A Short History of Pilates

What we today refer to as ‘Pilates’ was actually called ‘Contrology’ by its creator, Joseph Pilates and first developed as far back as the 1920’s.

Born in 1883 in Germany, Joseph Hubertus Pilates was a sickly child suffering from asthma and other ailments. Determined to overcome his health problems he turned to various forms of exercise in a quest to become strong and resilient.

His efforts were rewarded when he went to England in 1912 working as a boxer, a circus performer and even a self-defence instructor for Scotland Yard.
When the First World War broke out he was interned on the Isle of Man where he not only kept up his own exercise regime but also taught his fellow inmates.

During his internment helping out at the local hospital he realised that some of the bedridden patients would also benefit from strengthening exercises and so he adapted their hospital beds with springs enabling them to do a resistence work out. These beds formed the basis of what is now known as the Reformer, one of his iconic ‘Apparatus’ he later developed and which are still a feature in Pilates studios all over the world.

After the war he briefly returned to Germany but emigrated to the USA in 1926.
He met and married his wife Clara and together they opened a fitness studio in New York.

Thanks to its vicinity to the New York City Ballet many of studio’s clients were professional dancers who swore by ‘The Method’ which helped them not only improve their technique but recover from injury faster.

In 1945 Joseph Pilates wrote ‘Return to Live through Contrology’ in which he presents his guiding principles. The grainy black & white photographs show him doing his exercises at the age of 60 and one can only marvel at his physique. You will also find further interesting short films on youtube.

Joseph Pilates

Maybe due to their lack of fluency in English both Jo and Clara tended not to give many verbal instructions but instead used hands-on corrections, which are still an important feature in today’s classes.

Jo Pilates died in 1967 from the after effects of a fire in his studio. Over the years many of his former students went on to open their own studios. They are often referred to as the ‘Pilates Elders’ and ensured that his legacy lived on but is constantly evolving in line with current thinking of bio-mechanics and new scientific knowledge.

Although steadily increasing in popularity in the US, especially amongst Hollywood’s glamorous acting community, it was only in 1970 that the Pilates Method was brought to the UK by Alan Herdman who went on to found Britain’s first Pilates Studio called ‘The Place’ in London.

Since then Pilates has firmly moved into the mainstream resulting in a number of different styles of Pilates offering something for everyone.

Sign up for news & updates



Copyright © 2016 Sonja Porter Pilates