The History of Pilates

When I was first introduced to Pilates in 2001, it was just making the rounds as a hot fitness trend.  Most people weren’t aware that it had already been around for 100 years!  Now, 13 years later, most people have at least heard of Pilates, but they still don’t know what it is.

Pilates is a system of movement and exercise created by German born Joseph Pilates in the early 1900’s.  He was passionate about fitness and how the body worked.  By the time he was in his early 20’s, he had studied Zen meditation, yoga, Greek wrestling, swimming and had even become a self-defense instructor for Scotland Yard and an anatomical model.  Through his studies, he created specific exercises that he believed would balance the body and uplift the heart, mind and soul.  He called his system “Contrology”.


Joe was placed in a British prison camp during WWI, where he quickly started training his fellow inmates in Contrology.  He rigged springs to hospital beds and used prison cots in order to give the exercises resistance.  These designs would be the foundation for his specialized Pilates equipment.  An influenza epidemic struck England in 1918 when Joe was there, killing thousands.  Not a single one of Joe’s students passed away.  When released, he began working as a rehabilitation specialist and used his specific techniques to help hospital patients.

In 1926, he decided to leave Europe.  He met his wife, Clara, on the boat destined for America.  He opened the first “Pilates” studio in New York, which just so happened to share an address with the New York City Ballet.  The injured dancers quickly realized how Pilates could help them, and he took on regular students and apprentices.  His real passion was changing the body and using Pilates as therapy and rehab.  He believed his system could revolutionize the fitness and therapy worlds.


Unfortunately, Joe passed away in 1976, before his vision could be realized.  Clara, along with Romana Kryzanowska, continued to operate the Pilates Studio on Eighth Avenue in New York.   Joe and Clara had many students who proceeded to spread across the country and open their own Pilates studios.  We call these amazing people the First Generation Teachers.  Most Pilates schools have their roots in one of these teachers.  Joe taught students, who then taught other students, who then taught other students.  This is why you see different “methods” taught, such as Polestar, BASI, Stott, classical, and even Harmony.  Each one has a common thread throughout and works to teach the Pilates method.  The reputable and true schools have more similarities than differences, and teach at least 90% of the same exercises.  Their differences can be found in their lineage and their goals for the community they teach.  Each one, though, works to spread the good work of Pilates.

Joe did not leave any will or directive on how to carry on the Pilates name when he passed away.  Because of this, and the sudden popularity of Pilates in the 1990’s, many people started claiming they “taught Pilates”.  You could read an online book and get a certificate and say you were a Pilates teacher.  The industry wanted to be open to new and young instructors, while keeping the work true and pure.

The Pilates Method Alliance was founded in 2001 as a professional association and certifying agency for Pilates teachers.  It’s purpose is to “provide an international organization to connect teachers, teacher trainers, studios and facilities dedicated to preserving and enhancing the legacy of Joseph H Pilates and his exercise method by establishing standards, encouraging unity and promotion professionalism.”

While it has taken some time, the PMA has succeeded in bringing some unity and common standards to our industry.  We appreciate what the PMA has done for Pilates as a whole, and support the PMA.  Many of our instructors are PMA certified, and Harmony is on the PMA Registry of Schools for teaching students to be Pilates instructors.

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