History of Pilates

History of Pilates

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Pilates is more recent an exercise form than you might expect. It was developed in the early 20th century by Joseph Pilates, which originally named his method “Contrology.” A German-born emigre to Britain (and then to America), he created the form of exercise to incorporate low-impact conditioning and equipment, which he called apparatus. Joseph Pilates presented his method in his book, Return to Life through Contrology. He describes the method as the art of controlled movements. These movements, when properly practiced, should look and feel like a workout.


A sickly child, Joseph was determined to make himself strong and healthy in adulthood. He practiced body-building and, as a late teenager, worked as a model for anatomical drawings. A fitness fanatic, Joseph researched and practiced every exercise he could find. This included classical Roman and Greek regimens, body building, and gymnastics, as well as Eastern disciplines like yoga, tai chi, martial arts, and Zen meditation.


At the outbreak of World War I, Pilates, who was living in England, was interned as a German enemy alien. He used his time as an internee to develop his new approach to exercise and body conditioning—a mix of the western and eastern practices he had so diligently studied. After the war, Pilates moved to America and opened his first studio in New York City. An instant hit, Pilates drew the attention of dancers like Martha Graham and George Balanchine, who became intense devotees. Contemporary practice incorporates aspects of both “modern” and “classical/traditional” Pilates; modern Pilates is partly derived from the teaching of Joseph’s first students, while classical Pilates preserves the initial teachings.


Currently, Pilates is practiced worldwide, but it is most popular in Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. As of 2005, there were 11 million people practicing the exercise and more than 14,000 instructors in America.