The History of the Pilates Method

It is the fastest growing fitness trend of the decade and people are raving about its benefits but few people know that the Pilates method is the brainchild and the life's work of Joseph Hubertus Pilates.  A health visionary, fitness pioneer, author, inventor,and self-proclaimed hedonist, Joseph Pilates was a man ahead of his time that cared passionately about people's mental, physical and spiritual health.

JosephPilates was born in München-Glebach, Germany in 1880.  As a child he suffered from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever, which inspired him on a lifelong quest for greater health and fitness.  He taught himself human anatomy using a discarded anatomy book and studied natural movement by hiding in nearby forest stand watching animals in the wild learn to move.  His commitment to improving his health paid off; by the time he was 14 he was modeling for anatomy charts and eventually taught himself to become an all around athlete, excelling at skiing, gymnastics, diving, and boxing.

In 1912, Joseph moved to England.  The reports of why he went are varied.  In one account he went to train as a boxer and in another he went as a part of a German circus troupe, performing a Greek statue act.  When the First World War broke out in 1914, Joe was interned as an enemy alien, first in a camp in Lancaster and then later on the Isle of Man.  He shared his passion for health with his fellow internees, training them in wrestling and self-defense.  His training was so powerful that he is credited with having saved the internees from the devastating influenza epidemic of 1918, which killed millions of people worldwide. During his captivity Joe also worked with the camp's bedridden patients.  He fashioned exercise equipment out of pulleys, bed-springs and straps so that they could exercise while still in bed.  He reasoned correctly that it would speed their rehabilitation if the patients didn't wait until they were able bodied before exercising.  These machines were the forerunners to the Pilates equipment Joe would later use in his studio.

After the war Joe returned to Germany where he continued working on his method.  He worked with Rudolf von Laban and Mary Wigman, both choreographers and important movement innovators.  He trained the Hamburg Military Police in self-defense and was asked to train the new German army.   However, in 1926 he decided to leave Germany and move to New York City.  On the boat trip to America he met his future wife Clara, a nurse and kindergarten teacher for whom he created a series of exercises to cure her arthritis pain.  The pair set up a studio at 939 Eighth Avenue in NYC where they taught 'Contrology', the art of 'gaining the mastery of your mind over the complete control of your body'.

The building that their studio was in was also home to a number of dance studios. It was this proximity that forever married Pilates to the dance community. Choreographers such as Martha Graham, George Balanchine, Ted Shawn and Jerome Robbins became fans of Joe's work, sending their dancers to Joe when they needed rehabilitation and strengthening.  In the summers between 1939 and 1951Joe and Clara taught at Jacob's Pillow, a well-known dance camp in the Berkshire Mountains.  There was wide spread rumor that in those years every dancer in New York City went to 'Uncle Joe' for training.

In 1945 Joe published his treaties on health and wellness, Return to Life.  In it he expounds on the perils of modern city living which deplete the body of vitality and health.  Joe urged readers to combat these modern stresses through physical fitness, 'the first requisite of happiness' which would also bring mental and spiritual health.  It is fascinating to contemplate how Joe's perspective is even more relevant today in our age of blackberries, computers and multitasking than it was when he authored his book in the forties.
Joe continued to develop his method and teach at his studio well into his 80's.  He enjoyed the great vitality and vigor his method gave him right up to his last days, proud that he had 'never taken an aspirin, never had a sick day in (his) life'. In 1966, the Eighth Avenue building suffered a fire. Later, as Joe was inspecting the damage the weakened floorboards underneath him gave way. Even though he was 86 he was able to catch a wood beam and pull himself out of harm's way.  However, it is believed that he suffered smoke inhalation, which led to his eventual death a year later, at the age of 87.

While Joe was the outspoken force behind his method, his wife Clara Pilates, a trained nurse, quietly incorporated his concepts and exercises in ways that benefited more seriously ill or injured clients.  Her approachable style and special techniques spawned a dedicated lineage of teachers whose work flows through and uniquely colors the landscape of the Pilates method today.  It is perhaps because of Clara that Pilates is clearly recognized as a positive form of movement-based exercise that truly can be tailored to any level of not just fitness, but also of health.  Clara, an extremely gifted teacher who was said to be able to 'look right through you', continued to teach at the Pilates studio, as it was becoming to be known, until 1971 when she passed the running of the studio and the Pilates legacy to their long time student, teacher and friend Romana Kryzanowska.  Clara passed away in 1977.

Luckily for the world, some of the students Joe Pilates trained over his long and dedicated career carried on his message and his work, becoming teachers themselves.  These five first generation master teachers, Romana Kryzanowska, Kathy Grant, Carola Trier, Eve Gentry and Ron Fletcher, have given much to ensure that Joseph Pilates' legacy not only lives on, but also thrives. Because each studied with 'Uncle Joe' at different times during his career, each impart a different perspective on the Pilates Method and have brought rise to the different schools of Pilates that exist today.  All of these Pilates Elders were dancers who came to Joe Pilates to rehabilitate an injury that would have ended their careers and in return have given back to the Pilates community immensely.

(Reprinted from the Pilates Association of Canada)
Richard Lautsch is a certified Pilates instructor
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