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A History and Guide to the Pilates Method

Pilates has grown into a popular, widely practiced form of exercise - and with good reason! It’s effectiveness and versatility has made it an incredible tool for fitness, rehabilitation, and a healthy lifestyle.

What was once an exercise performed by dancers and the elite is now a celebrated staple in the fitness and wellness community worldwide!

The Force Behind the Movement

The Pilates method originates from it’s creator, Joseph H. Pilates.  Joseph was a movement enthusiast who spent his life exploring physical training and its effect on the human body. Joseph Pilates was born in Mönchengladbach, Germany in 1883 and in his youth struggled with asthma, rickets, and rheumatic fever. This fueled his motivation to focus on his health and expand his knowledge. This journey led him to becoming a gymnast, skier, self-defense instructor, circus performer, and boxer. 

Joseph was in England when World War I began and was interned as an “alien enemy”, during which time he began cultivating his own ideas and experimenting with his discoveries. He trained his fellow internees and worked with bedridden soldiers by adding springs to hospital beds. This would later inspire his apparatus invention, the Reformer, and other devices to enhance the Pilates program.

“Here we have Joseph Pilates doing the Roll-Over exercise (Source).

Joseph had begun teaching his “Contrology theory” upon moving back to Germany and gained some recognition abroad. He then brought his passion with him as he moved to the U.S. in 1926.  Here he met his wife, Clara, and together they opened a studio in New York City to share his expertise and teach his methods. His exercise system gained popularity, particularly in the dance community, because of its focus on core strength, muscle control, and good posture.

Legacy Lives On

Joseph began documenting and preserving his method through writing books such as Your Health: A Corrective System of Exercising That Revolutionizes the Entire Field of Physical Education (1934) and Return to Life through Contrology (1945).  He also taught his committed pupils his movement philosophy. These original trainees eventually became known as “The Elders” because of their direct experience with Joseph and Clara in the earlier days of the movement. After Joseph passed away in 1967, Clara Pilates, their dedicated students, and his writings carried on his legacy.

In the 1970’s, Hollywood took notice of the Pilates workout and trendy celebrities offered even more visibility for the profound practice. As the mainstream media caught on, the Pilates method became a new sought-after workout. Over time Pilates became more accessible as gyms, studios, and trainers embraced the movement. Soon a variety of athletes, fitness fanatics, exercise newcomers, and rehabilitation clients alike were taking advantage of the functional workout.

Today it is still burgeoning as we see the community growing, movement evolving, and new generations discovering this innovative exercise.

An Abundance of Benefits

Pilates has earned its reputation and achieved success through it’s powerful results and practical role in movement for all bodies. The technique is designed to build strength and awareness through breathwork, emphasis on control, prioritizing form, and targeted muscle activation.

When consistently practiced, Pilates has a remarkable array of benefits including:

  • Increased strength 
  • Improved posture
  • Better coordination and balance
  • Increased flexibility
  • Improved stability
  • Enhanced body awareness and mind-body connection
  • Injury prevention and rehabilitation
  • Better breathing
  • Reduced stress and anxiety

Pilates combines breathwork with dynamic exercises that can be adjusted to each practitioner’s unique body and experience level. The encouragement of modifications has made it more approachable, especially to those looking for lower impact workouts and injury prevention or recovery.  The exercise also encourages progression, in which participants can find their personal level of intensity and challenge with room for growth. This adaptability has expanded the Pilates following and drives it’s continued rise. 

Pilates Equipment 

Joseph Pilates invented the apparatus known as the Reformer to support the body and complement his exercises. This also led to him creating more devices such as the Cadillac, Wunda Chair, and  Ladder Barrel. Over time more equipment and props have emerged through modern Pilates to offer diversity and strong movement foundations. 

Pilates focuses on form and technique and these useful tools provide challenging and exciting ways to execute the exercises. These machines and accessories all play an important role in the Pilates system and offer benefits such as increased resistance, alignment assistance, multi-plane movement, flexibility enhancement, and versatility to name a few!

Here we have a group of people doing the mermaid Pilates exercise on the Reformer.                                                                           

A Powerful Practice

Pilates has withstood the test of time, proving to be more than a trend and is a truly comprehensive workout for a wide variety of practitioners.  With a multitude of benefits to gain, it is no surprise the workout has flourished. Whether you’re looking to build strength, flexibility, mobility or take the next step towards a balanced healthy lifestyle, you’ll want to experience all that Pilates has to offer!