The history of pilates.

Joseph Pilates was an extraordinary man ahead of his time. He was born in 1880 near Dusseldorf in Germany. A very sickly child, he suffered from asthma, rickets, and rheumatic fever and was regarded as prone to tuberculosis. This early experience with illness motivated Joseph to study bodybuilding to such an extent that by the age of fourteen he was posing as a model for anatomical drawings. He went on to become an expert at many different sports, including diving, skiing, gymnastics, and boxing, and even became a circus performer. In 1912 he went to England to become a professional boxer and taught self-defence to detectives at Scotland Yard. When World War I broke out he and other German nationals were interned as enemy aliens for a year in Lancaster, England. While in the camp Joseph decide to use the time to develop his ideas on health and fitness on his fellow prisoners. His series of exercises combined physical fitness with breath control and mental acuity. So successful was his program that none of his subjects succumbed to the deadly influenza epidemic of 1918 that swept England, killing thousands of people. While working in a hospital on the Isle of Man, he devised machines to allow patients to exercise while in bed thus the creation of the machine we now call the Cadillac. After the war he returned to Germany and began training the Hamburg city police. At the same time he worked with many of the pioneers of movement technique, especially with Rudolf von Laban (creator of the most widely used system of dance notation).

n 1925 he was invited to train the new German army. Declining, he left Germany and immigrated to the United States in 1926. On the boat he met Clara who became his wife, and a lifelong collaborator. They settled in New York City, opening up a studio on 8th Avenue at Jacobs Pillow. Pilates method took off with dancers who found his method helped them recover from injuries and prevent new ones. Stars like Ruth St. Denis, George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins became converts to the method. By 1940 Joseph’s method had become widely accepted in the dance world as one of the best ways to develop a “perfect body”. Dance Magazine February 1956 issue reported that, “At some time or another, virtually every dancer in New York, and certainly everyone who has studied at Jacobs Pillow between 1939-1951, has meekly submitted to the spirited instruction of Joseph Pilates.”

The mainstream public was slow to pick up this form of exercise. Joseph was focused so fully on developing new ideas and ways to help people correct their postural problems that he did not focus on marketing his method. The outburst of interest really has just begun now, partially due to movie and music stars excited about the great results the method has had in shaping their bodies. As well there is a renewed interest in exercise that is more mind-body-spirit focused as people experience more and more stress in their daily lives.

Joseph Pilates died in 1967 leaving his wife Clara in charge of the studio. Many of Joseph’s students went on to open their own studios around the United States.

His study of Yoga, Greek and Roman vigorous exercises, meditation, animal movements, and many other forms of movement combined to become a philosophy of exercise that leads to amazing results. He spoke a lot about how important it was for the mind and body to work together to create efficient movement that minimizes the stress and strain on the musculoskeletal system.

As mentioned earlier one of his earliest pieces of equipment was the Cadillac in which springs were used for resistance. Continuing his use of springs as resistance Pilates designed the machine he called the “Universal Reformer”, a sliding, horizontal bed, with straps that can be used with up to four springs, according to the exercise and the strength of the individual. Joseph, fuelled by the needs of his clients, created other inventions including the Wunder Chair and the Spine Corrector.

The Pilates method requires informed use of Pilates fitness equipment. Each piece of equipment offers a unique experience of movement that will help the client to develop a uniform body and correct structural problems.

Basma Musmar