About Pilates – A History in Briefs

Pilates is the general term for a system of controlling breathing and movement which was created by Joseph Pilates.

Joseph H. Pilates was born in 1880 in Germany. He suffered from asthma, rickets, and rheumatic fever as a child. Because of his childhood experiences of ill-health, and his family background in athletics and natural health he dedicated his entire life to improving his physical strength. He drew his inspiration from a wide range of sports and activities, including, yoga, zen, and gymnastics. Pilates came to believe that many of the health problems now associated with modern living were caused by bad posture and inefficient breathing.

He moved to England in 1912 and worked as a professional boxer, circus-performer, and self-defense trainer at police schools and Scotland Yard. During World War I he was interned along with other German citizens in a camp on the Isle of Man. It was at this point that he developed a method of physical exercise and breathing which he called “Contrology”, which he taught to his fellow inmates. It was later maintained that these inmates survived the great flu pandemic of 1918 due to their good physical shape.

After the end of the First World War, he returned to Germany and collaborated with experts in dance and physical exercise such as Rudolf Laban.

Around 1925 Pilates moved to the United States, meeting his wife, Clara on his passage across. He and his wife developed a more codified exercise system related to encouraging the use of the mind to control muscles. It focuses attention on core postural muscles that help keep the human body balanced and provide support for the spine. In particular, Pilates exercises teach awareness of breath and of alignment of the spine, and strengthen the deep torso and abdominal muscles.

Please don’t try any of this at home!

Joseph and Clara Pilates soon established a devout following in the local dance and performing arts community of New York. Well-known dancers such as George Balanchine and Martha Graham became devotees and regularly sent their students to the Pilates for training and rehabilitation.

Pilates gained a reputation as a larger than life character, he smoked cigars, liked to party, and wore his exercise briefs wherever he wanted (even on the streets of New York). He died in 1967 at the age of 87 in New York.