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What is Pilates?


We could write a thesis on this simple, three-word question.


In the words of Romana Kryzanowska (Pilates elder): “You can say what Pilates is in these words: Stretch with strength and control. And the control part is the most important because it makes you use your mind”.


The man behind the method: Joseph Hubertus Pilates was born in Germany in 1883. Since he was a young boy, he struggled with ailments like asthma and rickets (soft bones due to lack of vitamin D) and was often the victim of bullying at school, due to his lack of physical strength. He was determined to change his situation – he took to the pursuit of sports, particularly gymnastics, wrestling, boxing, and self-defence. It’s said that he worked his body to the extent that he was asked to model for the anatomy charts that hung in his New York City studio many years later… Revenge is sweet!

He moved to England to continue his boxing pursuits and he even worked as a self-defence instructor in Scotland Yard. During the First World War, he was interned as an “alien enemy” at a German national’s work camp in England. Bad for Joseph; good for us – because this is where he began developing exercises known today as “Pilates Mat work”, which he called, Contrology.


Interesting fact: none of the internees who followed his Contrology regimen in the camp, contracted influenza that killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide.


When he was transferred to another camp, he became something of an exercise therapist to bedridden soldiers. With the patients never having to leave the bed, Joe attached the bedsprings to the bed frames themselves – helping them to strengthen and mobilize their bodies. And this was the beginning of him using apparatus in his regimen. After the war, he used his method to train military police and boxers.


In 1926 he moved to New York City. Working in a boxers’ gym in midtown Manhattan, he was located close to the training studios of athletes and dancers. For 45 years he was a mastermind, known mainly to broken dancers and performers. Although he died before Pilates really became popular among the “average-Joe’s”, he died knowing that one day the world would “get it” and everyone will be doing Pilates.

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