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History of Pilates

Inventor and namesake of the Pilates method, Joseph Pilates, was born in Germany in 1880.  He was a small and sickly child who suffered from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever.  His father was a prize-winning gymnast and his mother a naturopath. A family physician gave him a discarded anatomy book and, as he put it, “I learned every page, every part of the body; I would move each part as I memorized it. As a child, I would lie in the woods for hours, hiding and watching the animals move, how the mother taught the young.” He studied both Eastern and Western forms of exercise including yoga, Zen, and ancient Greek and Roman physical regimens. By age 14, he had worked so hard, he had developed his body to the point that he was modeling for anatomy charts.

joepilatesHaving achieved some success as a boxer and a gymnast, in addition to being a skilled skier and diver, He moved to England for further training as a boxer. He found employment there as a circus performer. By 1914, he had become a star and toured England with his troupe.  In addition, he worked as a self-defense instructor for detectives at Scotland Yard. At the outbreak of World War I, Joe was interned as an “enemy alien” with other German nationals. During his internment, Joe refined his ideas and trained other internees in his system of exercise. He rigged springs to hospital beds, enabling bedridden patients to exercise against resistance, an innovation that led to his later equipment designs. An influenza epidemic struck England in 1918, killing thousands of people, but not a single one of Joe’s trainees died. This, he claimed, testified to the effectiveness of his system.

After the war, Joe returned to Germany and began training the Hamburg Military Police in self-defense and physical training as well as taking on personal clients.  His exercise method also gained favor in the dance community, primarily through Rudolf von Laban, who created the form of dance notation most widely used today. Hanya Holm adopted many of Joe’s exercises for her modern dance curriculum, and they are still part of the “Holm Technique.”  In 1925, he was invited to train the New German Army but because he was not happy with the political direction of Germany he decided to leave for New York City.

JOSEPH AND CLARA PILATESOn his passage over the Atlantic, he met his future wife, Clara. She was a kindergarten teacher who was suffering from arthritic pain and Joe worked with her on the boat to heal her.  Upon arriving in New York City in 1926, they opened a gym in the same building as several dance studios and rehearsal spaces. It was this proximity that made “Contrology” (What Pilates called his method) such an intrinsic part of many dancers’ training and rehab work and many were sent to Joe to be “fixed.” George Balanchine, the famous choreographer, studied with Joe and sent many of his dancers to Pilates for strengthening and “balancing” as well as rehabilitation, as did another famous dancer/choreographer, Martha Graham.

main_4The Pilates method of conditioning the body has grown and expanded since its humble beginnings in New York. It has grown to be a method for anyone with a body, having the ability to correct postural distortions, alieve chronic pain, and prepare a body for whatever it is asked.  Many students of Pilates opened their own studios and have spread the Pilates technique around the world.

An Animated History