Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Joseph Pilates – an innovator of his time

Pilates has its origins in a treatment for injured First World War veterans and is now enthusiastically supported by the likes of Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow. When the first Pilates studio opened in London in the 1970s there were only a handful of students many of them dancers.  Now from Gateshead to Cheam thousands of students of all sizes, shapes and ability attend Pilates classes.

Joseph Pilates was born in 1883 in Dusseldorf, Germany. His father was a prize-winning gymnast of Greek ancestry and his mother worked as a naturopath. As a child Pilates suffered from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever. Even as a child he struggled to overcome these ailments and develop his health and fitness as much as he could by exercise. He learned as many physical techniques as possible and became an able gymnast, diver, and bodybuilder. Later when he moved to England in 1912, he earned a living as a professional boxer and circus performer. He also trained members of the British police at Scotland Yard.
In spite of the work he was doing when the First World War broke out the British authorities interned him along with other German citizens on the Isle of Man. During this time he could have let his body and mind get weaker however even in these difficult conditions he began to develop his comprehensive system of physical exercise, which he called "Contrology." He worked in the internment camp infirmary and helped many war veterans with horrendous injuries including amputations. Although he had no equipment his inventiveness - born of necessity - inspired him to use what was available, like bed springs and beer keg rings, to create resistance exercise equipment for the patients. He studied yoga and the movements of animals and trained his fellow inmates in fitness and exercises.
 After the war he returned to Germany and collaborated with important experts in dance and physical exercise such as Rudolph Laban. In Hamburg, he also trained police officers in self-defence.
In 1926 Joseph Pilates emigrated to the United States. On the ship to America, he met his future wife Clara. The couple founded a studio in New York and directly taught and supervised their students well into the 1960s. Joseph and Clara Pilates soon established a devout following in the local dance and the performing-arts community of New York. Well-known choreographers and dancers such as George Balanchine and Martha Graham regularly sent their students to the Pilates studio for training and rehabilitation.
In the 1970’s Alan Herdman brought Pilates from New York to London and it had its early beginnings in London’s dance community. Now Pilates exercise and training is well known and widespread. You can find a class or get individual training in most areas and many people extol its virtues.
But how far has it strayed from its beginnings and have its benefits for health been forgotten in the search for the outward trappings of the body beautiful?  

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