Born in Germany in the early 1880s, Joseph Pilates grew up fighting battles with respiratory disorders and Rickett’s. He spent much of his time finding alternative ways to keep both his mind and body in the best shape possible. Pilates experimented with several types of Yoga, gymnastics, wrestling, fencing and even zen mediation practice. As his health improved Joseph began competing in boxing tournaments and was touring England when WWI began. Here he was held as a resident alien at an internment camp. He didn’t let his situation keep him from remaining physically active, and he even got some of his fellow men to begin his fitness regimen.
Joseph’s reputation soon caught the attention of the leaders of the camp who gave him the job of helping rehabilitate soldiers and other patients. It is believed that his special combination of body and mind exercises help prevent many soldiers and other patients from dying or coming down with many of the illnesses that were running rampant during the war.
It was during his time rehabilitation patients that Joseph developed his first Pilates machine, although it was not called such at the time. With over 30 patients to attend to, he found it much easier to attach springs to the beds of the patients so that they could to the stretching exercises themselves with some supervision. This idea later blossomed into Joseph’s Cadillac machine and Reformer machine, which is widely used in the practice of Pilates today.
After returning to Germany for a short stay after the war, Joseph and his wife moved across the Atlantic Ocean to New York. Here the couple moved into an apartment in a building that also housed the New York City Ballet. Naturally Joseph continued to teach others his method, which he was now calling Contrology, and many of his students were members of the ballet. The dancers preferred Joseph’s methods, both on the mat and on the many machines he developed, because they strengthened and lengthened their muscles in a way that allowed them to remain agile and graceful.
Joseph and wife continued to teach their Contrology method and had several overachieving students that learned everything there was to learn about the method which was slowly coming to be called Pilates. One of these teachers, Romana Kryzanowska has one of the best Pilates instructor training courses in the country today. Joseph’s studio was burned to the ground in 1967 and he died shortly after.
While several positions and movements have been added to the Pilates exercise method, Joseph’s theory still lives on in the practice. His theory was that when doing exercise the mind and body should be connected in order to become the healthiest you can be. The Pilates practice exemplifies this theory with its core elements. These elements are controlled breathing, concentration on the movement and the muscles being used, total control of the movement and centering the body and mind while doing the movements. Joseph believe that precision was the result of these core elements and he often said doing just five repetitions in perfect precision and concentration was much better than doing 15 or 20 without being fully aware during the exercise.
Additional key elements to the proper practice of Pilates are those that make the connection between mind and body and result in a healthy mind. Joseph’s yoga influence is clear in the different mat exercises. These influences are reflected in the natural flow of the movements many of which are in sync with the natural breathing rhythm and the mindful breathing actually makes the movements easier. Joseph designed the various exercises in a way that requires just the right amount of effort so that the exercise is not strenuous and acts as a way to release tension, not create it. All of these elements result in a much more relaxed, and rejuvenated feeling after the workout.