The Man Behind the Movement: How Joseph Pilates Started a Fitness Revolution

Origins of Pilates


The Man Behind the Movement: How Joseph Pilates Started a Fitness Revolution

Many diet and fitness regimens have a knack for becoming the hottest new trend… before dying out after a few months on the scene, until the next big fad arrives to take its place.

But there are regimens that last longer and remain popular over time. This is primarily because these routines work.

Joseph Pilates

Joseph Pilates, a German physical trainer, was determined to create a training routine that would ultimately change lives. He became well known for inventing “Pilates,” a method of physical fitness that leans and tones the body for optimal health.

So who was this man, and why did he make it his goal in life to change the course of physical health?


Personal Struggle Led to New Concepts of Physical Well-Being

The man behind the Pilates concept had a difficult upbringing, becoming a victim of his own body due to countless health issues.

Joseph Pilates

Joseph H. Pilates, born on Dec. 9, 1883 in Germany, lived a hard early life as a sickly child. He suffered from asthma, rickets, and rheumatic fever, conditions that plagued him for years.

Given this, he decided to devote his life to improving his overall strength, which came easier to him after being introduced by his father to gymnastics and bodybuilding. Once he mastered these techniques, he went on to learn martial arts like jiu jitsu and boxing.

When he reached the age of 14, he had almost entirely changed his outlook on life.

He believed that the world’s new, modern lifestyle was creating a generation of unhealthy citizens. Significant bad posture and inefficient breathing techniques were, in Pilates’ mind, extenuating circumstances of this lifestyle, causing poor health overall.

Therefore, he created a series of exercises and training methods, procuring the right equipment, specifications, and tuning necessary to teach these methods to the wider public.

Pilates, while devoted to his new teachings, still understandably needed to earn a living though. He landed roles in various areas of physical fitness, including as a professional boxer, a circus-performer, and a self-defense trainer at police schools and Scotland Yard to keep up his strength and fitness regimen.

However, the time period delayed his goals even further, as the onset of WWI changed his current course of life. British authorities enrolled him, along with other German citizens, into an internment camp.

While in this stage of his life at Lancaster Castle, Pilates taught wrestling and self-defense, claiming that his best students would soon emerge stronger than they were before their internment.

It was during this episode that he started honing his techniques, teaching his system of minimal mat exercises that would soon come to be known as “Contrology.”

Hs time in internment allowed Pilates to further develop this concept of a comprehensive system of physical exercise. Learning more varied skills from studying yoga and animal movements, he continued to refine these methods, training and experimenting with these ideas with his fellow inmates.

After returning to Germany by the end of WWI, Pilates decided to collaborate with other experienced trainers in dance and physical exercise. While continuing his studies, however, Germany soon became too small of a hub for his larger-than-life motivations.

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Taking on the Big City, with Dreams of Making Change

By 1925, Pilates had left his training in Hamburg to board a ship to America.

It was here that he met his future wife, Clara, and the two opened a studio in New York City. From this time through the 1960’s, the two continued teaching and supervising the Pilates concepts to a greater amount of willing participants.

The idea of “contrology” in Pilates works to encourage the use of the mind to control one’s muscles, focusing most of the attention on the core muscles. These techniques aid in keeping the body balanced, providing stability for one’s muscular and skeletal frame.

More to the point, Pilates exercises are intent on teaching awareness of breath and of the alignment of the spine, to really tone the deeper torso and abdominal muscles.

With these key concepts in mind, Joseph and Clara ended up reaching out to a number of fellow New Yorkers from the local dance and performing arts communities, who later became a devoted following to their teachings.

George Balanchine and Martha Graham

Popular dancers like George Balanchine and Martha Graham soon trusted in the Pilates’ methods, regularly sending their students to the couple for help in their training and rehabilitation. After all, the Pilates exercise regimen stood on the grounds of building flexibility, strength and stamina, all important factors to the performance of a dancer.

Then, once word got out in the ballet community of this new, wonderful fitness craze, the elite, society women soon followed suit. The couple’s popularity began to skyrocket, and the Pilates method continued growing into a household fitness brand.

Understanding the extent of his reach at this point, Joseph Pilates decided to write several books on his health practices, such as Return to Life through Contrology and Your Health.


The Pilates Fitness Style Lives On

Though Joseph Pilates passed away in 1967 at the age of 83, his mind and body training methods are still garnering a huge following in today’s fitness industry.

As the most basic exercise of this regimen continue to reshape (literally) its devoted followers, strengthening their core abdominals while also correcting poor posture, the number of those indulging in Pilates has grown exponentially over the years.

Its greatest attraction is duly in part to its easy accessibility to everyone, regardless of age, gender, or the level of physical shape each follower is in.

And overall, Pilates’ movements encourage mind and body connectivity, giving each who practice a well-rounded physical and mental breakthrough that keeps motivation high and results consistent.

Though Joseph Pilates no longer sees the impact of his creation, it certainly has withstood the test of time – which is more than most physical fitness trends can say.

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