When it comes to fitness, along with other exercise regimes, virtually anyone who has ever considered an exercise routine knows today’s word; however, unlike contemporary competitors, such as Tae Bo, Zumba, and even aerobics, this system is much older and comes from quite a precarious background. Credited with the ability to improve balance overall, aid muscle conditioning, this system – also called Contrology – is all about the art of controlled movement. From being a form of wartime therapy to gaining a reputation of the workout of the elite, it’s time we took a closer look at the easy-but-complicated-sounding fitness system called Pilates.
Though he originally referred his system as Contrology, the name that we associate with the system comes from the creator, Joseph Hubertus Pilates. Born in Monchengladbach, Germany in 1883 and being the sickly child (asthma, rickets, and rheumatic fever) of a naturopath mother and avid gymnast father, Pilates was able to overcome many of his health issues through exercise, while developing an understanding of the symbiotic relationship between mind, body, and spirit. Moving to England in 1912 and working as a boxer, circus performer, and self-defence trainer, he was, along with other German nationals, interned as an “enemy alien” soon after the outbreak of World War I. Not being allotted adequate exercise equipment while interned, Joseph spent the war years perfecting a fitness routine that didn’t fully require equipment but could also be adapted to hospital beds for recovering internees (which would be the basis for later equipment designs).
After the war, Pilates began teaching his method, which, due to its ability to build strength, stamina, balance and control, attracted such names as Rudolph Laban in Germany and, upon immigrating to America (New York) in 1926, George Balanchine and Martha Graham. In a literal case of life imitating art, once it was known that many Broadway dancers and blooming ballerinas were either studying in Pilates’ studio or studying Pilates’ technique, the fitness program soon caught on with upper class women. From there, it has blossomed into a full-blown fitness discipline that, almost a century after its introduction, still boasts more than 9 million participants in the United States alone.
For the specific word itself, though the first actual mention can be found in the 1930 Manhattan Classified Telephone Directory for “Pilates Universal Gymnasium”, the first formal mention comes from the man himself, Joseph Pilates, in his 1934 book, Your Health, where he explicitly uses his name for an exercise-affiliated apparatus, stating: “Normal, anatomical balance—in every position taken, is only possible in The ‘Pilates’ Health Bed.”
In a more general sense, such as the overall system of exercises, our term demonstrates its longevity, with the first mention coming from a 21 August 1981 article from the New York Times which reads: “I’m all praise for Pilates. It’s the best exercise you can do.”