As Pilates Nerds, Instructors and enthusiasts, it is vital to understand the history of Pilates and how the original exercise system was developed. In appreciating Joseph Pilates’ principles, and by continually exploring his work, a teacher can truly pass on the full beauty of Pilates to their clients.
Joseph Pilates believed completely in his method and practiced what he prescribed to others well into his eighties. Even as an older man he was quite robust and vital. Joseph was born in 1880 near Dusseldorf Germany, to a prize-winning gymnast father and a mother who subscribed to natural forms of healing.
As a child, Joseph suffered from several health ailments including asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever. In an effort to restore his own health, he studied anatomy books and reinforced what he learned by observing animals in the woods. Joseph studied Eastern disciplines, like yoga and martial arts, and blended them with more Western forms of physical activities, such as bodybuilding, gymnastics, boxing and recreational sports. By the age of fourteen he had sculpted his physique to such an extent that he was posing for anatomical charts.
As a young man, Joseph boxed and taught self-defense. In 1912 he moved to England where he continued these pursuits at Police schools and the Scotland Yard. When Britain entered World War I, his German citizenship led to his imprisonment alongside other German nationals as “enemy aliens”.
Despite the unfortunate circumstances, this was a fundamental time in the development of his method. During his imprisonment Joseph taught his exercises to fellow compatriots. He also developed the first concepts for his innovative machines by disassembling the camp bunk beds and using the springs as a form of resistance to rehabilitate the injured and bed-ridden. After the war, Joseph immigrated to New York, and on the boat met Clara, a nurse. The two married and founded a studio that taught his developing method, “Contrology”.
Joseph and Clara taught their method of using the mind to control the muscles to a devout following in New York. Local dancers came regularly to alleviate injuries and improve their strength while maintaining flexibility. George Balanchine and Martha Graham became devotees to Joseph Pilates’ method and often sent their dance students to “Uncle Joe”, as some called him affectionately.
Breathing, proper posture and the correction of various physical ailments were the focus at Joseph’s studio and in his two books; “Your Health” published in 1934 and “Return to Life Through Contrology” published in 1945.
The “Elders”, as the first instructors of his method are commonly called today, travelled all over the world after studying with Joseph. They carried with them different experiences and interpretations of Joseph Pilates’ method (as Joseph did not always teach the same exercise in the same manner each time; taking into account different bodies). The Elders continued passing on his work throughout the years, now widely known as the “Pilates Method”.