness in the back along the iliac crest.

There are far too many exercises to list … also, in the Pilates work, we always try to find-new ways to work on specific problems. The work is always, (or should be), dictated by the structure one is working with. While there is a rich vocabulary of exercises, the variety of sequences means there are no cookie-cutter workouts here. Certainly, there are exercises that bear repetition every time one works out, this consistency has the potential to train the body in a very refined way.


The one element of Pilates that is all important is that it works. I see people who are in a lot of pain, with seriously compromised structures, begin, in a very short time, to find relief and confidence. This is of particular importance for those individuals who have been subjected to inappropriate regimens of physical therapy. While there are many wonderful therapists working in many modalities, often I hear clients say that their P.T. did nothing, or worse, hurt them. There is a subsequent loss of ground in the healing process, and an undermining of the patients belief in the change process. Here is a Method which stresses balance above all, and because of the infinite variety of exercises and modifications, one can begin this work at any level of fitness or degree of injury. The main benefits include a balancing of Intrinsic/Extrinsic and Mobility/ Stability, heightened body awareness, increased range of motion, and ease of movement. Rolfing is a wonderful method for opening the potential of a persons body, Pilates can then move the individual into a place of strength and confidence.

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