Around 2000, Pilates exploded on to the scene.
Suddenly, we were surrounded by Mari Winsor infomercials, celebrity endorsements, and Pilates studios popping up all over town.
But, where did this method come from? And why did it suddenly appear?
The method began with Joseph Pilates. Born in 1883 in Germany, he was a sick child with many ailments. He knew he didn’t have to be this way, though. So, he began studying animal movement and anatomy charts, looking at the physical logic of bodies. He developed exercises that brought his body back to health, so much so that it’s rumored he was modeling for anatomy charts.
He continued developing his method, and ended up in England teaching self defense and doing other related jobs in the early 1900’s. When World War I broke out, he was interred on the Isle of Man because he was a German living in England.
There, he continued developing his exercises and teaching them to the other people in the camp. He also saw people who had been injured in the camp, and devised ways for them to exercise despite their injuries by attaching springs to their bed frames for assistance and resistance. His inventor brain took over, and he designed new equipment to help people become strong enough to do his exercises on their own.
At the end of the war, he traveled to the United States to file patents, and ended up moving to New York in the mid-1920’s.
He and his wife, Clara, opened up a gym on 8th Avenue. There, they taught his method and Joe continued developing new equipment to use, evolvoing the exercises as he saw fit.
The gym was near the New York City Ballet, and some of the dancers were sent to Joe by a doctor when they got injured. The dance community was hesitant to accept such a strange practice, but many of those that went to Joe found that he could help them return to dancing after injury faster and keep them dancing for longer.
Joe’s dream was to have his method taught in every school and every hospital around the country (if not the world). Unfortunately, given his lack of medical degree, the medical community wouldn’t adopt his practices despite the unbelievable evidence he presented to them. And Joe became deeply depressed.
By his death in 1968, Joe felt that he had failed – knowing that he was 50 years ahead of his time.
A few of his students had taken on teaching Joe’s methods and opened gyms and studios of their own. Contrology reached Hollywood through the work of Ron Fletcher, and some celebrities got hooked. Parts of the dance community kept it as part of their conditioning practice. Regular people who happened upon it kept it as their secret to staying fit.
Some time, after Clara’s death in 1977, a trademark was secured covering the name Pilates to keep the method pure and protected. Although it passed through a few people’s ownership, the trademark kept the group of people teaching Pilates small. By the late-1980’s, anyone using the name and not paying royalties was sent a cease and desist letter, so people were scared to use the name. They kept teaching Pilates, but called it other things.
In 1999, the owner of the trademark brought a suit against Balanced Body for manufacturing, marketing, and selling Pilates equipment without paying royalties. After a 6-week court battle, the judge ruled that Pilates is a method of exercise in regular use, like karate or yoga, and the trademark was invalidated.
This is when the method exploded on to the scene. People teaching Pilates could use the name without fear, so they began marketing and selling services openly.
Since then, the industry has grown exponentially every year. There are those who keep true to Joe’s exercises the way he taught them, those who modify it for use it in physical therapy practices, and those who have modified and varied Joe’s exercises to continue making them accessible to our changing needs and the advances in medical science. What is right is hotly debated within the Pilates community.
Regardless of what we believe is right, I think we should all know our roots – where the method came from. We should know what Joe taught and how he taught it. We should pay our respect to the brilliance he shared with us.