Born in 1883 near Dusseldorf, Germany, Joseph Pilates was supposedly a sickly child. As his mother and father were, respectively, a naturopath and prize-winning gymnast, it is likely he was taken to the spas and subjected to the exercise regimens that were commonly prescribed in the late 1800’s to people in poor general health.
Before the advent of antibiotics and other treatments available to modern medicine, staying healthy and alive meant staying fit and strong. In Germany, fitness was encouraged through regular trips to the Bads (spas) and daily exercise. Modern gymnastics, derived from those of the ancient Greeks, were developed in Sweden and Germany before being introduced into the school systems of Europe and North America. This then was the climate in which the young Joseph grew up, introducing him to physical activity and sowing the seeds of his own future system, “The Art of Contrology”.
Joseph had already developed and refined his body to such a degree that by the age of 14 years he was posing for anatomy charts. As a teenager he skied, dived and practiced gymnastics. Eventually he became a professional boxer and taught self-defence while continuing to pursue his interest in exercise theory. He delved deeper into mind-body connections, studying karate, yoga, Zen meditation and the exercise regimens of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
At the outbreak of World War I in 1914 he had been working in England for two years. It was at this point that he saw dramatic results from his work. He encouraged others to participate in his exercises, which seemed to lead to improved health and well-being. Later on, when the influenza pandemic of 1918-1920 spread across all Europe, it appears none of those who followed his regimen fell ill.
Towards the end of the war Pilates was supposedly transferred to the Isle of Man and he began to apply his methods to the rehabilitation of the war-injured. It is suggested that here the Cadillac, or Trapeze table, had its roots. He experimented with the use of bedsprings as resistive equipment for those who were bed-bound and the effective removal of gravity could better align the spine and pelvis during exercise. This work later influenced additional exercises in the Pilates Mat syllabus.
He returned to Germany after the war, working with the Hamburg Police Force teaching self-defence and taking on private clients. One of his clients was Rudolf Laban, originator of Labanotation, still a widely used movement notation system in dance.
In 1926 he crossed the Atlantic to the United States of America, meeting Anna Clara Zuener, who later became Clara Pilates, on the voyage. They opened a studio together on 8th Avenue, New York, across the street from the American Ballet. By the end of the 1940’s he had cemented a close relationship with the New York dance community, including such notable personalities as Hanya Holm, Martha Graham, Ted Shawn and George Balanchine. It was through the invitation of Shawn to Jacob’s Pillow (a dance camp visited every summer by Joseph and Clara) that “Contrology” became less of a boxer’s or gymnast’s strength workout and, with the incorporation of transitions and flow, moved toward a style more evocative of the qualities of modern dance. These associations helped the method to become known as a rehabilitative regimen for dancers and elite athletes.
In 1934 he had published a small booklet about his method. “Your Health” set out to change the lives of ordinary people by warning them of the damage a sedentary lifestyle was doing. At the end of this book the reader gets a strong sense of Pilates’ frustration with the lack of acknowledgement of all his work. This could be said to be a problem in the fitness community even today.
Eleven years later, in 1945, he co-authored with W.J. Miller another book, “Return to Life Through Contrology”. In this he speaks of his philosophy of life and gives detailed descriptions of exercises to practice at home.
Joseph Pilates continued to develop his exercise syllabus and improve his apparatus over the following years. He designed many pieces of large and small equipment, including the Universal Reformer, Cadillac, Wunda and Electric chairs, The Power Circle, and a whole family of Barrels. He coined the term “Powerhouse”, referring to the centre of the body where all movement originates. He was an innovator 50 years ahead of his time.
By his death in 1967 a number of studios based on his method had been established, some with his approval and others without. He was extremely protective of his work and remained sole master of his own studio right up until shortly before his death. Pilates himself trained only two of his students as teachers, Bob Seed, a hockey player, and Carola Trier, a contortionist. He “certified” another two as teachers of Contrology; Kathy Grant and Lolita San Miguel, both of whom had trained under Trier. Those who worked with Joseph Pilates directly, whether as teachers, assistants or clients, who then went on to teach the method to others are considered to be first generation Pilates teachers. These first teachers either remained true to Pilates’ original teachings or interpreted his intentions to suit their own needs. Either way, they kept the method alive, developing and keeping it up-to-date with new discoveries in science and bio-mechanics.
Pilates himself trained only two of his students as teachers, Bob Seed, a hockey player, and Carola Trier, a contortionist. He “certified” another two as teachers of Contrology; Kathy Grant and Lolita San Miguel, both of whom had trained under Trier.
Those who worked with Joseph Pilates directly, whether as teachers, assistants or clients, who then went on to teach the method to others are considered to be first generation Pilates teachers. These first teachers either remained true to Pilates’ original teachings or interpreted his intentions to suit their own needs. Either way, they kept the method alive, developing and keeping it up-to-date with new discoveries in science and bio-mechanics.
Among this generation of teachers are:
Eve Gentry: Pre-Pilates, Neutral pelvis
Romana Kryzanowska: Joseph Pilates’ assistant, Family oversees training in original studio
Carola Trier: Dancer, worked with JP for 10 yrs, Opened studio in 1960, with Joseph’s blessing
Jay Grimes: Studied with JP in ’60s, Worked with Clara, Taught and studied with Romana
Mary Bowen: Studied with Joseph in mid ‘60’s, Began teaching in 1975
Kathy Grant: Director of Bendel’s studio in New York
Ron Fletcher: Opened own studio in ’70s, Started Teacher Training Programme
Bruce King: Dancer, trained with Joseph and Clara, Opened own studio in ‘70’s
Lolita San Miguel: Dancer, worked with Joseph & Clara, Introduced Pilates to the ballet dancers’ programme
Educated through first and second-generation teachers, there are now third, fourth and fifth generation instructors all over the world, carrying on the work, interpreting and developing it in line with new and deeper knowledge of the body.
Eve Gentry was particularly significant in bringing awareness of the importance of the position of the spine in exercise. She focused on a more neutral pelvis, without tucking, “floating” the articulations with release rather than using compression and a flat back as found in the original work. She used stabilization of the abdominal muscles to support the lower back. The adaptation was in the idea of release in the pelvis to achieve this. Many modern teachers have adopted this concept and gone so far as to rewrite the orders of Pilates and develop new syllabuses within the original work. Some contemporary programmes teach only individual or grouped exercises.
Traditional or Classical Pilates has attracted dancers, gymnasts and athletes over the years and has had much success in getting them back into sports, gym or onto the stage. With its success has also come much skepticism about unhealthy bodies and where they fit into the traditional world of Pilates. Joseph Pilates’ original system has been criticized in recent years. Many consider the exercises to move in too large a range of motion, or that they do not work the whole body holistically or put too much focus on specific muscle groups. These concerns are valid and they must be considered when programming for the general public, but a teacher with a correct education and basic anatomical knowledge can make the traditional system safe and effective for all.
The concern therefore, is more about whether the teacher’s ability, reasoning skills and knowledge are sufficient to make the system adaptable to almost all needs, rather than whether the method itself still works. Pilates himself treated each person individually, adapting and correcting to the needs of that individual. With correct use of variations, modifications, apparatus and a good head for reasoning, traditional Pilates can hold it’s own in our contemporary world.