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Pilates & Structural Integration

What was Joseph Pilates?

Thea Gudgeon

Born in 1880, to a gymnast father and naturopath mother, Pilates as a child suffered from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever. Wanting to overcome his health problems he began to self-educate himself in anatomy, bodybuilding, wrestling, yoga, gymnastics, and martial arts. By the age of 14 he had achieved an Adonis-like ‘anatomical ideal’ and was posing as a model for anatomy charts.

He soon believed that our modern lifestyle, bad posture, and poor breathing were the roots of bad health, and his answer to these problems was to create a unique series of strong physical exercises that help to correct muscular imbalances and improve posture, coordination, balance, strength, and flexibility. They also increased breathing capacity and organ function. He also invented a variety of machines based on spring-resistance that could be used to perform these exercises.

Before World War I Pilates was touring England as a circus performer and professional boxer, when World War I broke out he was interned in a prisoner of war camp. He insisted that everyone in his cellblock carry out daily exercise routines to help maintain both their physical and mental health. Some of the injured German soldiers were bed ridden, so Pilates took springs from the beds and attached them to the headboards and footboards of the bed frames, turning them into equipment that provided a type of resistance exercise. Today we recognise these designs in his Reformer and Cadillac. It is said that when a flu epidemic hit the camp, not one of his patients died.

At the end of the war Pilates emigrated to the United States. He met his wife and dedicated teaching partner, Clara, on the boat to New York. They opened the first Body Contrology Studio in Manhattan, in the same building as a number of dance studios.

For the rest of his life, he continued to develop his exercise system and to create new pieces of equipment for it.

The earliest American students of Body Contrology were professional dancers, who were repeatedly injuring themselves and who responded well to his exercises. From there the exercise, but not the name, caught on — everyone called it Pilates. Several of Joe and Clara's former students, now Masters in their own right, later went on to open their own studios to continue his teachings.

Today, Pilates studios are found all over the world, and variations on his work are taught in health clubs and fitness centres. Many famous athletes, dancers, actors, as well as everyday people are regular participants who are improving their lives through Pilates.