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The history of Pilates

Pilates is a physical fitness system developed in the early 20th century in Germany by a man called Joseph Pilates. He was born in Dusseldorf, Germany in 1883 and was a physical-culturist. He developed a system of exercises during the first half of the 20th century which were intended to strengthen the human mind and body as he believed that mental and physical health are inter-related. Pilates called his method “Contrology” because he believed his method uses the mind to control the muscles. The program focuses on the core postural muscles which help keep the body balanced and which are essential to providing support for the spine. In particular, Pilates exercises teach awareness of breath and alignment of the spine, and aim to strengthen the deep torso muscles.

He had been a sickly child suffering with asthma, rickets, and rheumatic fever, so had practiced many of the physical training regimes which were available in Germany in his youth. It was out of this context that he developed his own work. The method was originally confined to the few and normally practiced in a specialized studio, but with time this has changed and Pilates can now be found in community centers, gyms and physiotherapy rooms everywhere. Even as a young adolescent he made a life-altering decision that he would restore his own health. He studied the Eastern disciplines of yoga and martial arts and blended them with Western forms of physical activities such as bodybuilding, gymnastics, boxing, and recreational sports. At the young age of just fourteen years he had sculpted his physique so well that he was posing for anatomical charts.

As a young man he moved from Germany to England where he became a boxer, circus performer, and self-defense instructor. When World War One erupted he, and other German nationals, were incarcerated in Lancaster as “enemy aliens.” Pilates influenced the other detainees to follow his exercise regime – “Contrology.”  His fitness program was so beneficial that he and his fellow compatriots survived the 1918 influenza epidemic that took the lives of thousands of people.  He attributed their survival to their physically fit lungs, hence the Pilates Principle of Diaphragmatic Breathing!

Pilates was later sent to the Isle of Man to work as a nurse orderly caring for the war wounded. One can imagine the condition of many of these soldiers; some had probably grown weak from lingering in hospital beds for months, their muscles atrophied, further inhibiting their potential for recovery.  Unable to participate in Pilates’ floor exercises, these men benefited by Joseph’s cleverly designed apparatus to rehabilitate them right from their hospital beds and wheelchairs.  Looking at the Cadillac one can see the table as the hospital bed; plumbing pipes create the canopy and borrowed bedsprings become first assistive and then resistive exercise tools.  Despite whatever injuries the wounded may have had, Pilates was able to strengthen their muscles and restore them to their potential good health.

After the war Joseph returned to Germany but became disenfranchised with the political direction his country was taking.  He decided to immigrate to the United States of America where he met his future wife, Clara, on the ship.  Clara was a nurse and they realized that they shared the same interest of wanting to restore the good health of others.  When they arrived in New York they decided to open up a physical fitness studio.

Joseph Pilates’ method of physical and mental wellness has been a best-kept secret of the dance and entertainment world since the 1920’s when his studio was discovered by Martha Graham, the mother of modern dance, George Balanchine, the artistic director for the New York City Ballet, and Rudolf von Laban, founder of Labanotation.  Dancers such as Hanya Holm and Romana Kryzanowska, along with prizefighters, actors, actresses, and traveling circus performers embraced his methods both for the total body conditioning needed for the rigors of their work and also for rehabilitating the injuries that often plague dancers, performers, and athletes.

Romana Kryzanowska entered Pilates’ world as a young dancer in New York.  Pilates regarded her as his disciple; she had absorbed and could express the essence of his work as if it were coming from him.  She continues his legacy today in New York and has generously shared her knowledge with the world through her students, books, videos, and lectures.  Dance companies all over the world use Pilates’ exercises to keep their dancers in top form and many dancers go on to become Hollywood celebrities; Patrick Swayze and Madonna to name only two. Due to the attention the mainstream public gives to Hollywood celebrities, the name Pilates is now a household word. If Madonna does it, it must work!

“People won’t understand the brilliance of my work for 50 years.”  That is a quote from Joseph, himself, about 50 years ago and Mary LeRiche, Joseph Pilates niece says that her uncle would be quite happy and surprised at just how much impact his work is having on the world.  Today, healthcare professionals are studying and implementing his work into their healing therapies.  Medical doctors are writing prescriptions for their patients: ‘Pilates’, and his clever exercise apparatus designs are virtually the exact designs used by today’s equipment manufacturers.  How many of the exercise machines found in today’s traditional gym setting can accommodate hundreds of exercises on one single piece the size of a twin bed?  The Wunda Chair doubled as a small living room side chair that when flipped upon its back becomes a gymnasium with two bedsprings and Pilates felt that every home should have one.

Joseph Humbertus Pilates lived to be a robust and vital 87 year old icon.  Had he not succumbed to the effects of smoke inhalation during a fire, in the restaurant below his studio on 8th Avenue in New York City, he potentially could have demonstrated an incredible level of physical fitness for many years to come.  Looking at photographs of Joseph Pilates, even well into his eighties, it may be hard to imagine that he did not always enjoy such vitality.

Joseph and his wife Clara operated their exercise studio for over 40 years.  He had dedicated his life’s work to restoring the health and vitality of others and gone now for 41 years, the essence of his work continues on into the 21st century!

What is Pilates?

The central aim of Pilates is to attempt to create a fusion of mind and body, so that without even engaging the mind, the body will move with economy, grace, and balance.  Correct postural alignment of the skeletal structure is crucial to the practice of Pilates, not only to get the best out of the exercise, but also to prevent injury.  Achieving optimal alignment starts with positioning the pelvis, ribcage, shoulder girdle, and head in a neutral alignment with respect to each other, and then utilizing all the stabilization muscles to maintain that alignment while performing the exercises.

Breathing is a major component of the Pilates method and Joseph Pilates believed in circulating the blood so that it could awaken all the cells in the body and carry away the wastes related to fatigue. “Squeeze out the lungs as you would wring a wet towel dry,”  and “Even if you follow no other instructions, learn to breathe correctly” are words that he is reported to have used quite frequently.

Joseph Pilates called the very large group of muscles in the center of the body encompassing the abdomen, lower back, hips, and buttocks – the “powerhouse” also known as the “core”.  All energy for Pilates exercises is said to begin from the powerhouse and flow outward to the limbs with full muscle control which results in no sloppy, uncontrolled movements.

Movement is expected to be kept continuous between exercises through the use of appropriate transitions. Once precision has been achieved, the exercises are intended to flow within and into each other which in turn builds strength and stamina.

Pilates is based around 7 principles:- Visualisation, concentration, control, centering, flowing movement, breathing and precision.