Pacific Movement Center

Intelligent Movement for Life


About Joseph Pilates (1880-1967)
Why would a fitness method remain essentially unknown until decades after its founder’s death and a century after its genesis?  What makes a fitness trend suddenly take hold of the public’s fancy?  It appears two factors are essential and a third is helpful.  First, the method must be effective.  Second, there must be a receptive audience.  The third - helpful but nonessential - factor is a famous founder or a charismatic creator. 
Examples from the past include many colorful and flamboyant characters prefacing fitness trends:  the beautiful and notorious actress Jane Fonda introduced aerobics; the stern and healthy Jack LaLanne channeled resistance training; the Ziegfeld star Sandow the Magnificent introduced bodybuilding (1), and an intense German socialist named Friedrich Jahn created gymnastics.  The Pilates method also had a charismatic creator in the person of robust, enthusiastic and confident Joseph Hubertus Pilates.

A Charismatic Creator

Joe Pilates was born in 1880 or 1881 in what is presently the small town of Mönchengladbach, Germany.  He was a frail boy and fears of tuberculosis convinced him to work diligently at bodybuilding and gymnastics (2).  Joe was fascinated with the natural and unimpeded movements of animals, “‘As a child’, he said, ‘I would lie in the woods for hours, hiding in the leaves, watching the animals move.’” (3)  This became a favorite theme, as shown in his 1945 booklet Return to Life Through Contrology:

Observe closely how all [the cat’s] back muscles actually ripple as it stretches and relaxes itself.  Cats as well as other animals acquire this ideal rhythm of motion because they are constantly stretching and relaxing themselves, sharpening their claws, twisting, squirming, turning, climbing, wrestling, and fighting....  [Pilates] exercises emphasize the need for this constant stretching and relaxing.  (4)

With typical German diligence, inspiration and commitment, Joe became an athlete (diving, skiing, and gymnastics) and was modeling for anatomical drawings by the age of 14 (5). As a young man, Joe and his brother joined a traveling circus as part of a “Greek statue act” (3).  The troupe was touring England when World War I began and Joe, as a German and therefore an enemy alien, was interned for the duration of the war in one of the enormous internment camps scattered across Britain and the Isle of Man.  He and his fellow prisoners, torn from their careers, businesses and families, suddenly found themselves with no responsibilities, means of income or diversions.   Resourcefully, they created their own camp newspapers, distributed jobs and wages among themselves, performed cabarets, and created camp libraries where they pooled their books.   By 1916 approximately 50% of the internees participated in informal camp schools as either teachers or students (6).  Joe worked in the camp hospital; although many sources claim Joe worked with wounded soldiers, British historiography shows the two populations (military and civilian) were not held together (6).
The undeniable tragedy of approximately five years of Joe’s life trapped in an internment camp, however sad, did yield a treasure.  This experience provided him with time in which to create, refine, teach, and improve his own exercise method.  Throughout his life, Joe was fully committed to the concepts of health and fitness and his own ability to instruct others.  His personality, as well as his admirable physique, likely drew students to him as a moth to a flame. Armistice brought the end of the war, the closure of the internment camps, and Joe’s release.
Legend has it that upon his return to Germany, Joe taught his method to the Hamburg police department (7) and interacted with many German celebrities of somatics and modern dance, such as Hanya Holm and Rudolf van Laban (5).  One story relates he was even invited to instruct the New German Army in his technique (8)!  However amazing these stories may be, what is known is that he emigrated to America in approximately 1923 and during the voyage met Clara, a nursery school teacher, who became his wife and lifelong partner.
Joe and Clara established their gymnasium in New York City where they worked with dancers from George Balanchine’s City Ballet and Martha Graham’s modern dance company (9), society ladies, and people interested in learning Joe’s system of “bodily house-cleaning” (4).  He promised his students they would benefit holistically by completely coordinating body, mind and spirit the Contrology way.  Baldwin (1963) reported from the front lines of Joe’s gym: “Contrology not only brings a supple body, but also contributes to an over-all youthful glow, Mr. Pilates maintains.” (10)  Joe himself wrote (4):

