Pilates — More Than Just Another Exercise Class

Romana Kryzanowska at the original art of pilates studio in Milan, Italy


What Is Pilates?

Joseph Pilates trains a student on the BarrelAs many are already aware, the form of exercise now referred to generically as “Pilates” was originally conceived in the late 19th century and developed in the early 20th century by German fitness enthusiast Joseph Pilates.

Plagued as a child by rickets and asthma, young Pilates was the son of a gymnast father and naturalist mother. Presumably this predisposed him to develop what would today be considered an original holistic route to healing his damaged body, guided only by a hand-me-down book on anatomy, direct observation of forest animals, and a resourceful insight into the body’s complex biomechanical relationships.

Through intensive study - “I learned every page, every part of the body; I would move each (body) part as I memorized it” - Pilates’ dedication eventually made him a self-taught expert on how the body moved through space. This, in turn, led to his accomplishments as a gymnast in his own right, as well as a student of boxing, yoga, and the exotic fighting form we recognize today as martial arts.

In 1912 He left Germany for England to pursue his boxing career, but after World War I broke out he was instead interred as an enemy alien. The prison hospital is where he would work for the duration to rehabilitate casualties — and realize the inspiration that would become the internationally recognized movement that is today practiced as classical Pilates.

Joseph Pilates Refines His Theory

The real breakthrough was that Pilates, a physical therapist, recognized that properly designed and constructed machines could multiply his efforts and dramatically extend his ability to work with patients. And it was that insight, the notion that concentration on the movement coupled with consistent resistance, could not only rehabilitate patients but could serve equally well as a totally new physical discipline.

His first apparatus used bed springs for the resistance the hospital patients needed for his evolving exercise routines. It was the genesis for what he would label Contrology (The Art of Control) after his return to Germany following the war’s end.

In 1925 he left Germany for New York, meeting his future wife, Clara, on the crossing. In 1926 he opened his first studio in a building that also housed dance and acting studios. The physical benefits of Contrology - Pilates - were quickly appreciated by dance legends in the making George Balanchine and Martha Graham and are why today we associate Pilates so closely with dance.

Romana Continued The Pilates Tradition

Joseph Pilates died in 1967 at age 87. Until her passing in 1977 his wife, Clara, continued to operate the studio, assisted by Joseph’s protege Romana Kryzanowska. Romana, the last surviving Elder, continued to inspire and train new generations of instructors in classical Pilates from her New York studio, True Pilates, until her death in August, 2013.

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