As a Pilates teacher I say a lot of odd things in an attempt to reach my students. For the arm position in Swan Dive on the Reformer: “hold a laundry basket full of fluffy, warm clothes!” In Long Stretch: “You’re a battering ram, knocking down the castle doors.” For Double Leg Stretch: “Banana! Now meatball!”  Words are metaphors and have different impacts upon different communities, so it takes searching to reach the right words for the right people. After all, as Pilates Elder Kathy Grant once opined,”why would I use downtown words to reach an uptown person?”
So it was in this spirit that I opined a few years ago that there was such a thing as yoga in outer space, but no Pilates. And in the intervening years I’ve realized this to be not only true (okay not literally true… unless without my knowledge they’re rocking Adho Mukha Svānāsana on the International Space Station which would be crazy cool), but also pointing directly at the heart of what Pilates is and does best.
Perhaps Contrology is simply the practice of learning how to move in harmony with gravity.
(DON’T) STOP PULLING ME DOWN
We’re going to live our whole lives on a planet defined by a gravitational pull towards the earth’s core. That’s a massive, constant force acting on our bodies, our joints, ligaments, organs, muscles, and bones from the time we’re little babies figuring out how to interact with the world to the days our deteriorating bodies strive to stick around for a few days longer. As much as breath is our first and last action on earth, gravity is our constant grounding and context. The good news is that this gravitational compression is one of the major ways our bodies learn and develop: compression creates a response to lengthen and decompress from the muscles, while the weight builds bone density and neuromuscular equilibrium. And that’s not all! Thanks to evolution, we’re pre-programmed with amazing reflex actions that give us a leg up on this gravitational battle. Reflexes such as the Tonic Labyrinthine Reflex bring our heads up above our spines to lessen the load below and begin to buff up bone density and muscle tone. Reaching and pulling reflexes like the Protective Extension Equilibrium Response and Flexor Withdrawl Reflex help us not to crash and burn while we figure out how to crawl and eventually walk with the powerful force of gravity acting upon us.  We’re inherently stocked with a formidable quarrel of these reflexes, and they’re all in relationship to gravity.
Yet even we’ve this cheat sheet of reflexes and positive benefits from gravity, few humans benefit from an early, practical education in how to move on this gravitational planet. We get by through trial and error, questionable advice from our elders, and by accomplishing tasks through the shortest and easiest paths possible. This means that by the time we’ve reached adulthood we’ve accumulated a bizarre patchwork toolkit for functioning in gravity. It also means that we’re ill-equipped to handle many situations we haven’t previously experienced – accruing damage, uncertainty, and injury when we can’t handle the new task. Without education in how to build a productive relationship with gravity we just get pulled down.
JUST BECAUSE THEY LOOK ALIKE…
I flirt with danger when talking contrarily about yoga in this space (pun totally intended); as someone who has had an off-again, on-again relationship with Hatha, Ashtanga, and Kundalini yoga over the past twenty years I don’t have an expert’s perspective on this magnificently holistic practice. I certainly mean no disrespect. But I feel safe in opining that Asana practice is not defined by gravity: it’s much more defined by relationships within the body and the bodymind.
Take one of many possible examples, Navasana, or “boat pose.”  It’s a deep, V-shaped position somewhat resembling an upside-down downward facing dog. It requires balance, abdominal strength, and an open back and hamstrings. But – theoretically – it could be executed fully without the forces of gravity acting upon it. It would surely feel different, and the challenge of holding the torso and legs up would be lessened, but that’s about it. In contrast consider the Pilates Teaser – which on the outside looks quite similar to Navasana. Yet it moves dynamically, never stopping. It requires a forceful counterweighting when rolling up from the mat against gravity, keeping the toes at the level of the eyes throughout. Every moment of a teaser implicitly asks and re-asks the question: “how do I deal with this my relationship to gravity? How do my legs? My head? How does all of me figure out how to rise instead of fall?”
In this light there’s no Rolling Back, Short Spine Massage, Pull-Up, Push Up, mat work, Chair work, or much of anything else left in Pilates without the forces of gravity. Even when – like Navasana vs. Teaser – the outer shape of an exercise could be mimicked without gravity, the inner “two-way stretch” – the tensegrity of the exercise – would be lost, turning it into a false semblance of Contrology. 
Obviously yoga is practiced in gravity so relationships to it are certainly present – but the practice isn’t focused or defined by these mechanics. Instead yoga applies consciousness, breath, and flow to move between precisely engineered poses meant to reflect the entire range of muscular stretch while aligning safely through the joints, bringing the mind and the holistic lifestyle along for the ride.  In essence, a solid Urdhvamukha Shvanasana (“Up-Dog” Asana) could be done lying supine, standing against a wall, leaning back over the edge of a table, or even as a chin-stand; the stretch and asana don’t inherently change with the relationship to gravity.
WHAT DID PILATES HAVE AGAINST ASTRONAUTS?
Pilates’ unique genius allowed us to hack the habitual relationship we have to gravity by creating a large repertoire of exercises done lying down, and then adding or subtracting spring tension to dial the forces up or down. Can’t stand up under the full load of gravity? Well then feel the soft mat under the spine and figure out proper alignment. Can’t handle a squat? Aha! Here’s some leg springs that give you a lesser challenge to practice those body-weight squats. Compressive forces creating dangerous spinal situations? Here’s a Roll-Back Bar to articulate and decompress the spine without the responsibility of holding it up on your own. The thing about gravity – and the Pilates springs – is: they inherently do not change; you do. In that relationship gravity/springs will always have the same tension and power – but you can grow, change, lengthen, and learn by interacting with them.
Many Contrology neophytes think – logically but incorrectly – that adding spring tension adds difficulty. But springs simply add or subtract from the forces of gravity on the body. Four heavy springs while performing Footwork on the Reformer isn’t terribly different from doing a squat, but try doing it on a single spring (or no springs, if you’re particularly masochistic): it’s both difficult in an entirely new constellation of muscles, but also shifts the forces to recruit new skills and perceptions. By adeptly acting with and against our various spring tensions in Pilates we learn new conscious and unconscious skills that help us fully engage with the rest of our lives lived in gravity.
A good Contrology practice makes us masters of gravity.
1. Thanks for Karina Sahlin – a fabulous teacher I used to work alongside – for inspiring that one.
2. I was fortunate to learn a lot about the reflex actions back in Graduate School studying Body Mind Centering under Erika Berland. It predated my exposure to Pilates but affects my perspective on the Method daily. For more info about BMC and the reflexes, check out: http://www.bodymindcentering.com
3. Sometimes spelled Naukasasa; Sanskrit and English aren’t always friends. Honestly, I don’t see how it resembles a boat.
4. “Tensegrity, tensional integrity or floating compression, is a structural principle based on the use of isolated components in compression inside a net of continuous tension, in such a way that the compressed members… do not touch each other and the prestressed tensioned members… delineate the system spatially.” (Wikipedia)
5. And if yoga is practiced as it was initially intended before hitting the West, it’s so much more than Asana practice. Pranayama, Mantra, Santosha, Dharma, and other aspects are intended to interrelate in a full yoga practice. Somewhere in its journey to the West many of these practices were occluded, if not abandoned altogether.