Contrology is complete coordination of body, mind and spirit.  Through Contrology you first purposefully acquire complete control of your own body and then through proper repetition of its exercises you gradually and progressively acquire that natural rhythm and coordination associated with all your subconscious activities (p. 9)

In 1980, Friedman and Eisen codified Joe’s method into six principles:   concentration, control, centering, precision, flowing movement, and breathing.  These are the main characteristics of Joe’s method and its choreography and are intended to improve body and mind by demanding high levels of attentional control, strength and flexibility.
Joe firmly believed in the benefits of a fully integrated body, mind and spirit, and in his method’s ability to deliver.  He wrote:

With body, mind and spirit functioning perfectly as a coordinated whole, what else could reasonably be expected other than an active, alert, disciplined person?  Moreover, such a body freed from nervous tension and over-fatigue is the ideal shelter provided by nature for housing a well-balanced mind that is always fully capable of successfully meeting all the complex problems of modern living.  Personal problems are clearly thought out and calmly met.
The acquirement and enjoyment of physical well-being, mental calm and spiritual peace are priceless to their possessors.... [I]t is only though Contrology that this unique trinity of a balanced body, mind, and spirit can ever be attained.  Self-confidence follows.  The ancient Athenians wisely adopted as their own the Roman motto:  “Mens sana in corpore sano” (a sane mind in a sound body). (4)

Although the language may seem stilted and dated, his writings are not unlike the “New Age” or the self-help titles of modern times.
Joe wrote that neither equipment nor a gym membership was necessary for his method to work, but his own studio was outfitted with fanciful and complicated apparatus.  Almost a tribute to Friedrich Jahn, it could be considered an adult playground with Joe’s Universal Reformer, the Cadillac or Trapeze Table, the Wunda Chair, the Magic Circle, the Ladder Barrel, a tall coat-rack like apparatus variously called the Ped-a-Pol or Ped-i-Pul, and other pieces of equipment.  Joe continuously created new tools, “gizmos” and equipment for his students’ use (the Ped-i-Pul was reputedly created for an opera-singing client).  In a home movie, Joe demonstrates the usefulness of his Wunda Chair, which he designed to be used as a simple chair or alternatively with cushions removed, as a handy home gym. Humorously, he named another version the “electric” chair.  Films of Joe show him demonstrating his floor exercises, vigorously instructing students individually and in groups, and teaching at the well-known dance festival Jacob’s Pillow.  He creatively combined the fields of creativity, mechanics, physics, kinesiology and choreography.  He was charismatic, flamboyant, funny, and a powerful, vital mover (M. Bowen, personal communication, April 9, 2008).  His films, writings, photographs, and his impressive roster of clients - actors, dancers, some Gimbels and Guggenheims, a “smattering of counts and countesses” (5) - testify to his exuberance and his method’s effectiveness.
Joe worked in his New York City studio and its environs for nearly 40 years, but never enjoyed complete financial success.  Joe’s two publications,
Your Health, and Return to Life Through Contrology, were not widely circulated.  As a result, his method did not reach much beyond those who had immediate contact with him. Earlier in this paper, it was noted that in order for a fitness method to become a trend, two things are needed:  a receptive audience and an effective method.  Clearly, Joe’s Contrology method was effective enough in that professional dancers from George Balanchine’s and Martha Graham’s dance companies came to Joe’s for training and rehabilitation.  However, the enormous audience that the Pilates method enjoys today was lacking during his time.  At the end of his life, Joe seemed bitter about his lack of recognition.  He famously declared, “When I’m dead, they’ll say, ‘He was right.’ I am fifty years ahead of my time” (5).  Joe died of emphysema on October 9, 1967 at the age of 86 (3). 

