Why you should care
Trapped on an island, Joseph Pilates put his time to good use.
For Joseph Pilates, the exercises that changed his life took shape on the straw mat of a prison camp. The German-born part-time boxer and circus performer was living in Great Britain when World War I broke out. He was sent to an internment camp on the Isle of Man where tens of thousands of suspected “enemy aliens” were kept throughout the war.
There are few surviving photos from Camp Knockaloe, but one depicts Pilates leading a field full of men in standing exercises. Decades later, the exercise legend would recall devising his physical fitness system, which he called Contrology, by looking at the sickly prisoners around him — starving due to the German blockade of the British Isles — and then at the also starving, yet still sprightly, cats.
“Though they were nothing but skin and bones — even the most animal-loving prisoners could hardly spare them anything from their own pitiful rations when their own children were begging to be fed — they were lithe and springy and terribly efficient as they aimed for their prey,” waxed Sports Illustrated journalist Robert Wernick in a 1962 interview with Pilates. The answer, apparently, was stretching: Pilates observed the cats constantly stretching and limbering up, and used that to inspire and refine the poses of his own exercise system. Pilates would later boast that when the 1918 flu pandemic — which killed approximately 50 million people worldwide — hit the camp, none of the men practicing his exercises got sick.
While his system is known today as Pilates, the man himself referred to it as Contrology throughout his life — it’s even designated as such in his 1967 New York Times obituary. And while it exploded onto the scene through its association with lithe dancers, its first practitioners weren’t nearly so glamorous.
Born in Mönchengladbach, Germany, in the 1880s to a prize-winning Greek gymnast father and a naturopath mother who believed fresh air and exercise were the cure for all ills, one could say that Joseph Pilates’ destiny was written in his genes. Determined to never again be physically compromised after he was bullied as a child — according to some accounts, the bullying resulted in his losing vision in one eye — young Joe worked tirelessly at his physique through bodybuilding, boxing, wrestling, gymnastics and martial arts. He even posed as a model for anatomy charts. He watched wildlife in the local forest and thought about the animals’ anatomy. He joined the circus.
While Pilates and yoga are often spoken of in the same breath — and featured on the same gym schedules — the two are extremely different. While yoga is rooted in an ancient spiritual and philosophical tradition, Pilates was conceived first and foremost as exercise, one that took modern people back to basics in their daily lives.
“He felt that everyone was not really mobilizing in their full range of motion, or breathing with full potential,” says Jane Hein, a wellness physical therapist and lead Pilates instructor at the Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program. “So he developed this series of exercises emphasizing full diaphragmatic breathing with a range of motions at our joints emphasizing core stability.”
When Pilates came to England his plan wasn’t necessarily to come up with a revolutionary exercise. But his experiences in the internment camp changed everything. He had an enormous group of willing test subjects, for one thing, and he also used the resources available to him. With some inmates on mandatory bed rest, Pilates rigged a camp bed with springs, allowing even those who were relatively immobile to work on resistance training. Later, after his release, he reproduced the concept with “the Cadillac,” a piece of exercise equipment consisting of a bedlike platform with a metal bower equipped with a variety of resistance tools.
Pilates as we know it today didn’t explode onto the scene until after its creator moved to New York City, in 1926. He opened a fitness club a 10-minute walk from the New York City Ballet. Dancers, prone to injury and already fluent in the physicality precious to Pilates, were his best ambassadors. Word spread to other athletes, and from there to the rest of the world. Eventually his students would spread across the United States, opening their own studios.
Despite his healthy-living philosophy, which preached cold showers and time in the sun, Pilates himself was a hedonist in other ways. He loved whiskey and cigars — he eventually died of emphysema — and it’s not clear that he and his partner of decades, Clara, ever married. For him, that came — like everything — back to the animals. In the Sports Illustrated interview, he shouted through the pages: “Do animals get hernias? Do animals go on diets? Eat what you want, drink what you want. I drink a quart of liquor a day, plus some beers, and smoke maybe 15 cigars.… So, you want to learn how to do better. It’s all up here, in the head.”