Discover Pilates

The History of Pilates

The Pilates revolution, which has swept across North America and is now colonising much of Europe, South America and Australasia, owes its origins to one remarkable man, Joseph Hubertus Pilates.

Pilates was born (1883) in Mönchengladbach in north Germany and from an early age showed a natural aptitude for sporting activity. He grew up in a Germany that was enjoying a general “fitness revival” thanks to early 19th century practitioners like Friedrich Jahn’s and Per Henrik Ling’s developments in gymnastics and massage. Jahn liked to link fitness with national pride and general well-being, whilst Ling concentrated on the importance of rhythm and fluidity in movement.

Many writers describe Pilates’ childhood illnesses, including asthma, rheumatic fever and rickets. These seemed to have spurred him with even greater determination to achieve personal fitness and by the age of fourteen his practice in boxing, body-building and gymnastics led to him find employment as a model for artists illustrating anatomy books. Some reports claim that he joined a circus and by training with a team of Chinese acrobats learned to focus on abdominal strength.

Though exact dates and accounts of precise motivation vary we know that Pilates came to England between 1912 and 1914. He taught self-defence to the British police and some reports have him as a successful touring circus performer. However, shortly after the outbreak of WW1 he and other German nationals were interned as “enemy aliens” in a camp near Lancaster. Here he taught wrestling, self-defence and began to devise the system of exercises that have made him famous. Later in the war he was transferred to the Isle of Man where he was employed to rehabilitate the war injured. He devised apparatus using bed springs and mattresses such that even the bedridden could take recuperative exercise.

These early forays into remedial exercise coincided with physiotherapy becoming established as a professional adjunct to other forms of medical treatment. Remedial exercise, based on Swedish gymnastics and massage, was widely practised in the rehabilitation of injured troops. Even exercise machines, which we now tend to think of as the unique invention of Joseph Pilates, were in use by other remedial practitioners. For example, the London Command Depot, Shoreham, Sussex where around 650 men a day were treated, employed a beam, pulley and sling apparatus, designed by Mrs Guthrie Smith, to give both active and passive exercise. The suspensory apparatus encouraged the use of minimal effort in the execution of movement exercises. Practitioners at Shoreham also recognised the relationship between mental attitude and physical exercise, employing psychological approaches to encourage the men to develop a positive attitude toward healing.

Returning to Hamburg after the war Pilates continued to refine his apparatus and exercises, working with the Hamburg police and also linking up with the dance community, mostly through the efforts of Rudolf von Laban. The dance pioneer Ruth St. Denis tells us that Laban “quickly recognised the therapeutic effect of his (Pilates’) technique” and was possibly instrumental in encouraging leading German dance practitioner Mary Wigman to work with Joseph Pilates.

In 1923 he declined an invitation to teach his methods to the New German Army deciding instead to emigrate to the United States of America. On the boat journey he met his future wife, Clara, a kindergarten teacher suffering with arthritic pain, though keen to take up Pilates’ offer to cure her. Once in New York the couple set up a studio on Eighth Avenue, sharing a building with many dance studios. Leading New York dancers quickly became fascinated by the Pilates philosophy. George Balanchine studied with Pilates and encouraged many of his dancers to attend the studio for strengthening and balancing, as well as for rehabilitation in Pilates method of “contrology”. In 1934, despite the depths of the Depression, Pilates published a small book, Your Health, outlining his philosophy of health and well-being and how to achieve it emphasising the importance of “perfect balance of body and mind”

Other leading American dancers became interested in Pilates’ work, notably Martha Graham, Hanya Holm, Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. It was Shawn who founded the famous summer dance festival at Jacob’s Pillow at which Pilates taught from 1939 to 1951, inducting many of the country’s most talented young dancers into his method.

In 1945 Pilates’ second book, Return to Life Through Contrology, was published. In it he sets out the development of his philosophy, stating that “Contrology is complete coordination of body, mind and spirit” and details a series of 34 exercises that could be practised at home, the so-called Pilates Mat Exercises. Many of the exercises are done lying, sitting or kneeling, “to avoid excess strain on the heart and lungs”. Pilates outlines his principles for breathing exercises claiming that through them “your brain clears and your will power functions.” He also stressed the importance of a flat back “like a plumb line (like a baby’s)” and the need to train minor muscles through detailed articulations of the spine.

