The name "Pilates" originates with the name of its creator, Joseph Pilates. Born in Germany in 1880, Joe was a sickly child riddled with rickets (Vitamin D deficiency), asthma and rheumatic fever. His state of health severing as a catalyst, Pilates was determined to transcend his sickness, and over the course of many years he developed a system of movement which he coined "Contrology". This mind/body discipline was an amalgamation of eastern and western disciplines enhanced with both Greek and Roman philosophies of mental and physical perfection.
THE FIRST CHAPTER
At the onset of WW1, Pilates was residing in England and was interned with other Germans in a prisoner of war camp (POW). Within its confines he taught self defence and wrestling, inspiring and encouraging others to participate in physical activity on a regular basis. The very blueprints of the reformer were developed here - he in fact developed an organic lever by disconnecting the springs from their according hospital beds and in turn attaching them to the ceiling. Pilates had created a unique exercise system for the non-ambulatory hospital patients.
He was then moved off to the Isle of Man where he worked with sickly and bed ridden internees. It is said that when the flu epidemic descended upon the world, Pilates' devotees where left untouched. An amazing feat - if true - considering the war camps to be the most vulnerable at that time in history.
Pilates returned from whence he came and started a new chapter in his life working as a fitness trainer for the Hamburg Military Police. He also took interest in holistic medicine, breath work and meditation among other things. It was at this time that he made connections to the modern dance world where his work was highly respected and influential (and continues to be). Did you know that most Pilates instructors have dance backgrounds? I do!
THE SECOND CHAPTER - PILATES COMES TO NORTH AMERICA
Pilates makes his way to Manhattan in 1926 and to this day there is speculation regarding why he left. Some accounts say that the German government wanted Pilates to train the German army (yikes - no thanks), and others say he was invited to train a well known American boxer (Max Schmeling). On his trip to the U.S. he met Clara - the lady he would eventually marry and further develop his system with. Clara was a nurse by trade and she too became quite an influential figure among growing devotees.
By the 30's the two were operating their own Pilates studio in NYC (although it was not yet know as "Pilates"). Although the method was very popular among dancers, it touted a rich and diverse client base including movie stars, doctors, gymnasts, business men, and the NYC elite such as members of the Guggenheim family. Joe's reputation as a rehabilitative specialist was growing quickly.
At this time we are introduced to the key players who would be reponsible for continuing his legacy, some of whom remain with us today: They are known as the first generation teachers: Jerome Andrews, Mary Bowen, Nadja Cory, Robert Fitzgerald, Ron Fletcher, Eve Gentry, Kathleen Stanford Grant, Romana Kryzanowska, Bruce King, Lolita San Miguel, Bob Seed and Carola Trier. It is interesting to note that some of these individuals were dancers and would barter for Pilates sessions through working in the studio.
CHAPTER THREE - THE 30S & 40S
Joe continued to refine and promote his work. He frequently lectured, distributed exercise pamphlets, and even sold some of his first equipment at Macy's. He published "Return to Life" in 1945 - a quick and interesting read with colorful and dramatic claims:
"As the spring freshets born of heavy rains and vast masses of melting snow on mountains in the hinterlands cause rivers to swell and rush turbulently onward to sea, so too will your blood flow with renewed vigor as the direct result of your faithfully performing the Contrology exercises."
In this book he also emphasizes the importance of proper self care including a sufficient amount of sunlight and fresh air, a conservative diet, proper hygiene (scrubbing the entire body with a coarse brush) and of no surprise a solid dedication to the Contrology fitness regime at least four times a week!
Pilates also dealt with many rejections from both medical and educational institutions. Joe himself lacked the credentials required to be fully validated and respected by mainstream science. However, there were some individuals in medicine that openly acknowledged the genius of his work and frequently referred their patients to him for his keen insights on movement and physical rehabilitative health.
Over time certain institutions did in fact welcome his work including NYU and the High School of Performing Arts. Eventually the Pilates method disseminated to other U.S states and European countries by means of the first generation teachers.
CHAPTER FOUR: ENDINGS & BEGINNINGS
Pilates died in 1967 (he was then 87) and Clara continued to run the studio until her retirement in 1970 - she left us six years later. The 80s saw a new generation of teachers building upon what Joe and Clara had already started. The first teacher training programs were just about to be born...