HFE Pilates instructor leading a class of students
HFE Pilates instructor leading a class of students
HFE Pilates instructor leading a class of students

Origins and History of Pilates

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As a form of exercise, Pilates is used by millions the world over for those looking to improve flexibility, balance and enhance core strength. In the UK alone, it’s estimated that over 900,000 people a week take part in Pilates classes.

If you’re a Pilates enthusiast or just starting your own journey to become a Pilates instructor, you may be unaware of the rich and interesting history of Pilates.

This article delves into the incredible personal journey that the eponymous Joseph Pilates undertook and how his own experiences shaped both his attitudes to exercise and rehabilitation and his methods.

Who was Joseph Pilates?

Joseph Hubertus Pilates was born on 9th December 1883 in Mönchengladbach, a city in western Germany. As a child, he suffered from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever. Doctors told his parents he would die prematurely, but Joseph was so determined to return his body to peak physical condition that he began to study yoga, martial arts, boxing and bodybuilding.

When Pilates moved to England in 1912, he worked as a professional boxer and taught self-defence to police officers in Scotland Yard. It is also reported that he and his brother worked as circus performers for a German circus troupe, providing a public display of their impressive physicality as a pair of ‘live human Greek statues’.

The First World War

When World War One broke out in 1914, Pilates was interned at Camp Knockaloe on the Isle of Man as an ‘enemy alien’. Alongside other foreign nations, including German, Austrian and Turkish, Pilates was effectively a prisoner for the duration of the war, even though he hadn’t actually done anything wrong.

While interned, Joseph continued to hone his methods while he worked as a hospital orderly in the camp, helping the sick and injured to recover. Pilates worked tirelessly to ensure that all the internees performed daily exercise, both for their mental and physical strength. It is his sheer determination in this regard that inspired the design of his first piece of gymnastic apparatus, the reformer.

Pilates was so insistent that his comrades should perform daily exercise that even those who were bed-bound, were given an exercise regime to follow. Pilates took springs from beds and hooked them up to the frames and headboards, effectively creating a bed-based multigym that his patients could perform resisted movements from to develop their strength.

During the War, food was rationed and so good nutrition, for the time, was incredibly sparse. Consequently, many people were severely malnourished and the risk of infection and disease was heightened. The influenza pandemic of 1918-1920, dubbed Spanish flu, claimed three times as many lives as the war itself. Most internment camps were harshly affected by the outbreak of the Spanish flu and many of the internees died. However, it is widely reported that Pilates taught his Contrology exercises to over 8,000 internees during his incarceration and quite remarkably not a single one of them died from influenza.

Perfecting his methods post-war

After the War, Pilates returned to Germany for a few years where he worked with pioneers of dance movement techniques like Rudolph Laban, who is considered one of the founding fathers of modern dance in Europe. On the crossing, Pilates met Clara Zeuner and she later became his wife (his third actually).

Joe and Clara settled in New York where they opened the first body Contrology studio on 8th Avenue, sharing the premises with the New York City Ballet. It was in this studio that Pilates really refined his work and expanded his skills, focusing on a restorative form of exercise that attracted many people from the world of performing arts, including high-profile dancers like Martha Graham, George Balanchine, Hanya Holm and Jerome Robbins to name a few. It’s also reported that he worked with Ruth St. Denis, a true pioneer who is considered by many to be the ‘first lady of American dance’.

Pilates trained a number of apprentices in his New York studio and these apprentices subsequently went on to open their own studios. One of Pilates’ apprentices, Bob Seed, who was a former professional hockey player, set-up a studio directly competing with Pilates and sought to poach his customers by opening earlier in the morning. According to Joseph Pilates’ business manager, John Steel, Pilates visited Seed with a gun and ordered him to leave town. And he did!

Contrology and Pilates’ legacy

In 1945, Pilates published his most notable book, Return to Life Through Contrology. It was in this book that Pilates presented his principles for creating a healthy mind and body, and documented the 34 Contrology exercises that embody the classical method of Pilates as it is known today. This, alongside other notable work, is prominently featured in our list of essential books for Pilates instructors.

Pilates continued to work in his New York studio teaching and developing his Contrology exercises until he died in 1967 at the age of 83. Thereafter, his wife Clara kept the legacy of Joseph Pilates alive by continuing with his teaching until she died in 1977 aged 95.

According to the Pilates Elders, the teachers who were taught personally by Joseph Pilates (including Mary Bowen, Carola Trier and Bruce King), Clara played an instrumental role in developing the apprenticeship programme and nurturing the future generation of Pilates teachers. It is said that she was the driving force behind the evolution of the method, ensuring that it stays abreast of scientific developments and exploring new ways to adapt Pilates to meet the specific needs of individual students.

Pilates is now widely practised across the globe and it is said that there are now as many different variations of the method as there are people who practice it. There now numerous schools of Pilates, each teaching the philosophy and principles of the Pilates method slightly different from the next.

There are those schools that are more contemporary, which seek to use modern thinking to support the way in which they apply the method. Then there are those hard-liners, who remain true to the Joseph Pilates way of doing things, delivering in both letter and spirit a truly authentic Pilates experience.

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