A more detailed account of the method is to be found in The Pilates Method of Physical and Mental Conditioning (Friedman and Eisen, 1980), with the title giving a clearer idea of what was involved. Pilates was an avid reader, particularly of philosophy, and had studied an eclectic mix of movement styles including gymnastics, martial arts, yoga and dance. In the method Pilates assimilates many Eastern notions of a mind-body empathy and was known to express the essence of this in quotations from Schiller: “It is the mind itself which shapes the body” and Schoepenhauer: “To neglect one’s body for any other advantage in life is the greatest follies [sic]”.

Pilates’ adoption of an approach to movement training which also embraced philosophy was not unique. The Germany in which he grew up had several practitioners with similar ideas, notably Rudolf von Laban. But it was the detailed and almost perfectionist way that Pilates evolved the work over time that distinguishes him from others. Returning to Germany after WW1 he would surely have encountered the Korperkultur or physical culture movement, with figures like Bode and Medau encouraging the masses to participate in scantily clad, outdoor exercise programmes. Perhaps it was here that Pilates acquired his own penchant for working partially clothed.

Despite the publication of his second book Pilates remained guarded about passing on his work to other teachers. His preferred method was one of apprenticeship and several notable students were trained as teachers of the method in this way. Romana Kryzanowska, took over the New York studio after Pilates’ death in 1967, attempting to continue the method in its purest form. Ron Fletcher and his pupil Mari Winsor took the method to the “stars” of Hollywood and have in part been responsible for the Pilates boom that we have witnessed in recent years. But perhaps it was the former dancer Eve Gentry who was to have the most significant impact on the evolution of the Pilates Method. Studying with Rudolf von Laban and performing with Hanya Holm, she spent over 20 years working with Joseph Pilates and developed what she called pre-Pilates exercises. Much of her later life was given over to working with people with post-injury and illness situations, developing ways to move pain free for those with limited possibilities. A whole strand of work has now grown up around the concept of Pilates-based rehabilitation, with organisations like Polestar Education offering specialist training.

In 1971 Alan Herdman, a former student of the London School of Contemporary Dance, opened the first UK Pilates studio, having studied with two of Joseph Pilates’ assistants, Robert Fitzgerald and Carola Trier. Rehabilitation, particularly of dancers, has played an important part in his work. Like Pilates, Herdman places the individual client at the centre, devising a programme of exercise to suit that individual’s needs and drawing on a wide range of movement experience, for example T’ai Chi or Contemporary Dance. Whilst many organisations now admit to teaching “Pilates-inspired” or “Pilates-evolved” exercise, Herdman prefers to avoid the term altogether, referring to his work as “Body Conditioning”. Much of his efforts have built on a desire to see the work as preventative rather than remedial. For some years Herdman has worked with students of the English National Ballet and Jennifer Bintley, a former Herdman student, has been the driving force behind Pilates-based movement education for both the Royal Ballet and The Birmingham Royal Ballet.

This emphasis on education continues with Herdman’s commitment to Teacher Training. A collaboration with Jane Paterson led to the Foundation Training Programme for Teachers of Pilates through which students acquire a knowledge of the scientific principles underlying Pilates-based exercise and, through an apprenticeship training, gain hands-on practice and experience.

In the UK, the US, Canada and Australia, Pilates has now joined forces with Sports Medicine. Much more is now known about physiology and it seems likely that if Joseph Pilates were alive today his method would continue to evolve as our understanding of the way the body works continues to grow.

With the work now available in both studio and mat- classes the general public have access to Pilates as rehabilitation, injury-prevention or simply as a mindful alternative to the gym or aerobic regimes fostered in the 1980s. But despite the diverse number of differing approaches that may now be found worldwide the underlying principles may be traced back to the integrated thinking and practice of Joseph Pilates.


  • Joseph Pilates, 1934, Your Health, edited and re-printed 1998, NV, USA: Presentation Dynamics
  • Joseph H Pilates and William J Miller, 1945, Return to Life through Contrology, Boston, USA: The Christopher Publishing House
  • Philip Friedman and Gail Eisen, 1980, The Pilates Method of Physical and Mental Conditioning, New York: Doubleda
  • Doris Hering, February 1956, “They all go to Joe’s” Dance Magazine, pp38-39, 76-77

Copyright strictly reserved by Andy Adamson 2018

Call 0121 445 1939 if you have a question or want to book a class