EDITION: June - August '08


Strength from the Core

Joseph H. Pilates: 1880 - 1967

 Once in a village deep in the West of Germany a little boy felt weak; his limbs ached and he coughed alot. Asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever were not abnormal because this was the end of the 19th century when disease and deficiencies were rife. The little boy was called Joseph Hubertus Pilates.

He realised that only his body could carry him through this life and he decided to never give up. He carefully began to practice sport; he took gym lessons, got interested in yoga and other eastern techniques. Over the years Pilates got his strength back and as a young man he allegedly had such a good physique that he was often used as a model for anatomical wall charts.

Training in the military hospital
20 years later: The First World War threw its shadow across Europe and Pilates, who had in the meantime emigrated to Great Britain, was held captive in a detention centre as a possible public enemy. Once again he didn’t want to succumb to suffering and despair and he focused on everything that would give him vitality. He also showed his co-captives, getting them to do his exercises on hard mattresses and taking apart the military hospital beds to enable weight training. This apparently strengthened the prisoners so much that they survived the big wave of influenza.

After the war Pilates went back to Germany. Health had in the meantime become a priority, gymnastics had become popular and the first health resorts were evolving. Joseph Pilates dedicated himself to an integral body training: He taught his own methods and exercises. The once weedy man had become a great sportsman.

The first Pilates-Studio
In 1926 Pilates set off to new horizons, which he could only find in America. Together with his wife Clara he opened his first training studio in the New York City Ballet building. Soon there was an intensive contact between the dancers and choreographers of that time. Pilates – who then called his method ‘Contrology‘ – further developed the programme to create a unique system consisting of 500 exercises. The story about the immigrant with the special technique soon spread: competitive athletes, actors and dance legends like Martha Graham trained with Pilates. Others trained as teachers with him and this helped to spread his ideas.

During the early 30s Pilates started to systematically document the success of his methods. He took photographs of his students before their first and after their thirtieth training session. His findings are often quoted:

“After 10 hours you feel the difference, after 20 hours you see the difference and after 30 hours you have a new body.”

The Pilates Method
Pilates died in 1967 in a youthful body – due to the consequences of a fire. He never got a chance to see how his method became a worldwide wellness trend. It fits perfectly into our time, this mixture of fitness training, yoga and ballet elements. The goals are strength and flexibility, a balance between body and mind. Its six basic principles: control, concentration, breathing, centering, relaxation and flowing movements. Central to the training is the so-called ‘Powerhouse‘: the muscles in the middle of the body around the spine and according to Pilates the power source of the human body.

The exercises strengthen and stretch the lower lying muscles without building up the outer muscles too much. In this way unnatural positions are avoided and whole muscle groups are trained. This is why Pilates solves back problems, improves breathing, keeps tendons and ligaments flexible and helps prevent Osteoporosis. The body becomes stronger and slimmer; the movements elegant like dancers. With the new body awareness self-confidence also grows.

Beginners usually start their training on mats, the basics of which Pilates devel-oped first. Then they use especially constructed equipment made out of wood, leather and steel springs on ropes. Working with targeted resistance strengthens and deepens the effect of the exercises. Machines such as the ‘Universal Reformer‘ and the ‘Cadillac‘ stem from the place that drove Joseph Pilates to peak perform-ance despite deep desperation: a few details still remind us of the fixtures of hospital beds.