Pilates History

I learned… every part of the body; I would move each part as I memorized it. As a child, I would lie in the woods for hours, hiding and watching the animals move, how the mother taught the young.

Joseph H. Pilates

Joseph Pilates

The early years

Joseph H. Pilates was born 9 December 1883 in Mönchengladbach, Germany. His father, Heinrich Friedrich Pilates, was a metal worker and enthusiastic gymnast, and his mother was a housewife.

Pilates was a sickly child. He suffered from asthma, rickets, and rheumatic fever, and he dedicated his entire life to improving his physical strength. He was introduced by his father to gymnastics and body-building, and to martial arts like jiu-jitsu and boxing.

By the age of 14, he was fit enough to pose for anatomical charts. Pilates came to believe that the “modern” life-style, bad posture, and inefficient breathing lay at the roots of poor health. He ultimately devised a series of exercises and training techniques, and engineered all the equipment, specifications, and tuning required to teach his methods properly.

Becoming the Teacher

The Method of Contrology

Pilates was originally a gymnast and bodybuilder, but when he moved to England in 1912, he earned a living as a professional boxer, a circus-performer, and a self-defense trainer at police schools and Scotland Yard.

During World War I the British authorities interned him, along with other German citizens, in Lancaster Castle, where he taught wrestling and self defence, boasting that his students would emerge stronger than they were before their internment. It was there that he began refining and teaching his minimal equipment system of mat exercises that later became “Contrology”.

He was then transferred to another internment camp at Knockaloe on the Isle of Man. During that involuntary break, he began to intensively develop his concept of an integrated, comprehensive system of physical exercise, which he himself called “Contrology”. Some of the early use of Pilates’s exercise methods included rehabilitation of seriously injured veterans. He studied yoga and the movements of animals and trained his fellow inmates in fitness and exercises.

After the War, on the ship to America, he met his future wife Clara. The couple founded a studio in New York City and directly taught and supervised their students well into the 1960s. “Contrology”, related to encouraging the use of the mind to control muscles, focusing attention on core postural muscles that help keep the body balanced and provide support for the spine.

The later years

Joseph’s Pilates protege

One of the ballerinas was Romana Kryzanowska, who become Pilate’s protege. Kryzanowska started Pilates at the age of 16 following an ankle injury.

Pilates said of her, “she’s a natural”. Kryzanowska was named a helperand started teaching Pilates alongside Pilates and his wife.

Towards the end of his life, Pilates named Kryzanowska as the director of The Pilates Studio. Kryzanowska and her daughter continued to operate Pilates’ original studio.

Joseph Pilates wrote several books, including Return to Life through Contrology and Your Health, and he was also a prolific inventor, with over 26 patents cited.

Joe and Clara had a number of disciples who continued to teach variations of his method or, in some cases, focused exclusively on preserving the method and the instructor-training techniques they had learnedduring their studies with Joe and Clara.

In 1967, Joseph Pilates died in New York of advanced emphysema, aged 83.

You can say what Pilates is in three words. Stretch with Strength and Control. And the control part is the most important because that makes you use your mind.

Romana Kryzanowska

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