Pilates Evolution: From World War I to Mainstream Fitness

Last Updated on February 14, 2024 by Lifevif Team and JC Franco

Where does Pilates come from? You would be forgiven for thinking that it has a similar history or background to the likes of Yoga or Tai Chi, but it really doesn’t. Several low-impact, meditative art/exercise forms have roots in ancient China or India. Their origins are somewhat sketchy and seem swathed in mystery. Pilates, however, is different. The exact origin of Pilates is known, along with the exact dates and how it made its way to the United States.

There’s nothing mysterious or mystical about Pilates. Let’s dive into a simple explanation of the history of Pilates.

History of Pilates:

  • In the 1920s, Pilates was created by a German fitness trainer, Joseph H. Pilates.
  • J. H. Pilates’ own health growing up was an inspiration for Pilates.
  • In the First World War, Pilates finalized his version of Pilates and taught it to those around him.
  • Joseph Pilates immigrated to the USA in 1926 and took the concept of Pilates with him.
  • Many New York dancers were clients of Joseph and Clara by 1960.
  • Two of Joseph’s own students opened Pilates studios and began teaching the concept.
  • By the 1970s, Hollywood celebs were discovering Pilates, which lead to extensive media coverage of the fitness art by the late 1980s – the rest is history!

If you were wondering if Pilates is an ancient meditation or art; it is not. If you were wondering if there are any spiritual or religious roots or ties to Pilates; there aren’t. Pilates is quite simply an effective form of body and muscle conditioning, which is highly beneficial in a number of ways. Practicing Pilates will not only develop muscles but also strengthen them and improve balance and flexibility. The beauty of Pilates is that it’s gentle and low-impact but offers exceptional results in a short space of time. 

If you want to take a closer look at the history of Pilates as mentioned above, read on!

A Brief Breakdown of the History of Pilates

I’m fifty years ahead of my time”. These are the words of Joseph Pilates when talking about his fitness system. When I consider this claim, I cannot help but think that he was absolutely right. While Pilates was in its infancy in those years, more than fifty years later, it is considered the norm. Unfortunately, he died before he could see his fitness system become the top choice of the rich and famous, or become a mainstream fitness system of choice, but his name will be forever forged in history, regardless.

The history of Pilates is pretty straightforward. Check it out below:

In the 1920s, Pilates was created by a German fitness trainer, Joseph Pilates.

Joseph Pilates officially created Pilates in the early 1920s. Joseph was born in Mönchengladbach, Germany, to a Naturopath mother and Gymnast father. His vision was to create a series of exercises intended to strengthen the body as well as the mind.

Joseph Pilates’ own health growing up was an inspiration for Pilates.

Many believe that Pilates was created over the short term, but the reality is that Joseph was tinkering with the idea from his youth.

Growing up, Joseph suffered a variety of health ailments, including asthma. This spurred him on to study a number of possible exercise options in his quest to find a solution to his health issues. During his time studying as many fitness and exercise regimes as he could, he became quite enchanted by the Greek concept of a balanced mind, body, and soul. Because of this, he wanted to develop his own exercise system that aligned with this particular focus and value system.

In the First World War, Pilates finalized his version of Pilates and taught it to those around him.

When WW1 broke out, Joseph Pilates was interned as an “enemy alien” along with other German nationals at the Knockaloe camp, which is on the Isle of Man (UK). During this time, Joseph put extra effort into perfecting his technique and then spent time teaching the fitness concept to others in the camp. He even assisted hospitalized patients to participate in rigging beds with cables and springs.

Joseph worked steadily with his trainees to ensure they were growing in strength and flexibility, as well as in peace of mind. He came to believe that his exercise system was highly effective in curing illness as the Flu epidemic that killed out thousands of people, in England in 1918, had zero effect on his group of trainees.

As the First World War came to a close, more soldiers and dancers were turning to Joseph for training, as his system had become known as an effective way to strengthen the body and overcome injuries and strains.

Joseph Pilates immigrated to the USA in 1926 and took the concept of Pilates with him. 

