The story of Joseph Hubertus Pilates

You could be forgiven for thinking Pilates was a new form of exercise. A fashionable fitness trend that came about somewhere in the nineties, around the time of step aerobics, colourful lycra and headbands. With celebrity aficionados like Madonna and Gwyneth jumping on the bandwagon and quickly off again as the fad hits the masses.

You’d be just as surprised as I was then, when I looked up the history of Pilates. German born Joseph Pilates developed the concept while interned in a camp on the Isle of Man during World War I well before anyone had ever heard of Jane Fonda or yoga had taken foothold in the Western world.

But let’s start at the beginning. It was Joseph’s gymnast father who changed the family’s Greek surname Pilatu to the, perhaps more German sounding, Pilates. His mother worked as a naturopath and may have influenced his belief that our society’s modern lifestyle was the root for poor health. Sickly as a child, Joseph dedicated his early life to gaining physical strength through various pursuits, from yoga over bodybuilding to gymnastics. Moving to England in 1912, he became a professional boxer, circus performer and self defense trainer at police schools and for Scotland Yard.

If it hadn’t been for his internment during WWI, who knows if Pilates would have ever been developed? It was during his time on the Isle of Man that Joseph began intensively pursuing his concept of a series of exercises that focussed on breathing, good posture and special training techniques. His inmates were the first to train the concept of “Contrology”.

It involved very precise movements, an emphasis on control and keeping your form to strengthen, stretch and stabilise key muscles.

Joseph used whatever means he had available to devise props for his exercises. Working as an orderly, he attached bed springs to hospital beds and placed barrel rings between patients legs and arms for resistance training. The equipment you train with at every Pilates studio, still harks back to Joseph’s work during the war.

When his wife Clara and him moved to New York after the war, they opened up a studio close to the New York City Ballet in 1926 and soon became popular with its dancers – similar to ballet, Pilates helps create long lean muscles and a strong, streamlined physique.

Joseph took students during this early time who would go on to spread Pilates – with their own interpretations of it – and his book Return to Life Through Contrology also helped spread the message but it wasn’t until the 1990s – the time when even older techniques such as yoga and tai chi entered the mainstream that Pilates took a real foothold.

Now, Pilates has become an exercise regime that can take many forms – just like yoga or aerobics. Depending on the teacher and school of thought, it can suit a variety of needs and has lost its rehab or elite athlete or dancer programme status. As website Pilates Insight puts it, Joseph Pilates always claimed he was ahead of his time, and his legacy lives on beyond his wildest expectations.

I’ll leave you with a nice quote from Joseph (not quite succinct but very relevant): “Physical fitness is the first requisite of happiness. Our interpretation of physical fitness is the attainment and maintenance of a uniformly developed body with a sound mind fully capable of naturally, easily, and satisfactorily performing our many and varied daily tasks with spontaneous zest and pleasure.”

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