An Effective Method

Now Pilates is the ubiquitous fitness trend.  As mentioned earlier, one of the essential factors for a method to become a trend is for the method to be effective, and indeed early western-style studies have been positive (11, 12, 13).  Outside of academia, current magazines are establishing the method’s effectiveness, where the discussion is often about the perfect body and how to get it.   Some headlines include: (a) “Pining for Pilates” (14), (b) “Mad Fit Pilates” (15), (c) “Pilates in the ‘Hood” (16), and (d) “How can I tone up my butt and thighs in time for swimsuit season?” (17).  It is clear that the method is effective.

A Receptive Audience

The remaining essential factor is a receptive audience.  Pilates classes are in demand at nearly every gym and fitness club from cosmopolitan areas to the rural mid-west.  Small studios where students can have private one-on-one sessions on the apparatus designed by Joe are cropping up all over the nation.  In 2000, it was estimated that almost 5 million Americans practice Pilates (9).  Hollywood movies make tongue-in-cheek references to the method, celebrity-laden infomercials burble about Pilates, hundreds of Pilates books have been published.  Hybrid methods such as Yogilates (yoga and Pilates), aqualates (aquatic exercise and Pilates) and Pilates on the Ball (a large exercise ball combined with Pilates) are proliferating.  In America, the necessary receptive audience is obviously in place.

Is Fitness a Philosophy?

It appears that Joe was correct, he was fifty years ahead of his time.  But what  has changed?  Why is America now more receptive to Joe’s method?  It is this author’s opinion that the western world is beginning to wrap its collective mind around the idea that fitness is also a philosophy; that whole body health is the result of a body, mind and spirit that are in communication.   Although this seems revolutionary to us, the eastern world has been committed to these ideas for thousands of years.  The six principles of the Pilates method (concentration, control, centering, precision, flowing movement, and breathing) are also descriptive of wellness philosophies from the east.

Wellness Philosophy vs. Fitness Method

Eastern physical endeavors such as yoga, t’ai chi, and Qigong, may be considered wellness philosophies because the intention is wellness and its attendant holistic focus; bodily health and fitness are important but not the only benefits. For example, yoga, which originated in India, is considered a “unitive discipline [that] leads to inner and outer union, harmony and joy (18).  The Chinese exercise form known as t’ai chi, is a system of slow, controlled, and inter-linked poses conducted in a relaxed manner, and anchored by “four fundamental principles. . . : health, self-defense, mental accomplishment and the way to immortality” (19).  Qigong is an ancient Chinese wellness technique designed to cultivate one’s life force through postures, movement and breath (20).  
These wellness philosophies can be contrasted to the west’s attraction to fitness methods where the intention is improvement or maintenance of the physical body’s health and fitness; resistance training and aerobics are examples.  The idea of entering the free-weight room at the local Sport Center, with an eastern intention of achieving the indescribable ecstasy of union with the infinite (21), would be completely absurd to most westerners.
Why would the West (the Occident) and the East (the Orient) have such differing perspectives on health and wellness?  A society’s religious mythology describes its view of the natural world and humanity’s place in it, provides guidelines for behavior (norms), and ideas about the world yet to come.  Campbell (22) notes the mythology of the Orient (India, Southeast Asia, China and Japan, as well as archaic mesopotamia and Egypt) as describing reality as “not progressing toward any end, but rendering manifest...the radiance of a divine power, which, though transcendent, is yet immanent in all things”.   Humanity’s experience of life on earth is described as an endless turning of the wheel of time, where there is no beginning and no end; “where all is a continuous creation that is fundamental to the nature of the universe” (22, p. 20).  Within this belief-system, the divine is implicit:  every thing, creature, and person is the divine.   The traditional Indian greeting expresses this by consisting of two parts: a gesture (mudra) and a greeting (mantra) (23).  Palani describes the gesture (two hands pressed together and held near the heart) to symbolize “the oneness of an apparently dual cosmos, the bringing together of spirit and matter, or the self meeting the self”.  The greeting is the spoken word Namaste.  Palani continues, “In   Sanskrit   ‘Namas’   means,   ‘bow,  obeisance,  reverential  salutation.’ It  comes from the root  Nam, which carries meanings  of bending,  bowing, humbly submitting and  becoming silent. ‘Te’  means ‘to you.’  Thus ‘namaste’ means ‘I bow to  you.’” Together, these  symbolize the divinity within the greeter and the greeted united into one being.
This is in direct opposition to the mythology of the Occident, founded by  the Persian prophet Zoroaster (c. 660 B.C.).  His reforms “broke the dreamlike spell of [the Orient and its] contemplative, metaphysically oriented tradition, where light and darkness alternated and danced together in a world-creating cosmic shadow play. ” (22, p. 20)  Zoroaster not only separated light from darkness but also assigned a moral value to each:  good and evil.  Campbell continues, “Hence the universe was to be known as a compound of wisdom and violence, light and dark, wherein good and evil were contending fiercely for the victory” (p. 20).  Divinity was no longer within but resided firmly outside the self.  Others were no longer seen as participants in the divinity of the universe, but as either potential threats to be defeated or as potential converts who should be baptized into the “true” faith.  Only once they were dead or converted were they acceptable.

