What is Pilates?

 Pilates is a method of exercise that strengthens muscles, develops flexibility, increases coordination, and improves health and well being for the whole body.  Pilates is performed on a mat or on a specially designed equipment including the Reformer, Trapeze Table or Cadillac, Exo/Wunda Chair, and the Barrels.  Pilates was developed by Joseph Pilates over 80 years ago.

Joseph Pilates was born in Germany December 8, 1883.  He was a sick child, he had rheumatic fever, asthma, and rickets and was plagued by a weak respiratory system.  In order to improve his own health he began exploring ways to strengthen his body and his mind.  Joe began intrigued by the classical notion of the ideal man who combined a well trained body with an equally trained mind.  Joe participated in many activities including boxing, wrestling, fencing, gymnastics, as well as yoga and meditation.

When World War I broke out, Joe was in England touring with a boxer.  He was held in a camp as a resident alien for the duration of the war.  While in the camp he took it upon himself to lead his fellow detainees in a daily exercise program.  When the influenza epidemic broke out in 1918-1919, none of the inmates who followed his regimen got sick.

Joe’s success with his group brought him to the attention of the camp leaders and was given the job of an orderly at a hospital.  He was put in charge of 30 patients and worked them out every day to exercise whatever they could move.  There were few treatments to offer other than surgery and morphine.  Nursing usually meant extended bed rest which lead to muscular atrophy, loss of aerobic capacity, and a weakened immune system.  Joe’s exercises help his patients to get better faster and helped them to fend off secondary infections that killed so many people in similar circumstances.

Joe’s job working as an orderly and manually working out 30 patients every day was very physically demanding.  So Joe came up with the idea of attaching springs to the patient’s bed frames thus the first Cadillac was born!

After Joe was released, he and returned to Germany. Shortly thereafter he was approached by the “brown shirts” (who were to become the Nazi party) to train their police force.  Joe didn’t want to have anything to do with them, so he left for America.  On a boat on the way to America, Joe met Clara, who became his wife.  Clara was a nurse who became a true partner for Joe, working beside him in the studio everyday.

When Joe and Clara arrived in New York City in 1926, they rented a small studio in the same building as the New York City Ballet and started teaching what Joe named “Contrology.”  Joe worked with clients from all walks of life but he made an especially strong impression on the dance community working with many injured dancers for rehabilitation.

Joe had a dream of introducing his vision of mind-body fitness into every aspect of life, from elementary school to military training, had he not been so far ahead of his time, it might have happened.  Instead, he taught a small group of devoted teachers and students.  A few continued his work until the rest of the world caught up with his revolutionary thinking.

Joe died in Octobery 9, 1967 from complications of smoke inhalation when a fire broke out in his studio.  Clara carried on the work until her death in 1977.


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