Pilates may be one of today’s hottest workout trends, but this method has a long history dating back to the birth of Joseph H. Pilates in Germany in 1883.
Joseph Pilates wasn’t born athletic. As a child, he suffered from rheumatism and asthma, among other illnesses. Determined to overcome his physical weaknesses, Pilates committed himself to exercises like yoga, boxing, and bodybuilding along with eastern practices like yoga. Thanks to his disciplined approach to He became so fit that he modeled for anatomical charts when he was still just a teenager. Pilates also worked as a self-defense instructor and circus performer after moving to England in 1912.
As a German national, Pilates found himself forcibly placed in an internment camp after the outbreak of World War One. During his time in the camp, Pilates began to develop and perfect a unique series of full-body exercises which could be performed with no equipment. He drew inspiration from a multitude of sources–martial arts, gymnastics and even the stretching movements of animals he observed while in camp.
Joseph Pilates soon took an interest in using the principles behind his exercises to rehabilitate injured and sick detainees recover. To enable bedridden patients to exercise, he used the springs of disassembled bunk beds to create a makeshift resistance machine. Later, Pilates would fine-tune this apparatus and call it the Reformer. When the influenza epidemic of 1918 swept through Europe, many detainees in Pilates’ internment camp fell ill and died. Many who survived were patients of Joseph Pilates and credited their practice of his exercises with their more robust health.
After the war, Joseph Pilates met his wife Clara, a German nurse, on a boat to New York. The couple settled in Manhattan and opened a studio to teach others about the exercise method Pilates now called “contrology.” Pilates soon attracted a following of dancers, who used the mind-body principles and low-impact movements for injury recovery and prevention. Unlike weight lifting, “Contrology” helped improve flexibility as well as strength and gave practitioners long, lean muscles rather than compact, tight ones. George Balanchine and Martha Graham were among two influential dancers, dance teachers and choreographers devoted to Pilates’ methods. Today, students of their respective schools and companies still practice Pilates as part of their dance training.
As Pilates’ methods gained more popularity in New York, especially after the publication of his book Return to Life through Contrology in 1945 his students began to open contrology studios of their own across the country. Pilates continued teaching and practicing his method until his death in 1967. Following Pilates’ death, Romana Kyrzanowska, a dancer and Pilates student from the 1940’s until Pilates’ death, carried on her mentor’s legacy by continuing to teach in his studio and officially renaming the method “Pilates.”
Robert Fletcher, a dancer with Martha Graham’s company, was among the first instructors to bring the Pilates method to the west coast with the opening of his studio in Beverly Hills in 1975. Pilates became popular with actors and movie stars and began to gain mainstream popularity in the 1980s. Soon, Pilates studios were filled with not only dancers, athletes and performers, but businessmen, housewives, and other everyday people looking to improve their health and wellness.
Today, fitness enthusiasts can choose between many incarnations of Pilates, from the original 34 mat exercises of “classical Pilates” to classes using equipment like the Reformer, resistance bands and exercise balls. Some gyms and studios even offer hybrid classes combining Pilates with other exercises like yoga and boxing. Whatever type of Pilates practice you choose, you owe the foundations of your workout to Joseph Pilates and his innovative methods.