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History of Pilates

Updated: Dec 16, 2020

by Paiton Gleeson

Today, December 9th, 2020, marks the 137th birthday of Joseph Pilates, the man behind our favorite fitness method! Joseph Pilates grew up in Germany, learning various fitness methods such as gymnastics, body building, jiu-jitsu, and boxing. In his early adult life, he studied and practiced as many body and mind exercise forms as he could, scientifically recording the results of each.

Then, when World War I hit, the British interned Pilates along with other German nationals. While interned, he took the opportunity to begin developing his own techniques of fitness using minimal equipment and mat flow exercises. He worked with other inmates, and eventually aided with the rehabilitation of injured veterans while working as a nurse. Interestingly, because many of these these veterans could not stand up, Pilates experimented with their rehabilitation by attaching springs, straps and other tools to their bedposts to allow them to condition while remaining in bed. This experimentation led to his invention of the first reformers and cadillacs, and this is why they are bed-shaped and horizontal. While he originally coined his method “Controlology”, this was actually the beginnings what we now call Pilates. It is unbelievable to realize that this modern and hip type of exercise all began in an internment camp all thanks to one genius!

After the war, Pilates immigrated to the United States his wife, where he set up his first studio in New York City. Here, he and his wife continued to develop their method, which quickly caught on with prominent dancers of the time. These dancers, including Ruth St. Denis, Jerome Robbins, George Balanchine, Martha Graham, and Ted Shawn, found that Pilates’s method was the best method to rehabilitate from and prevent injury. What differentiated Pilates’s method was his focus on mental conditioning as well as physical conditioning. As Pilates said himself, “Through the Pilates Method of Body Conditioning, this unique trinity of a balanced body, mind, and spirit can ever be attained, Self-confidence follows”.

Another unique feature of Pilates’ Controlology method was his native German language. As English was not his first language, Pilates relied on “sculpting” his students and teaching with gesture rather than with words. Some pilates studios today continue a similar practice of hands-on teaching. Ultimately, Pilates method focused on breath and whole-body health, which included mind, body, and spirit.

So, next time you are at your pilates class, we hope you appreciate the origins of Pilates, I know we all do!


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