Pilates - a short history

Pilates is a physical and mental exercise system that was developed by Joseph Humbertus Pilates.

Joseph Pilates was born  around 1880 in Monchengladbach near Dusseldorf Germany.

He was a sickly child who suffered from asthma and rheumatic fever. His physical weakness encouraged him to train in many of the exercises that were around in Germany in the early 20th century.

He was one of the first 20th century westerners to believe that physical and mental health were linked.  In his search for physical and mental improvement he studied many different exercise systems ranging from classic Greek and Roman regimes, modern gymnastics to tai chi, yoga and the martial arts.

It was through his studies and practice of these systems that he created the exercise system he called controlology.  This system would be the foundation of his practice and later become known as Pilates.

In 1912 Joseph Pilates left Germany and settled in Britain finding work as a professional boxer among many other jobs including being a self defence instructor to the police and as a circus performer.

During internment in a POW camp in Lancaster he further developed his ideas on fitness and health. His exercises became very popular with his fellow internees helping many of them survive the flu epidemic that was raging throughout Britain.

It was also during his internment that while working as a hospital orderly he  also developed a system of exercises using springs and levers above the patients. These machines allowed patients with little mobility to practice strengthening exercises while in their beds.  These were the precursors to  the modern day reformers.

After world war one Joseph Pilates returned briefly to Germany before emigrating to America. It was on the boat trip to the USA that he meet his future wife Clara who shared his passion for health.

In America Joseph and Clara opened a fitness studio where his system of exercise was embraced by the dance world and used by many of the top dancers and choreographers  of the time.

In many ways this kept the practice of Pilates away from the main stream fitness fads and Pilates almost became the secret exercise system of the dance community.

In his time Joseph Pilates did not lay down any formal training criteria for this system so many different variations have developed.

Because there was no set format this has allowed many teachers to add their own take on the system. It is this flexibility of Pilates that has helped it become so successful.

There are six core principles on foundations to the practice:

CONCENTRATION: Ideally every movement in Pilates is done with complete concentration.  This has many benefits including retraining bad postural habits of the body.  When concentrating on just the practice, other thoughts are blocked out.  This can give a very meditative feel to the practice.

BREATHING: The breathing practice in Pilates is called thoracic or lateral breathing.  With this method the ribs expand wide, increasing the volume of air taken into the lungs, making each breath effective as the lower nodules of the lungs are utilized.  Considering that the lungs are encased within the rib cage, the more flexible the ribs become the more movement occurs and more breath can then be taken.

CENTERING: This is the activation of the core muscles of the body.  These include the Transverse Abdominus, the Pelvic Floor, the Multifidus and the Diaphragm.  Although the initial engagement of the pelvic floor or transverse muscle is about thirty percent, this will change throughout the practice.

CONTROL: Every movement is done with control in slow, continuous movements.  For control to be obtained there must be total concentration, centering of the body & core muscle engagement.  This increases thoracic breathing so already we can see how this system works the complete body.

NEUTRAL SPINE: Neutral spine is the term used to describe your back when it is in its most natural position.  For many of us, holding this position is not only hard work but it can also be uncomfortable because of the poor postural habits that we have.

PRECISION: This is essential to the practice of Pilates.  If practiced with precision, the benefits of Pilates increases and the practice becomes second nature.  Remember:  “Practice does not make perfect.  Practice makes permanent.”  You are better doing a few precise, controlled movements with deep concentration rather than fifty useless, dull ‘can’t be bothered’ movements.

All of these principles are covered in classes taught by Andreas and will be topics later covered in more detail in the ‘Pilates’ section of this web site.