The Pilates method: a complete coordination of mind, body and spirit.
Joseph Pilates conceived “Contrology” during WWI in order to facilitate the recovery of injured soldiers. Pilates philosophized that if one could control their core muscles through the power of the mind and proper breathing, they could achieve an integrative strength from the inside out.
Through purposeful control of the body, Contrology, later renamed Pilates focuses on four primary principles, stability, strength, stretch, and stamina, to ultimately create a more agile and balanced body with longer leaner muscles. Not surprisingly, some of the first people to use the Pilates Method were dancers such as Martha Graham and George Balanchine.
The Pilates Method is not just exercises. It is a series of controlled and intentionally ordered dynamic movements engaging your body and mind. Correspondingly, it reawakens thousands of dormant brain cells; thus, stimulating further functions of the mind, resulting in a sensation of "uplift". The body is simultaneously stretched and strengthened with the intention of initiating the movements from the core, developing a harmonious whole. In the art of Pilates breath is stressed. “Above all else, learn how to breathe correctly” This was Joseph Pilates' mantra. Through proper breath and movement, the blood is nourished with a constant flow of fresh oxygen causing the student to feel refreshed and stress free.
Although Pilates originated as a form of rehabilitation, millions of people now practice it for injury prevention and to attain an overall healthier lifestyle. The results achieved through the study of Pilates are unparalleled. Anyone at any age or fitness level can derive some benefit from this unique system.
Joseph Pilates was born December 9th, 1883, near Dusseldorf, Germany. Interviews with family members say his father was a native of Greece, he worked as a mechanic by trade, but had also been a prize-winning gymnast and at some point owned a gym. While his German-born mother was a naturopath who believed in the principle of stimulating the body to heal itself without artificial drugs. No doubt his mother's healing philosophy and father's physical achievements greatly influenced Pilates' later ideas on therapeutic exercise.
As a small child, Pilates suffered from asthma, rickets, and rheumatic fever and was bullied for his name and small size. He became determined to overcome his ailments and defend himself. A family physician gave him an old anatomy book which he memorized as he moved each body part while he learned. He would lie in the woods for hours hiding and watching animals move and how the mother taught the young. He studied both Eastern and Western forms of exercise, including Yoga, weight training, wrestling, martial arts and acrobatics. By the age of 14, he was fit enough to pose for anatomical charts. Pilates became an accomplished gymnast, boxer, skier, diver and body builder. He was enamored of the classical Greek ideal of a man who was equally balanced in body, mind and spirit. Pilates dedicated his entire life to improving his and others physical strength. He came to believe it was our modern day lifestyle; bad posture and inefficient breathing at the roots to our poor health.
By 1912, Joe was working in England as a professional boxer, circus performer and self-defense instructor for detectives at Scotland Yard. At this time, he had already developed a series of floor routines that demanded balance, flexibility, strength, power, agility, and acute mental focus in order to execute them correctly. In spite of his status with Scotland Yard, at the outbreak of World War I, Joe was interned as an "enemy alien" with other German nationals on the Isle of Man.
Pilates insisted that everyone in his cell block participate in daily exercise routines to help maintain both their physical and mental well-being. However, some of the injured German soldiers were too weak to get out of bed. Not content to leave his comrades lying idle, Pilates requested that he help the patients with exercise. Bed rest was the norm in those days, he was told, "you can do anything you like with them, as long as they stay in bed". So he combined his engineering skills with his knowledge of health and anatomy. Taking the springs from the beds he rigged them up to the headboards and foot boards of the iron bed frames, turning them into apparatus that provided a type of resistance exercise for his bedridden “patients”. These mechanized beds were the forerunners of the spring-based apparatus, such as the Cadillac and the Universal Reformer, for which the Pilates method is known today. It is said that these inmates survived the 1918 flu pandemic due to their good physical shape.
Pilates returned to Germany after the war, and his achievements with the German soldiers in the prison camp did not go unnoticed. In 1926, the Kaiser invited him to begin training the German secret police. Not liking the direction politics were taking in Germany, he decided to leave for good.
During his voyage the United States he met Clara, whom he later married. Together they opened the first “Body Contrology” Studio on Eighth Avenue at 56th Street in Manhattan, taking over a boxer’s training gym near the original site of Madison Square Garden. Joe became well known in the boxing world and his method of physical and mental conditioning spread to other professionals. The original studio was also in the same building as a number of dance studios including the New York City Ballet.
By the 1930’s, Joe’s method of “Contrology" was gaining popularity. In 1934 Pilates published his first book Your Health, and 1945 his landmark book, Return to Life through Contrology, which described his Method and explained its health benefits. Soon Joe and Clara were teaching movie stars (Katherine Hepburn, Sir Lawrence Oliver), circus performers, gymnasts and musicians. Professional dancers were sent to rehabilitate their injuries. Soon the famous choreographer George Balanchine, as well as other movement visionaries such as Martha Graham, Hanya Holm, Ruth St. Denis, and Jerome Robbins, became firm believers in Body Contrology, not only for rehabilitation but for ultimate fitness and control. The exercise, but not the name, caught on — everyone seemed to prefer to call it Pilates. It was this close proximity to the dance world that brought on Pilates growth as an “underground phenomenon” with the city’s professional dance and performance community. Significantly, most of the "Master Teachers" (original students of Joseph Pilates who went on to assimilate and teach his work) were professional dancers. By the 1960‘s as it became well known that ballerinas and other performance artists were attending ‘Joe’s’, society women followed.
For the rest of his life, he continued to develop his exercise system and to create new pieces of equipment for it. Evidently, he was not only inventive, but also resourceful. It is said his first Barrel was constructed from a beer keg, and he used the metal hoops from the keg to make his first Magic Circle.