Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Joseph Pilates – an innovator of his time

Pilates has its origins in a treatment for injured First World War veterans and is now enthusiastically supported by the likes of Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow. When the first Pilates studio opened in London in the 1970s there were only a handful of students many of them dancers.  Now from Gateshead to Cheam thousands of students of all sizes, shapes and ability attend Pilates classes.

Joseph Pilates was born in 1883 in Dusseldorf, Germany. His father was a prize-winning gymnast of Greek ancestry and his mother worked as a naturopath. As a child Pilates suffered from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever. Even as a child he struggled to overcome these ailments and develop his health and fitness as much as he could by exercise. He learned as many physical techniques as possible and became an able gymnast, diver, and bodybuilder. Later when he moved to England in 1912, he earned a living as a professional boxer and circus performer. He also trained members of the British police at Scotland Yard.
In spite of the work he was doing when the First World War broke out the British authorities interned him along with other German citizens on the Isle of Man. During this time he could have let his body and mind get weaker however even in these difficult conditions he began to develop his comprehensive system of physical exercise, which he called "Contrology." He worked in the internment camp infirmary and helped many war veterans with horrendous injuries including amputations. Although he had no equipment his inventiveness - born of necessity - inspired him to use what was available, like bed springs and beer keg rings, to create resistance exercise equipment for the patients. He studied yoga and the movements of animals and trained his fellow inmates in fitness and exercises.
 After the war he returned to Germany and collaborated with important experts in dance and physical exercise such as Rudolph Laban. In Hamburg, he also trained police officers in self-defence.
In 1926 Joseph Pilates emigrated to the United States. On the ship to America, he met his future wife Clara. The couple founded a studio in New York and directly taught and supervised their students well into the 1960s. Joseph and Clara Pilates soon established a devout following in the local dance and the performing-arts community of New York. Well-known choreographers and dancers such as George Balanchine and Martha Graham regularly sent their students to the Pilates studio for training and rehabilitation.
In the 1970’s Alan Herdman brought Pilates from New York to London and it had its early beginnings in London’s dance community. Now Pilates exercise and training is well known and widespread. You can find a class or get individual training in most areas and many people extol its virtues.
But how far has it strayed from its beginnings and have its benefits for health been forgotten in the search for the outward trappings of the body beautiful?  

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

How hot is hot?

Some experts think that we like chillies because they’re good for us and we are following some biological imperative - not because we are indulging in a type of culinary sado-masochism. Some claim that hot peppers can help lower blood pressure and that they destroy some bacteria. All are agreed that chillies increase the production of saliva which may help if you also eat bland food like corn or rice.
So how hot is hot?  The Scoville scale is used to measure the spicy heat of a chili pepper. The number of Scoville heat units (SHU) gives the amount of capsaicin present. Capsaicin is a chemical compound that stimulates or irritates the nerve endings in the skin, especially the mucous membranes. Although the presence of capsaicin can now be measured by a chemical test the Scoville scale - developed in 1912 – initially relied on the perception of individuals taking part in the tests. This was done by getting them to taste different mixtures containing varieties of chilli pepper combined with a neutral-tasting food.

On the standard Scoville heat scale capsicums (in America known as Bell peppers) register nil, the hottest Indian jolokia peppers register around 1,000,000.  Orange habaneros - the name comes from Havana, Cuba and they are also called scotch bonnets because of their shape - range from 100,000 to 350,000.  Jalapenos (originating in Mexico) can be mild or hot anywhere from 5,000 to 50,000.  

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Chilli – the hot and not so cool spice

‘The top of my head was coming off. My eyes were streaming, my nose was running and I could barely see the plate in front of me.  My tongue went numb and I tried to catch my breath but all the air had gone. I grabbed the glass of water to quench the fire in my mouth. ‘

This is one man‘s description of eating ‘the hottest curry of them all’ -  the thall which according to one recipe contains at least 12 fresh or dried chillies and 3 teaspoons of hot chilli powder.  Most of us have heard of vindaloo but restaurateurs have also created ‘bindaloo’ (hotter) and ‘tindaloo’ (even hotter).  The Rapali in Newcastle has created ‘Curry Hell’ and this has lured chefs and TV stars to their table and to their special test of determination – or is it madness? The Rupali’s staff say Curry Hell makes vindaloo taste like ice cream and Gordon Ramsey says it is the hottest curry he has ever tasted.  If you manage to finish the dish your picture is included in their hall of fame along with Chris Evans and Adrian Chiles. 
So why on earth do we do it? According to Professor Paul Bloom this is what distinguishes man from other animals. Bloom is Professor of Psychology at Yale and in his book ‘How pleasure works’ he takes a look at why we like what we like.  This includes seeking out potentially dangerous experiences like sky diving or by deliberately giving ourselves pain and getting pleasure from it.
 “Philosophers have often looked for the defining feature of humans — language, rationality, culture and so on. I’d stick with this: Man is the only animal that likes Tabasco sauce.”
Is this what makes us human? More about our contrary nature later......