When I tell people what I do, the most common response is “What is Pilates?” or “Is that the same as yoga?”
I sometimes get over enthusiastic telling the amazing history, benefits and intricate details of the Pilates method, but it’s hard not to…it’s fascinating! This is a brief history of Pilates, my favourite quotes and exactly why I swear by it!
The Godfather of the method, Joseph Pilates, was German born and was far from healthy as a kid. He suffered from asthma, rickets, and rheumatic fever just to name a few! He grew sick and tired of this and decided to dedicate his entire life to becoming physically fit. He was an all or nothing man, studying body building, gymnastics, diving and skiing. By the time he reached 14, he was so unbelievably fit and strong he was posing for anatomy charts!
He was an intriguing man, moving to England at the age of 22 to make some coin as a professional boxer, circus performer and self defence trainer in the British Police Force.
When WW I erupted, he was interned on the Isle of Man in a prison camp for German citizens labeled as “enemy aliens”. It was during this time that history was made and he developed his system of exercises, which he originally called “Contrology”.
Working as an orderly on a hospital ward, he designed the equipment that we still use to this day such as the Cadillac. He did this by modifying the hospital beds, attaching bed springs for patients to use for strength and resistance. He is credited with keeping his patients physically fit, healthy, strong and immune to diseases sweeping the nation. To this day, the Cadillac is still designed to look somewhat like a hospital bed!
After the war, word quickly spread of his amazing exercises and he was highly sought after. He returned to Germany to continue training the Hamburg Police Force and the German Army. Famous athletes were lining up to train with Pilates, including the heavy weight boxer Max Schmelling, who convinced Joe to emigrate to the USA by financing the very first Pilates studio on 8th Avenue in New York City. During his journey to the USA, he met a young nurse named Clara, who would later become Mrs. Pilates and a major influence on the Pilates method.
By the early 1930s, whispers spread through the entire country of Joe’s expertise and his training studio was a celebrity hot spot. Athletes, dancers and even famous performers such as Vivien Leigh and Katherine Hepburn could not get enough of Contrology. It became an intrinsic part of the dancers training and rehabilitation, a MUST for any serious ballerina!
Joe continued to teach until the age of 87, when it is said he succumbed to injuries he sustained after a fire burned down his studio and he attempted to salvage what he could. Clara continued teaching for a few more years, and passed away in 1976. Some of Pilates first generation instructors that he mentored himself are still alive and teaching the method as he did to this very day.
He looked incredible and was in peak physical condition right up until the day he died. Some of these photos demonstrate just how effective Contrology, or Pilates as we now know it, was in creating optimal health and fitness.
Below is a photo of Joe aged 57 on the left and aged 82 on the right…incredible!
Here is a photo of Joe demonstrating an exercise on the reformer machine:
I love this photo of Joe teaching a matwork class!
And here are some photos of Joe working with his clients in the studio (photos by Chuck Rapport):
Joseph Pilates wrote two books: “Your Health” in 1934, and “Return to Life Through Contrology” in 1945. These are the only written records published describing the essence of his Method. Here are some of my absolute favourite quotes from “Return to Life Through Contrology” which I have read at least a dozen times!
• This is the equivalent of an “internal shower”. As the spring freshness born of the heavy rains and vast masses of melting snows on mountains in the hinterlands cause rivers to swell and rush turbulently onward to the sea, so too will your blood flow with renewed vigor as the direct result of your faithfully performing the Contrology exercises.
• Contrology develops the body uniformly, corrects wrong postures, restores physical vitality, invigorates the mind, and elevates the spirit.
• Contrology is not a fatiguing system of dull, boring, abhorred exercises repeated daily “ad-nausem”.
• The art of contrology proves that the only real guide to your true age lies not in years or how you THINK you feel but as you ACTUALLY are as infallibly indicated by the degree of natural and normal flexibility enjoyed by your spine throughout life.
• A few well-designed movements, properly performed in a balanced sequence, are worth hours of doing sloppy calisthenics or forced contortion.
• Contrology is not a system of haphazard exercises designed to produce only bulging muscles. … Nor does Contrology err either by over-developed a few muscles at the expense of all others with resulting loss of grace and suppleness, or a a sacrifice of the heart or lungs. Rather, it was conceived to limber and stretch muscles and ligaments so that your body will be as supple as that of a cat and not muscular like that of the body of a brewery-truck horse, or the muscle-bound body of the professional weight lifter you so much admire at the circus.
• Moreover, such a body freed from nervous tension and over-fatigue is the ideal shelter provided by nature for housing a well-balanced mind that is always fully capable of successfully meeting all of the complex problems of modern living.
• Physical fitness is the first requisite of happiness. Our interpretation of physical fitness is the attainment and maintenance of a uniformly developed body with a sound mind fully capable of naturally, easily, and satisfactorily performing our many and varied daily tasks with spontaneous zest and pleasure.
• Contrology is complete coordination of body, mind, and spirit. Through Contrology you first purposefully acquire complete control of your own body and then through proper repetition of its exercises you gradually and progressively acquire that natural rhythm and coordination associated with all your subconscious act.
• True flexibility can be achieved only when all muscles are uniformly developed.
• If your spine is inflexibly stiff at 30, you are old. If it is completely flexible at 60, you are young.