Joseph Pilates took a voyage to the USA in 1926, seeking out a different life. On route, he met Clara Zeuner, who he later married. Together, Joseph and Clara opened a fitness studio that shared the same premises as the New York City Ballet. This particular dance company was considered elite in its day, and it was highly revered by those in the dancing world as those on the outside. 

At the fitness studio, Joseph worked as a fitness instructor, and because of his position next door to the Ballet studio and his expertise in physical rehabilitation, he gained the support of many dancers.

Many New York dancers were clients of Joseph and Clara by 1960.

Over the years, the fitness studio became a stable and profitable business. And by 1960, Joseph and Clara’s fitness studio became known as the go-to for New York dancers seeking body conditioning, strengthening, fitness training, and injury rehab. At this stage, Pilates was not known globally as it is today.

Two of Joseph’s own students opened Pilates studios and began teaching the concept.

The concept of Pilates had certainly grown in great leaps and bounds over the years. At that time, two of Joseph’s very own students opened their own studios and began teaching Pilates. 

One student named Carola Trier, who was a dancer that fled a Nazi holding camp in France, encountered Joseph Pilates in the 1940s. An injury brought her to Joseph, but after working closely with him and believing in the system herself, she opened her own Pilates studio in 1950. It is said that Carola remained close to both Joseph and Clara in the years that followed and always had his blessing teaching the exercise system.

Another student of Joseph’s, called Bob Seed, was an ex-hockey player who became extremely enthusiastic about Pilates. Bob Seed did not have the blessing of Joseph but opened his own studio regardless. After opening his studio, he proceeded to “hunt” and steal Joseph’s clients. This eventually led to Joseph paying a visit to Seed’s studio to warn him off, with a gun in hand. Seed left town very soon after the incident. Thereafter, Joseph continued to teach students at his studio until the age of 87, when he died from Emphysema. 

By the 1970s, Hollywood celebs were discovering Pilates, which lead to extensive media coverage of the fitness art by the late 1980s – the rest is history!

When Joseph died, the Pilates concept lived on. One particular dancer called Ron Fletcher (who had studied with Joseph in the 1940s) opened his own studio in Los Angeles in the 1970s and taught people the concept of Pilates. Clara took a liking to Ron and agreed that he could carry on the work of her husband. Ron introduced several variations and additions to the practice, but the main concept of Pilates remained the same, and his relationship with Clara remained good. 

At the time of opening, Ron’s studio attracted quite a bit of attention from Hollywood stars. This was mostly because of its prime location in Beverley Hills, which is where Hollywood stars spent most of their time and money. It cannot go unnoticed that because Hollywood celebs were showing so much interest in Pilates, the media began to pick up on it in the 1980s. 

Pilates was then known as the fitness system of choice for the elite, rich, and famous. As such, everybody wanted to learn more about it and do it too! And as they say, the rest is history!

Pilates in Modern Times

As the years passed, Pilates training became more accessible to mainstream fitness enthusiasts. More studios were opened and more instructors learned the finer intricacies of the practice. The Pilates business is still booming today, and for very good reason, it works. Now you can find Pilates classes in almost any and every area. It even forms an essential part of training for athletes in the NFL, NHL, NBA, MLB, and MLS. It’s hard to deny that the benefits of Pilates make it worthwhile.

Understand the History of Pilates – Make Pilates Part of Your Life

The health benefits of Pilates are simply undeniable. It is the very reason why even Olympic athletes incorporate Pilates into their fitness training regimes. If you are looking for a fitness system that has a straightforward history, isn’t affiliated with any religion, and is based on the science of the human body, Pilates is it!

JC Franco
Editor

JC Franco is a New York-based editor for Lifevif. He mainly focuses on content about faith, spirituality, personal growth, finance, and sports. He graduated from Mercyhurst University with a Bachelor’s degree in Business, majoring in Marketing. He is a certified tennis instructor who teaches in the New York City Metropolitan area. In terms of finance, he has passed the Level I exam of the CFA program.