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The History of Pilates

Joseph Pilates, Founder of Pilates

Childhood brought Joseph Pilates the experience that shaped his masterpiece method of exercise, the experience of unhealthiness. Born near Dusseldorf, Germany in 1880, Joseph Pilates suffered from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever as a child. The troubles of being a weak, defenseless boy in a rough world, inspired Pilates on his lifelong pursuit for health and strength.


Pilates engaged in diverse movement arts studies as a youth, including yoga, martial arts, ancient Grecian and Roman regimens, and boxing, all in with the singular determination to become healthy. Either from his diverse studies, from that heightened sensitivity between body and mind of the invalid, or from a combination of these, Pilates constantly developed mind and body together, focusing on their relationship in his combination of more spiritual with more physical arts. Joe's recollections of studying an anatomy book as a child, of observing the movements of his own muscles, and of watching animals move in the forest indicate that the intuition that created the method already operated in his mind.


By age fourteen, Pilates had achieved the goal of his youth, boasting now a body exemplary of perfect fitness, which he modeled for German medical anatomy charts.


Pilates continued diverse work as a physical trainer and athlete in Germany, in boxing, gymnastics, skiing, and diving. Between 1912 and 1914, Pilates traveled to England an unspecified type of athletic work there. One account claims Pilates went to England as a boxer, another that he went as a circus performer.

The History of Pilates

England, The War, and Afterwards

At the onset of World War I, authorities interned Pilates in a camp for "enemy aliens" in Lancaster, because of his German nationality. However, even exiled wartime conditions couldn't quell the master, who trained fellow prisoners, and began to develop his original method of exercise, which he would call Contrology.


Sometime during his internment, Pilates got transferred to another alien camp, this time on the Isle of Man, working in some ambiguous capacity with fellow inmates, many of whom had suffered from diseases or serious wartime injuries. During his time there, Joe began to construct the first apparatus to rehabilitate these injured prisoners.


He initially constructed these apparatuses for maimed men; but later he created apparatuses, like the Reformer and Cadillac, utilizing spring resistance to open movement in all bodies. He constructed the first machines with bedsprings, mattresses, and other materials available to him in an English prison camp; but later he created apparatuses with universal use for all through Contrology, from the same simple materials.


In 1918, an influenza epidemic spread worldwide. Accounts vouch that not a single person in Pilates' camp was infected. Furthermore, the very warden of Pilates wartime home in England, made the Method mandatory for all in the camp, prisoners, guards, and the warden himself.


After his release from wartime internment, Pilates returned to his native land, and engaged in training the Hamburg Military Police in the movement arts of his expertise, and also began to work one-on-one with clients, just as instructors now do in Pilates studios worldwide.


His diverse work brought Pilates some renown, to the point that, in 1925, he was invited to engage as the trainer of the German army. However, Pilates decided to leave Germany again, unable to compromise his unfavorable opinion about the country's current political direction.

The History of Pilates

Immigration to New York, The First Studio, and The Beginning of Renown

Pilates left Germany, and settled in New York City, upon the recommendations of some colleagues in the world of athletics.


Whilst aboard the steamer that brought him to America, Pilates met the intelligent, charming Clara, a Yankee nurse who then suffered symptoms of arthritis. They developed an acquaintance when Joe offered to cure her arthritis through his method. Pilates shared with Clara his dreams of opening a studio devoted to his developing method of exercise, they fell in love, and contemplated the potential of Pilates' work.


When Pilates arrived in New York, he continued to develop his method of exercise. Clara and Joseph Pilates were married, and opened the world's first Pilates studio, in New York City of the 1920s.


For decades, Pilates dedicated the strength of his life to training others in his method, developing exercises, routines, and apparatus, and expressing his ideas in writing. He always considered himself the test of the validity of his method of exercise, and continued to have young, vibrant strength, even into his eighties.


He trained various teachers, thereby beginning the tradition of Pilates exercise, and the tradition of arguing about the right, or "traditional" way to execute the movements of the method. He also rehabilitated and trained famous dancers and companies, some of whom had studios in the same building as Joe's studio. His work with these dancers, as much as anything else he did, created the culture of Pilates exercise, which has lived on in the conditioning workouts of premier companies to this day. Some have claimed that the flowing, controlled character of the exercises composing Contrology resemble a dance, and famous choreographer George Balanchine was so enamored of the Pilates method's movements that he incorporated them into his "Seven Deadly Sins."

The History of Pilates

The New York Fire, and Afterwards

Pilates dedicated his life and great, humanitarian intellect to his method, even to the extent of sacrificing his life to save his meticulous documentation from burning in a fire, which started by some mishap in January 1966. At the time, Pilates was thriving still with youthful vitality, in his mid- to late eighties. Without consideration of his age or the outcome, Pilates dashed into the studio to salvage what he could of his documentation, scores of photographs, and apparatuses. Much of the studio's contents suffered ruin, and Pilates sacrificed his vibrancy, poisoning and burning his lungs with smoke and fire. One anecdote runs, that Pilates clasped the studio rafters as the floor collapsed beneath him, and he hung there for two hours, with his indomitable physical power.


In 1967, at age 87, Pilates' powerful body died from lung injuries sustained during the blaze, leaving the world the cherished remains of the creations of his mind: his method, apparatus, writings, and the teachers he'd trained, some of whom still live and work today.

The History of Pilates

Pilates Today

The tragic fire in Pilates' New York studio, and his even more tragic death thereafter, left his students to complete the daunting task of universalizing the method. As Pilates has spread worldwide, it has obtained a cosmopolitan diversity of styles.


As each of Pilates' students began to attract followers who'd never worked with or met the late Joseph Pilates, they found themselves in positions of authority, to define the correct or traditional method for completing the exercises, and to articulate the ideas of Contrology in their own way.


Ironically, as these teachers insisted on doing Pilates their own way, they perpetuated a key important aspect of Joe's style: to working uniquely, because each body is unique. Recently, a court decision was made, that Pilates is a name for a general type of exercise, a conflict that had arisen an attempt was made to copyright Pilates' name, method, and numerous other pieces of documentation the master had left behind without indicating a successor. However, even throughout this conflict, studios and instructors who disagreed with the attempted copyright continued to develop and spread worldwide.


Pilates studios have continued to form an overall community with diverse perspectives and methods, but in spite of their disagreements, these studios have continued the spread of Pilates. Hand in hand with the increase of media attention, Pilates studios have spread from city to city, blossoming in response for the increased demand for Joe's method of exercise. Pilates undoubtedly continues to grow in popularity because of its effectiveness. As science has continued to increase our understanding of the body and kinesiology, Pilates has gained legitimacy because of its medical consistency. Also, people all over continue to rave about the long, lean muscles, and youthful vibrancy they gain through Pilates' method of exercise.

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