Pilates: how a German invented a sport and conquered the world

Dhe five-story house on Eight Avenue in the middle of Manhattan doesn’t seem spectacular. A supermarket and a Cuban restaurant are on the ground floor; the brick facade with the large windows above is partially covered with scaffolding.

Just take a look at the doorbell sign at 939 Eight Avenue to understand the importance of this discreet building in the history of the global fitness market: several Pilates studios are listed there, including one in second floor nicknamed “Original Joe’s Place”. .

In these rooms bearing the number “207”, Joseph Pilates, born in Mönchengladbach and emigrated to New York and who would have been 140 years old this Saturday, opened the first studio for physical training that he had developed in the 1920s. It was from there that the Pilates training method took the world by storm and is still taught and practiced by millions of people in countless places today.

From beer brewer to body trainer

Joseph Pilates’ father was already an enthusiastic gymnast, as scientist Eva Rincke writes in a biography about the coach. However, he made his money as a journeyman locksmith, his wife was a housewife, and the couple had several children. Joseph Pilates, born in 1883, apprenticed as a beer brewer after school, but, like his father, he was interested in all types of exercise, whether it was boxing, gymnastics or gymnastics. “Physical fitness is the first condition of happiness,” he later wrote in one of his books.

During World War I, Pilates was sent to a British internment camp, where he began training his entourage. Back in Germany, he founded a boxing school in Gelsenkirchen and trained police officers in Hamburg.

The Pilates method was first called “Contrology”

Pilates emigrated to New York in the mid-1920s. On the ship crossing the Atlantic, he met his future wife, a trained nurse. Together they opened the studio on Eight Avenue in Manhattan, where they would teach the fitness training program that Pilates had been working on for many years, which he first called “Contrology” and which later took the world by storm under the name Pilates method.

The goal of full-body training is to strengthen the deeper muscles, including the pelvic floor, stomach, and back. Stretching, breathing and posture also play an important role: the body must be centered and stabilized. The dozens of different exercises can be performed on a mat on the floor or on special machines, many of which were invented and patented by Pilates.

Plates students contributed to global fame

The couple’s Pilates studio quickly attracted many clients, including many celebrities such as dancers Martha Graham and George Balanchine and actresses Katherine Hepburn and Lauren Bacall. German boxer Max Schmeling is also said to have trained Pilates in New York. Pilates reportedly worked one-on-one with him and many other interested people on their respective physical challenges and sometimes even invented their own exercises for them.

A Pilates studio in New York.  Born in Mönchengladbach, Joseph Pilates emigrated to New York in the 1920s and enjoyed enormous success in the field of physical training there.

A Pilates studio in New York. Born in Mönchengladbach, Joseph Pilates emigrated to New York in the 1920s and enjoyed enormous success in the field of physical training there.

Image: dpa

Until old age, Pilates trained himself and his students with meticulous attention to detail and wrote several books on the method he invented. After his death in 1967, at the age of 83, his widow Clara continued to teach the Pilates method for ten years until her own death. Many students of both opened their own studios and helped spread the method around the world.

Pilates – an unprotected term

The Pilates couple had no children and Joseph Pilates neither left a will nor made arrangements for the continuation of his work. This has led to the term Pilates not being protected, repeatedly leading to legal disputes. In 2000, a New York judge ruled that the term Pilates could be used by anyone – like yoga or aerobics.

The suit was filed by Pilates instructor Sean Gallagher, who had once worked with a student of Joseph Pilates and, according to a New York Times article, purchased from him, among other things, several boxes of equipment and photos of the Pilates couple . .

“50 years ahead of its time”

Mönchengladbach, the birthplace of Pilates, has erected a memorial plaque for the fitness trainer and plans to create a museum in collaboration with the International Pilates Society, a city spokesperson said. The birthplace of Pilates couldn’t be purchased at an auction last year, at least at first. Meanwhile, millions of people around the world continue to train with the Mönchengladbacher method every day – many perhaps without knowing that there is really a person behind the name.

Interest in Pilates and other fitness and wellness offerings like yoga was still niche during the time of Pilates’ inventor, but in recent years and decades it has grown significantly – a worldwide success. Pilates himself reportedly declared shortly before his death in hospital: “I am 50 years ahead of my time. »

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