A Brief History of Pilates

Joe-doing-1001One of the things that I absolutely love about Pilates (other than how amazing it is as a form of movement) is the history behind it. Compared to Yoga, which is 5000 years old or something, Pilates is relatively new to the health and wellness world. It’s very easy to trace back it’s origins to the man it is now named after, Joseph Pilates.

Joseph Pilates was from Germany, and as a child he was in very poor health, suffering from asthma and rheumatoid fever. In the earlier 20th Century he devised his physical fitness system, originally called “Contrology”, which was inspired by gymnastics, martial arts, calisthenics, yoga and ancient Greek workouts (all which he practiced personally). Even at a young age, he worked as hard as he could to improve his health.

joes_roll_upb1dcfbDuring World War 1, Pilates was living in England and interned in a prison camp as a “enemy alien”. During his imprisonment he used his system of exercises to train his fellow Germans in an effort to rehabilitate them from injuries, as well as to keep their health vital and their bodies strong. It’s interesting to mention that during this time there was an outbreak of influenza. Thousands of people died from this epidemic. But, not one of Pilates trainees died. A great compliment to his system of mind, body and spirit health.

Also at this time, Pilates created some of the original apparatus that is still used today such as the reformer. In order to help some of the prisoners that were confined to beds, Pilates detached a hospital bed and used the springs to give some resistance to the moves the prisoners performed. It’s even been said that Joseph Pilates ripped the metal ring off of a beer brewing barrel to create what we know now as the Magic Circle. Even today, much of the apparatus we use was originally created by Joseph Pilates.


Eventually, in the mid 1920s Joseph Pilates moved to the USA, and settled down into an area of New York City. At first his fitness studio was a place where Pilates used his method to train boxers. As the studio was located near lots of dance studios and companies, eventually some of the dancers came to Pilates with injuries that needed rehabilitation. This is how it later became known to some as “the dancer’s workout”.

It’s always been funny to me that so little men do Pilates; thinking it’s “just stretching” or “something dancer’s do”, when originally the system of exercises was used to train soldiers and boxers! I love that currently we are starting to see more men coming to the practice, including many professional athletes.

Pilates wrote two books on his methodology, “Pilates Return to Life Through Contrology” and “Your Health”. Today, a new generation of teachers carry on his legacy by teaching the system to people from all walks of life throughout the world. As more and more people come to learn about the Pilates method, it continues to grow in popularity. Pilates is now practiced in studios, gyms, community centers, and homes across the globe.

Some interesting facts about Pilates:

  • “Control” is one of the Pilates principles. The exercises are not meant to be done in a fast paced manner, but rather to move the body with control. No wonder it was originally called “Contrology”
  • Pilates has been proven to be effective in relieving symptoms of fibromylagia, and osteoarthritis
  • A recent study from The Appalachian State University shows that Pilates improves your quality of sleep
  • Joseph Pilates used to be a circus performer before being detained in an English prison
  • A study on the effects of Pilates on low back pain showed that practicing Pilates actually decreases pain and discomfort in those with back pain. By strengthening the core and focusing on lumbar stabilization we can ease the discomfort of back pain

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