History of Pilates

When Britain joined the First World War, he was taken prisoner as an “enemy alien” in an internment camp on the Isle of Man. These difficult circumstances nevertheless enabled him to lay the foundations of the Pilates method as it is known today.

Joseph Humbertus Pilates, the inventor of the Pilates method, was born on December 9, 1883 in Mönchengladbach near Düsseldorf. Joseph Pilates was a fragile child, suffering from rickets, asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. To regain his health, he began studying anatomy and observing animals in the woods. “Take a horse,” he once said while discussing fitness, “if someone wants to race him, he trains him to be in the best shape possible. Why not keep humans in the best possible shape too?”

He soon realized that mental and physical health were linked, and studied disciplines that were at the time very exotic, such as yoga and various martial arts. He integrates these practices with Western bodily activities such as gymnastics and boxing, also incorporating ancient Greek and Roman forms of physical exercise. He is convinced that a “modern” lifestyle (poor posture, incorrect breathing, exercises that ignore the postural muscles…) is a determining factor in poor health.

As a young man, already a diver and gymnast, Joseph moved to England in 1912, where he boxed professionally and taught self-defense at police academies and Scotland Yard.

Joseph Hubertus Pilates

When Britain joined the First World War, he was taken prisoner as an “enemy alien” in an internment camp on the Isle of Man. These difficult circumstances nevertheless enabled him to lay the foundations of the Pilates method as it is known today. In this internment camp, he observed animals stretching and used his observations in his training. He teaches the exercises he designs to his fellow internees. It was also here that he developed the concept of his ‘machines’, realizing the efficiency he could achieve with untrained people, compared to mat work. So he dismantles a bunk bed, attaches the box springs to it, and starts using the device for rehabilitation purposes.

The effectiveness of his “holistic” approach to health care became evident during the influenza pandemic that swept the world in 1918. A “real” killer flu, it decimates entire populations, with malnourished people, such as those in internment camps, particularly affected. Despite this, everyone who follows Joseph Pilates’ method survives, and he explains this by a direct cause-and-effect relationship.

Once released, he returned to Germany and continued training police officers in Hamburg, as well as working with dance experts. In 1926 he left the country and emigrated to the United States. It was during the boat trip that he met his future wife, a nurse named Clara. They married and founded their Pilates studio in New York, where they taught their fitness method, which they called ‘Contrology’.

Many fervent followers follow this then revolutionary method, which emphasizes breathing in exercise, and a harmony between the mental and physical in the approach to practice. Dancers in New York dance companies are embracing Pilates, as it enables them to accelerate rehabilitation of the various injuries inherent in their work, and to strengthen themselves while maintaining their flexibility.

Martha Graham, who arrived in New York in 1923, and George Balanchine, who emigrated to the U.S. in 1933, were both Pilates enthusiasts and regularly sent their students to “Uncle Joe’s” studio.

Unable to transport his equipment, Joseph Pilates also teaches his method on mats during the summer to young dancers in Massachusetts. Her hour-long classes always begin with breath-work, a fundamental element of Pilates and an essential tool sometimes mistaken for an end in itself.

Breathing, correct posture, an emphasis on the harmonious redevelopment of postural muscles, movements performed without haste but with perfect precision are the specific features of his method, which he explains in detail in his two books, ‘Your Health: A Corrective System of Exercising that Revolutionizes the Entire Field of Physical Education’, published in 1934, and ‘Return to Life Through Contrology’, published in 1945.

Pilates then began to be taught all over the world by “elders”, as Joseph Pilates’ first students would be called. Their teaching varies according to their approach, personal experience and understanding of the method, and this will produce different styles of Pilates. Inevitably, there’ll be a lot of bickering, which often has more to do with marketing politics than with Pilates itself.

In 1938, Eve Gentry began studying with Joseph and Clara, and taught with them until 1968, when she opened a dance school and Pilates institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Carola Trier, a dancer who escaped from a Nazi concentration camp in France and emigrated to the United States, became a contortionist. In 1940, an injury prevented her from performing and she subsequently approached Joseph Pilates. In the late 1950s, she opened her own Contrology studio in New York, with the agreement of the creator of the Pilates method himself.

Ron Fletcher, one of Martha Graham’s company dancers, began Pilates in the 1940s to overcome a chronic knee injury. In 1971, he opened a studio in Beverly Hills, California, which soon became very popular with movie stars.

In 1941, Romana Kryzanowska, also a dancer, injured her ankle and, on the advice of George Balanchine, studied and rehabilitated with Joseph Pilates. Three years later, she left for Peru with her family and returned to New York in 1959. She then returned to study with Joe until his death in 1967, and continued to teach at the studio then known as the ‘Pilates’ studio on Eighth Avenue with Clara Pilates. When Joseph’s widow decides to retire, she appoints Romana studio manager.

Joseph Humbertus Pilates died in 1967 in New York at the age of 83, after dedicating his life to the health and well-being of others, and teaching with his wife Clara in their studio for over 40 years. Clara joined him ten years later, in 1977.

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