History of Pilates

Pilates: Technique and History



Pilates can be practiced either on specially made spring resistance machines or on a floor mat (or a combination of both). There tend to be two schools of Pilates—Pilates for fitness and Pilates for rehabilitation. The former is often taught by an instructor with a fitness background, such as dance or aerobics instruction, and the latter by those with a background in physiotherapy, osteopathy, or holistic medicine (see Complementary Medicine). Many different forms of Pilates have evolved from that initiated by Joseph Pilates himself, including Body Control Pilates (one of the more popular methods). The Body Control method focuses on core stability and enables specific problem areas of the body to be targeted while always being aware of the body as a whole. It can be practiced by those of any fitness level.

The exercises performed in a Pilates session are similar to many of those found in conventional fitness regimes. However, it is the way that they are approached that differs. The core postural muscles (the pelvic floor and the muscles in the torso) are engaged before any movement takes place, and any movement is slow and flowing and performed while breathing in a particular way. Postural alignment is also considered—the angle of the pelvis and lengthening of the spine. All of this contributes to stability and balance in the body when any movement takes place.

There are eight (sometimes nine) principles that are followed when practicing Pilates. These principles vary slightly according to the particular method followed, but tend to include the following. Relaxation: the body must be relaxed and the person exercising learns to tense only those muscles that are working in order to avoid injury. Concentration: visualization is used in Pilates, which helps improve the coordination of the muscles and the posture in which each exercise is carried out (for example, visualizing an orange tucked under the chin helps to keep the correct posture during a sit-up). Coordination: coordinating the whole of the body when performing an exercise improves control of the body and the sense of awareness of the body. Alignment (sometimes called Precision): the structure of the body must be correctly aligned in order to promote stability and good posture. Breathing: breathing correctly involves using the full capacity of the lungs and expanding the ribs, which helps the blood pump around the body. Movement in Pilates is always performed on the out breath. Flowing Movements: every movement should be smooth and controlled, allowing the body to relax into the movement, muscles to lengthen, and minimizing the risk of injury. Centering: the core postural muscles are the starting point for all exercises, offering protection for the lower back. Stamina: endurance is slowly increased as the person exercising progresses. Isolation: the regime is tailored to individuals who progress at their own pace.


The Pilates method, or Contrology as it was initially called, was conceived over a period of about 20 years during the early 20th century by German physical trainer Joseph Hubertus Pilates (1880-1967). As a child he suffered from asthma, rickets, and rheumatic fever, and his determination to overcome these illnesses was the driving force in his studies of Eastern and Western exercise forms. While an internee in England during World War I he built on the skills he learnt from studying Zen, yoga, and ancient Roman and Greek exercises among others, added in his knowledge of human anatomy, and designed an exercise regime for himself and his fellow internees. In another camp he designed special machines for the rehabilitation of internees injured during the war, based on his exercise regime and using bed springs to create resistance for those who were bedridden. Today, machines based on these are used in Pilates in addition to exercises on floor mats, or “matwork”.

Pilates relocated to America after the war and set up a fitness studio in New York with his wife. Top ballet dancers, actors, and sporting figures came to his studio and the Pilates method took off in the 1960s and has grown in popularity around the world.

from “Pilates,” Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2005
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