What a thing it would have been to have worked with Joseph Pilates himself. His teaching style was definitely one of a kind, very abrupt and sharp. But from it came so much progress that the Pilates method became known worldwide. Since then there have been so many iterations of his exercises, beginning with just 34 mat work exercises which evolved into over 300 exercises across all of his apparatus including the Reformer, the Wunda Chair, the Barrel, the Magic Circle and the Cadillac.
Joe was born in 1883 in Germany to a Naturopath Mother and Gymnast Father. As a boy he was sickly, suffering with rickets (where a lack of vitamin D, phosphate or calcium results in weak/soft bones, stunted growth or skeletal deformities), asthma and rheumatic fever (an acute fever marked by pain and swelling in the joints), being small in size he was also bullied by other bigger children. It’s thought that thanks to the influence of his Mother, he looked to overcome his physical disadvantages in a more natural way without the reliance on artificial drugs. Joe educated himself in anatomy, bodybuilding, wrestling, yoga, gymnastics and martial arts. He achieved such results that at just 14 he was posing as a model for anatomy charts. On top of this, he was also a very accomplished diver, skier and boxer.
Can we just take a minute to appreciate that Joe didn’t have the internet – to educate himself to these levels he had to seek out teachers, instructors, text books and mentors. I find that so motivating, to think he was so determined that he didn’t stop at the first hurdle, the second or the third, to get to where he wanted to be.
JP was the image of the classic ideals of health, being balanced equally in body, mind and spirit, and because of this he came to the conclusion that it was our ‘modern lifestyle’ (we are talking about back in the early 1900’s – he’d turn over in his grave if he saw our lifestyles now) that was the ‘root’ of poor health.
Bad posture + inefficient breathing = poor health. That’s where his philosophy started.
Joe was living in the UK during WWI and found himself in an internment camp on the Isle of Man for the duration. As most of us would be aware, the health conditions within these camps was poor at best. It’s said that JP insisted that all in his cell block should participate in daily exercise routines to maintain their physical and mental health; those who were too weak or injured to get out of bed got to experience the first iteration of the Cadillac. JP took springs from the beds and attached them to the headboards and footboards – voila! – turning the bed into equipment that could be used for resistance exercise.
How cool is that? I’m nerding out right now about how cool he was. That is some serious mental stamina, to not only be staying in a positive headspace while in an internment camp indefinitely, but also be so sound of mind that he continued to help others AND create an entirely new form of exercise in the process.
‘Pilates Legend’ says that during the great flu epidemic of 1918, not a single one of the solders in JP’s care died.
Before JP was in the internment camp he was working as a circus performer, professional boxer, and was also teaching self-defence to the Scotland Yard Police Force. After the war, he returned home to Germany for a couple of years where he continued training the Police, as well as collaborating with dancers and other experts in physical exercise. And now we start to see how the Pilates Method, which JP named ‘Contrology’ came to be what it is. Containing movements which are born from so many discourses, each movement with a specific benefit and purpose, Pilates was created for every person. And let’s not forget that JP had asthma, rheumatic fever and rickets when he was a young’n, so it’s easy to see why the method encourages deep breathing and building of the muscle supporting our bones & joints so strongly.
In the 1920’s JP emigrated to the United States, on this very boat headed for New York he met his wife to-be, Clara. On Eighth and 56th Street in Manhattan they opened the first Contrology Studio. Up until the day he died, JP continued to develop the Contrology/Pilates Method and all of the apparatus that forms a part of it. The first Barrel was constructed from a beer keg, and the first Magic Circle was the metal hoops from the keg! Talk about resourceful…
People like Ted Shawn, Martha Graham and Eve Gentry carried the method on after JP’s untimely death in 1967 due to emphysema. For whatever reason ‘Contrology’ didn’t catch on, but Pilates did. He made such an impact to the lives of so many, and though we can’t thank him in person, I think the best way we could is to honour the system he created and teach and/or practice it to the best of our abilities.
The awesome thing about Pilates is that it’s not just about being physically fit, but mentally strong as well. Each movement is created to be intentional, to be practiced using a mind-muscle connection to create a particular shape with your body. Joe was onto something major, and I’m so proud that I get to share this method with you.
You can try my 20-minute Pilates mat work session by clicking right here! Take it with you whenever and wherever you go!