German born fitness innovator JHP (1881 – 1967) was born as a very sickly child. He was determined to overcome his afflictions and took up the rigorous regimens of the Greek and Romans. He also practiced yoga and meditation.

Growing into adulthood, Joe was no longer the sickly child he had once been as he became an avid skier, diver, gymnast, and boxer. Indeed, he so well developed his physique that he was used as a model for anatomy lessons.

We know that he spent many, many hours lying in the woods watching how animals move and applying that same logic to his own body. In his words “I learned…every part of the body; I would move each part as I memorised it. As a child, I would lie in the woods for hours, hiding and watching the animals move, how the mother taught the young.” The behaviour of animals was to have a big effect on Joe, and he named a lot of his exercises after them, (seal, crab, swan dive, elephant to name a few).  At the outbreak of World War I he was interned with other Germans in England. This is where his body of work began as what we now know as the “Mat Work’’. He taught fellow prisoners these exercises for strength and flexibility, combining fitness with breath control and mental sharpness.

In the latter part of the war he was working as an orderly in a hospital, helping to rehabilitate patients by strengthening them using equipment made from bedsprings and other equipment. This equipment eventually became known as the “Reformer” and “Magic Circle”. An influenza epidemic struck England in 1918, killing thousands of people, but not a single one of Joe’s trainees died. This, he claimed, testified to the effectiveness of his system. This utilisation of the hospital bed led to Joe’s design of the Reformer and other studio equipment that has barely changed in all these years.

Joseph Pilates1

After the war he returned to Germany, continuing pioneering his unique approach to fitness. He immigrated to the United States when the German government ordered him to train the new German army. In New York City he opened his Pilates studio along with his wife, Clara.

He invented more equipment with the help of Clara. He designed a repertoire of over 500 exercises to develop strong, flexible muscles without adding bulk. He emphasized breathing and torso strength to improve posture, reduce stress and injury.

His early followers were dancers like George Ballanchine and Martha Graham. He also trained elite athletes.

He died in 1967, having written the consummate “Return to Life Through Contrology” book, a good primer for his beliefs. He left a strong contingent of students who went on to form their own studios and schools. This is the basis for “Classical” Pilates. Others, like Moira Stott studied the Pilates Method in the New York studio but enhanced the work with modern, scientific knowledge about the body and how it works. She, too, invented modern equipment, equipment that most instructors use today.

In the 1970s, Hollywood celebrities discovered Pilates via Ron Fletcher’s studio in Beverly Hills.Needless to say, celebrity support generated media interest. In the late 1980s, the media began to cover Pilates extensively. The public took note, and the Pilates business boomed. No longer the workout of the elite, Pilates has become popular in studios and gyms the world over. It has also become a vital part of training for elite athletes all over the world and during the London Olympics, I was delighted to hear so many world class athletes of all disciplines telling of how they included Pilates in their training.

At home in Ireland there’s no doubt about, Pilates has become an integral part of top athletes training. It is being used by our international Rugby Teams and various football teams, golfers and sports people throughout the country. No matter what your sport, you can benefit by introducing Pilates to your training. Improve your flexibility, strength and balance and notice change in your stability, agility and overall performance.