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 hospitals applying his method, which he called ‘Contrology’, to rehabilitate the soldiers. It was here that he utilized the hospital beds and springs to form his first machines; the ones that look a little like Victorian torture devices.

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. Just around the corner from Jo’s studio was Eve Gentry’s dance studio. She would send many dancers there to improve their strength or to rehabilitate. The fact is that Pilates put his studio there to be close to the boxing matches nearby, but despite his ideas, the dancers sent by Eve 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.Joseph Pilates rehabilitating dancer

Known to be quite a character with quite an ego, it was the high levels of the dancers that pushed Jo 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 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 is a Pilates instructor and personal trainer with over 15 years teaching experience. A former international trampolinist and a graduate in Physical Education and Sports Sciences, Jamie is passionate about the positive effects exercise can have on all aspects of life. He is the head instructor and founder of
Azul Yoga & Pilates Retreat and the founder of Fluid Art Pilates.