Founded in the 1920s by Joseph Pilates, the Pilates Method is a distinct system of exercises intended to bring the body to its height of fitness and function. Pilates is a complete, whole body practice and highlights movement from the core postural muscles, often referred to as “the center.”
Pilates can be practiced by anyone and was designed to be embraced by all. Exercises can be modified around injury or physical limitation. Literally anyone can do Pilates, and everyone should! It can be your primary source of strength training or complement an existing exercise routine. Faithful practice of the traditional method yields numerous benefits, including increased strength, coordination, balance and flexibility. As a modality of mindful movement,consistent Pilates practice can also permeate in other ways, promoting overall health, happiness and positive body awareness.
Around 1914, Joseph Pilates was a performer and a boxer living in England, and at the outbreak of WWI, was placed under forced internment along with other German nationals in Lancaster, England. There he taught fellow camp members the concepts and exercises developed over 20 years of self-study and apprenticeship in yoga, Zen, and ancient Greek and Roman physical regimens. It was at this time that he began devising the system of original exercises known today as “matwork”, or exercises done on the floor. He called this regimen “Contrology”, meaning ‘the science of control’. A few years later, he was transferred to another camp on the Isle of Man, where he became a nurse/caretaker to the many internees struck with wartime disease and physical injury. Here, he began devising equipment to rehabilitate his “patients,” taking springs from the beds and rigging them to create spring resistance and “movement” for the bedridden.
After WWI, Joseph Pilates briefly returned to Germany where his reputation as a physical trainer/healer preceded him. In Germany, he worked briefly for the Hamburg Military Police in self-defense and physical training. In 1925, he was asked to train the German army. Instead, he packed his bags and took a boat to New York City. On the boat to America, Joseph met Clara, a nurse, who would become his wife. He went on to establish his studio in New York and Clara worked with him as he evolved the Pilates method of exercise, invented the Pilates exercise equipment, and of course, trained students. Joseph Pilates taught in New York from 1926 to 1966. He passed away in 1967, at the age of 83. The obituary reads like an advertisement for Contrology: “a white-maned lion with steel blue eyes (one was glass from a boxing mishap), and mahagony skin, and as limber in his 80’s as a teenager”.
While Joe was the outspoken force behind his method, his wife Clara quietly incorporated his concepts and exercises in ways that benefited more seriously ill or injured clients. Her approachable style and special techniques spawned a dedicated lineage of teachers whose work flows through and uniquely colors the landscape of the Pilates method today. It is perhaps because of Clara that Pilates is clearly recognized as a positive form of movement-based exercise that truly can be tailored to any level of fitness.