The History of Pilates

“Physical fitness is the first requisite of happiness. In order to achieve happiness, it is imperative to gain mastery of your body. If at the age of 30 you are stiff and out of shape, you are old. If at 60 you are supple and strong then you are young.”

Joseph Pilates

Joseph Pilates was born near in Germany in 1880. He was reported to be a frail child and suffered from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever. However, he overcame these ailments with great determination and went on to be a competent gymnast like his father, also a diver and a skier.

In England 1912 Joseph Pilates worked as a circus performer, a boxer and a self-defense instructor with the police and Scotland Yard. During the First World War, in a concentration camp, he developed his technique of physical fitness further, by teaching his fellow internees. Pilates began to intensively develop his concept of an integrated, comprehensive system of physical exercise, which he himself called “Contrology.” He studied yoga and the movements of animals and trained his fellow inmates in fitness and exercises. It is told that these inmates survived the great pandemic of 1918 due to their good physical shape. Later, he served as an orderly in a hospital on the Isle of Man where he worked with patients unable to walk. He attached bed springs to the hospital beds to help support the patients’ limbs, leading to the development of his famous piece of equipment known as the ‘Cadillac’. Much of his equipment, although slightly adapted, is still used in many Pilates Studios today.

After the war, Pilates collaborated with important experts in dance and physical exercise such as Rudolf Laban. In Hamburg, he also trained police officers. When he was pressured to train members of the German army, he left his native country, disappointed with its political and social conditions, and emigrated to the United States in early 1920’s.

In 1926 he opened a ‘body-conditioning studio’ with his wife Clara in New York. The studio featured most of the apparatus designed to enhance his rehabilitation work. It was becoming popular, particularly with the dance community, offering dancers a chance to improve technique or recover from injury. Word spread quickly and many celebrities of the day visited his studio. These included dance legends such as Ruth St. Denis, Ted Shawn, Jerome Robbins, George Balanchine and Martha Graham, as well as the actor Jose Ferrer and the author Christopher Isherwood.

Pilates wrote several books and was also a prolific inventor with 26 patents. In 1932 he published a booklet called ‘Your Health’ and followed this with another called ‘Return to Life Through Contrology’ in 1945. Through these writings and his students, his method was passed on after his death in 1967 at the age of 87. His method of exercise was called Contrology. It was only after his death that it became known as Pilates or the Pilates method.