During the First World War a young, foreign national who had lived in England since 1912, was sent to the Isle of Man to be interned for the duration of the war, this man was Joseph Pilates. He had been a sickly child and discovered that exercise was the key to gained physical and emotional strength. He was a gymnast and had earned a living as a professional boxer, circus trainer and had been a self-defence trainer at police schools. Whilst on the Isle of Man, Joseph Pilates used his time effectively, as did many of the other internees at the Knockaloe camp. The Leece Museum at Peel and archive evidence at the library at the Manx Museum show how prolific and industrious these prisoners of war were. Pilates for his part began to develop his concept of an integrated, comprehensive system of physical exercise, which he himself called ‘Contrology’. He trained his fellow inmates and it is suggested that this exercise regime played a large part in the survival of inmates during the TB pandemic of 1918.
At the end of the war Pilates returned to Germany but was soon disappointed by the political and social conditions and ultimately settled in America where he married his wife Clara and worked extensively in the development of his technique which he continued to call ‘Contrology’, the use of the mind to control muscles. The exercises focused attention on the core postural muscles that help keep the human body balanced and provide support for the spine. He encouraged awareness of the breath and the alignment of the spine, and the strengthening of the deep torso and abdominal muscles. He died at the age of 84 in 1967 and his legacy continues today in the form of Pilates.
Pilates was considered ahead of his time and his exercises are now taught around the world and are popularised and endorsed by celebrity status – Madonna, Darcey Bussell, Simon Callow to name a few. Although some of the exercises have been modified to encompass modern thinking towards exercise, the principles of relaxation, concentration, alignment, breathing, centering, co-ordination, flowing movements and stamina continue today.
Much of the literature Pilates produced emphasised that his exercises can be performed by all and have relevance to anyone who wants to improve their physical fitness and to deal with various postural conditions.
Joseph Pilates would have been proud to realise that his passion and enthusiasm for the benefits of exercise are continuing today.