The History of Pilates

Our favourite Joseph Pilates quote, which is true, is: “In 10 sessions you feel better, in 20
sessions you look better, and in 30 sessions you have a whole new body.” But who
was Joseph Pilates?
Pilates takes its name from Joseph Pilates. A German-born emigrant to Britain and
then America. He devised the Pilates method as a new approach to exercise and
body-conditioning in the early decades of the 20th century. His method included the
use of equipment referred to by him as ‘apparatus’.

Perhaps the best known piece of equipment is the Pilates reformer, which is in use in the Pilates Central Studio today.
Joseph Pilates was born near Dusseldorf in 1880. He was a sickly child who was
determined to make himself strong and healthy. He took up body-building, to the
point where by his teens he was getting work as a model for anatomical drawings.
Pilates was perhaps the first influential figure to combine Western and Eastern ideas
about health and physical fitness. He researched and practised every kind of exercise
he could. This ranged from classical Roman and Greek exercise regimes to body-
building and gymnastics.

He set this alongside practising the Eastern disciplines of yoga, tai chi, martial arts and Zen meditation. Additionally, he studied anatomy and animal movements. Dedicated to his task, he sampled every kind of exercise that he could and carefully recorded the results.
In 1912, aged 32, he left Germany for the UK, where he became a professional
boxer, as well as an expert skier and diver. It was in England that he taught self-defence to Scotland Yard detectives and found work as a circus acrobat.

On the outbreak of World War I, the British interned him as a German enemy alien.
He used his time as an internee to start developing a new approach to exercise and
body-conditioning – the start of what is known today as Pilates.
During his internment, he also got the chance to work as a nurse. This, in turn, gave
him the chance to experiment by attaching springs to hospital beds, so that patients
could start toning their muscles even while they were still bed-bound. Such were the
origins of the first Pilates machines, now known as the Pilates reformer. In their early
incarnation the Pilates reformer was shaped like a sliding bed and used springs as

Returning to Germany after World War I, Pilates worked with pioneers of movement
technique such as Rudolph Laban. It was Laban who created the basic system of
dance notation still used today.

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