The West Now Wants to Emulate the East

Westerners are becoming more conscious of wellness, more interested in their health and more motivated to do something about it.  The relatively new western field of Sport Psychology is interested in themes common to eastern wellness philosophies.  Entire chapters in modern Sport Psychology textbooks discuss the importance of attentional focus and how to manage anxiety and arousal (24, 25).  Focus is necessary any time a person must execute a complex motor skill, find the “guts” to “dig deep” and complete a challenging task, or quickly filter through many cues to determine an appropriate reaction.  Intense focus can lead to the holy grail for many athletes:  a flow experience, where there is “no difference between what [the athlete] is thinking and what they are doing” (25, p. 385) and the athlete performs in an altered state.  Martens describes the flow state as “time seems to slow down or stand still, movements appear in slow motion, and the athlete has a sense of omnipotence” (26, p. 137).  The West has discovered that the focus necessary to achieve the flow state can be developed through meditation (27, pp. 1134-1135), which is central to Eastern wellness philosophies such as yoga. 
However, many Westerners still feel alienated by eastern wellness philosophies that are so different from western fitness methods.  For these people, the Pilates method bridges the gap and provides benefits for body, mind and spirit:  attentional control, fitness, embodiment practice, and flexibility.  Rather than having an intention to gain serenity and focus - which for many Westerners goes too much against the grain - Pilates students focus on complicated choreography, breathing patterns, and seamless transitions; improvements in serenity and focus are happy side-effects.


As the west’s social norms have evolved through contact with the east, wellness philosophies have become more popular.   The Pilates method is a blend of western fitness method and eastern wellness philosophy.  It’s a hybrid, a chameleon that can be for each practitioner whatever he or she wants it to be.  Even though Joe Pilates wrote about the philosophy of his method, Mary Bowen who remembers working with him first-hand, recalls that he did not discuss philosophy while training clients; personal experience of this author suggests this was because the clients would not tolerate it!  Joe was fully committed to the exercises and believed that the body-mind connection would manifest itself; regardless of whether this was the practitioner’s intention.  This can be contrasted with wellness philosophies such as meditation, Qigong, and t’ai chi where the practitioner’s intention is an essential aspect.
Over the past 100 years, many western fitness celebrities have spoken of the body-mind-spirit connection in relation to fitness, but for the most part the message is very western.  We are not currently ideologically programmed for a wellness philosophy as defined by eastern standards.  However, America has embraced a bridge to the east in the form of the Pilates Method, where the practitioner can “feel the burn”, where you can easily get your ass handed to you on a platter, where one has to hold on to the banister when going down the stairs after class - and yet also achieve benefits like concentration, control, centering, precision, and flowing movement.   
---Donna Luder, 2008

© 2007-08  All rights reserved, no portion may be reproduced without prior written permission.


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