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Joseph Pilates: the man behind the movement

Perhaps you are regularly practising Pilates, maybe you’ve tried it once or maybe you just have a vague idea that it’s ‘a bit like yoga’. Whatever your knowledge or experience of Pilates, people are often surprised to find out that it all started with one man…

Joseph Pilates at 57 and 82
Joseph Pilates at 57 and 82 years of age

The history of Pilates takes us back to Germany in the 1900s, before the start of WW1. As a young lad, Joseph Pilates suffered from bad posture and other ailments such as asthma, which didn’t really fit with his childhood obsession to be as strong and agile as the ancient Greeks.

So like any childhood genius would, he set about studying his anatomy and physiology to devise a series of exercises that he could perform daily to improve his health and wellbeing.

By the age of 14 he had made such dramatic changes to his body that he was actually used as a model for the drawing of anatomical charts, whilst his sporting prowess had him winning competitions as a gymnast and a boxer.

Joseph Pilates rehabilitation machinesWhilst demonstrating self-defense techniques on the Isle of Man, the war broke out. Held as a prisoner of war there, he worked within the prison hospitals applying his method, which he called ‘Contrology’, to keep moral high and rehabilitate the soldiers. It was here that he utilized the hospital beds and springs to form his first apparatus; the ones that look a little like Victorian torture devices.

Joseph Pilates rehabilitating dancer
Photo by I.C Rapoport

At the end of the war, Pilates moved across to America and opened his first studio in New York. Now, this is where the myth comes in that Pilates was invented for dancers. Dancer, George Balanchine was a client of Joe’s and he would send many dancers there to improve their strength or to rehabilitate. Martha Graham, another dancer did the same. The fact is that Pilates put his studio there to be close to the boxing matches nearby, but despite his initial ideas, the dancers sent by George and Martha became his main clients and also brought a high level of athleticism and finesse to the method, which still forms the basis of many Pilates teaching styles today.

Known to be quite a character with quite an ego, it was the high levels of the dancers that pushed Joe Pilates to keep progressing his own techniques to always be one step ahead of his clients. I even have photos in my studio of the man performing some pretty advanced exercises faultlessly at the spritely age of 80!

You also hear of a few stories related to his character. Like the time that one of his ex-students, Bob Seed, decided to open a Pilates studio around the corner and attract more clients by opening an hour earlier than Jo’s place.

To remedy this, Jo visited his ex-student with his gun tucked neatly into his pants and suggested that if he valued his life, he’d close his studio… I guess that’s one way to deal with the competition!

Joseph Pilates sadly died before his exercise method caught on around the world but he would no doubt be amazed at how huge the Pilates phenomena has become today.

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About the instructor: Jamie Isaac

Jamie IsaacJamie enjoys many aspects of the fitness and exercise profession, but his passion is Pilates (closely followed by surfing!) Jamie is currently teaching workshops all over the world, including weeks in Bali, the USA, England and Fuerteventura. A former international trampolinist and a graduate in Physical Education and Sports Sciences, Jamie practices and teaches Pilates as more than just a set of physical exercises. By incorporating body and mind he finds the classic Pilates method benefits all aspects of life. Jamie enjoys passing on his knowledge of Pilates, helping others to relax and progress, and teaching in specialist areas such as injury rehabilitation, specialist referral and coaching other sports professionals and enthusiasts. Jamie is the founder of Azul Yoga & Pilates Retreat and Fluid Art Pilates.