The name Pilates actually belongs to the man behind the Pilates Method of exercise. Of Greek heritage he was born Joseph Hubertus Pilates on December 9th, 1883 near Dusseldorf Germany in a small town named Mönchengladbach.
He was sick as a child and suffered from asthma, rheumatic fever, and rickets. This must have been the driving force for Pilates to develop his method of exercise he called “Contrology”. He integrated disciplines of yoga, martial arts, bodybuilding, gymnastics, and recreational sports. He was influenced by Buddhism and the Greek philosophy of developing body, mind and spirit. During his journey, he studied anatomy and practiced bodybuilding, boxing, diving, skiing, wrestling and was a circus performer and self-defense instructor. He studied the movement of animals, and the play of children. Many of his exercises are named after animals.
As a young man he moved to England, and during World War I was interned as a German “enemy alien”. While incarcerated he encouraged other detainees to practice his fitness program. He began working with those that were injured or suffering from disease. This is where he invented some of the apparatus we know today as the reformer and magic circle. He used bed springs and rings from beer kegs to create resistance and plumbing pipes to create apparatus like the Cadillac. His talent and ability to rehabilitate patients was recognized and he was sent to the Isle of Man to work with the war wounded as a nurse orderly. He used his apparatus to assist in strengthening their muscles.
After the war, he returned to Germany working as a physical trainer and healer. He taught physical training and self-defense for the Hamburg Military Police, but left in 1925 when asked to teach in the German Army. On the ship to America he met his future wife, Clara. She was a nurse and they soon learned they shared a common goal to help people return to and maintain good health.
“In Ten Sessions you will feel the difference, in twenty you will see the difference, and in thirty you will have a whole new body.”
Upon arriving in New York City they established their studio. The Pilates era of 1926-1967 included refinement and further development of Pilates apparatus, training of students who became teachers of his method and working with clients primarily from the dance and theater community. Prizefighters, actors, actresses, and traveling circus performers also embraced his method both for the total body conditioning needed for the rigors of their work and also for rehabilitating the injuries that often plagued their profession.
Joseph Pilates died in 1967 after succumbing to smoke inhalation during a fire, in the restaurant below his 8th Avenue studio in New York City. He maintained a fit physique throughout his life, even though he smoked cigars, and enjoyed a drink. This white-maned lion of a man wore his exercise briefs even walking on the streets of New York. It is said that he was an intimidating, though deeply committed, instructor. He may not have known your name, but he knew your body. Clara Pilates continued to teach and run the studio for another 10 years after Joseph Pilates death.
In the 1980’s some Hollywood celebrities became acquainted with the Pilates Method, and Pilates exploded into the mainstream in the 1990’s. Athletes from many sports: golf, football, basketball and tennis practice Pilates regularly. Pilates has now become a household word. Many of the Pilates Principles are incorporated in what is known as core exercise in many styles of fitness. Pilates has become the core of exercise for the marathon of life. Anyone, any age or any condition can practice Pilates.
“People won’t understand the brilliance of my work for 50 years.” This is what Joseph Pilates said over 50 years ago. He was a man ahead of his time and his work today continues classically as well as enhanced with contemporary apparatus design and exercise science. Joseph Pilates would be very proud.
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