Pilates & Faith: Understanding Pilates Relation to Religion

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

With the spreading trend of mindfulness, certain meditative exercises, such as Yoga and Pilates, have found their way into schools and even corporate offices. However, just as quickly as these practices became commonplace in the classroom and office space, some of them were banned. Why is that? Why were they banned? The reason is plain and simple: religion.

Many believe that these practices have a link to a religious belief or spiritual practice, which means to some that those who don’t follow the same beliefs are having their religious rights violated. That might leave you wondering why Pilates is still practiced in educational institutions and businesses. Isn’t Pilates also a form of religious practice and akin to a particular spirituality? Read on to find out the truth.

Pilates is not a religion and is not linked to a religion in any way. It was created by Joseph Pilates in the early 1920s while he was at an internment camp on the Isle of Man (UK). Pilates focused entirely on muscle and strength building exercises. 

The exercise program was initially aimed at helping soldiers returning from WWI recover from their injuries. As such, Pilates is an internationally recognized and certified exercise system and nothing more.

Many people do not quite believe it when I tell them that Pilates has absolutely no religious origins. For some reason, Pilates has been lumped with other ancient Eastern meditative practices, such as Yoga. These Eastern practices are quite typically linked to a spiritual or religious belief system, which makes it difficult for people of other faiths to practice them. If you are dedicated to your faith and doing a spiritual practice will compromise that; rather, don’t!

If you want to learn more about Pilates and why it is not linked to a religious background, read on.

Pilates’ History Shows No Evidence of Spirituality

I am going to put your mind at ease because the spiritual aspect of Pilates also played on my mind for quite some time. At the time, I wanted to know if I was getting myself into another religion’s practice, and I wasn’t sure what it meant if I was. I did quite a bit of digging around to see if there was any affiliation between Pilates and a religion.

Let’s take a closer look at the facts upfront. Pilates was only created in the 1920s and was done so by a physical trainer who had suffered physical ailments his whole life. As such, he was quite obsessed with developing health and fitness programs that strengthened the human body. Thus, Pilates was one of his intentional creations. 

Pilates wasn’t one of those exercise systems that was accidentally stumbled on or largely based on another discipline or practice. It was created strategically and intentionally based on how the body responds to injury and what type of exercises have the best return (or produce the best results).

At no point does Pilates call for “meditation” as such, but more for controlled, strategic breathing. And at no point during the years that Pilates has been practiced, has any mention of religion or spirituality been made during practices. For me, this says it all. 

Who Created Pilates and Why?

For those who need a little more peace of mind that Pilates is nothing more than a fitness and exercise regime, let’s take a look at the background of Pilates.

In the 1920s, Pilates was officially created by Joseph Pilates, who was a physical trainer at the time. Because Joseph Pilates had suffered numerous ailments as a child, he was quite focused on spending his life seeking out alternative treatments and exercises that would bolster the body against disease, illness, or injury.

During Pilates’ time at the Knockaloe internment camp in WWI, he could not help but notice the poor rehabilitation facilities available for soldiers returning from war. He also seemed quite focused on creating general awareness of the importance of physical fitness. Therefore, Joseph set about creating a program or series of exercises designed to strengthen muscles and help the body recover from pains, aches, and strains with greater ease. 

Pilates believed that his exercise system would spur recovery while building body strength – and he was right. While soldiers were the first to be exposed to Pilates, dancers soon learned of the exercise system and got on board, too. Some of the first dancers to start Pilates were George Balanchine and Martha Graham – and many other well-known dancers at the time followed. Pilates is still trusted by many dancers today.

So, Why was Pilates created?

The main reason Pilates was created was for rehabilitation programs. However, instead of just being for rehabilitation, people in the fitness world began realizing the legitimacy of the workout program and simply couldn’t overlook the positive results. Because of this, Pilates has become a mind-body intervention and the fitness workout choice of millions of people. 

The exercise program focuses on developing strength and core stability. It also vastly promotes muscle control, flexibility, good posture, and controlled breathing. As Pilates is an intense workout, it is done slowly with intentional movements and stretches. The results can be, therefore, quite impressive. 

Why People Think Pilates is a Religious Practice

Why exactly have people thought that Pilates is a religion or based on a religion? What makes them think this? There seems to have been a great deal of confusion over the years about Pilates and its origins. Some believe that it is linked to religion and others do not. One reason why so many people have believed that Pilates has religious roots might be because of the meditative side of the exercise. 

Some may also be misled by one of Joseph’s quotes regarding his exercise system. The quote is as follows: 

I appeal to those interested in the future welfare of our race, to aid in putting my practical physical education method before the public where it will do the most benefit, and to have them see and test my health producing inventions to the end that mankind can enjoy God’s blessings—health and happiness.” 

Joseph Pilates 

The confusion comes in where Pilates makes mention of God, but he also quite clearly states that Pilates is a “practical physical education method” and does not make references to any spirituality involved or the need for it. There is little evidence to even support whether Joseph Pilates was religious or not. In fact, we do not know what faith he followed at all. Surely if an exercise system had religious roots, that religion would be far more obvious? 

When it comes to Pilates being as meditative as Yoga, the misconception is also somewhat understandable. Pilates is done very similarly to Yoga in that a quiet space is required; students must quiet their minds, slow down their bodies, and focus. The difference is that in Yoga, students must reflect inwardly, whereas in Pilates, mindfulness is encouraged. Mindfulness is a state of mind that requires being 100% aware of what is happening around you and focusing on each and every precise movement that you make. 

As far as I have found out, and to my understanding, while Pilates is considered a meditative practice, it is not based on any religious understandings or reflections. The meditative state is more aimed at ensuring that a student is focused, relaxed, and present in the moment so that each and every exercise and movement is precise and effective. 

Is it Okay for Christians to do Pilates?

For some people who are devout Christians, doing meditative Eastern practices, such as Yoga, might not be appropriated. This is because many of these poses and concentrations are based on Hindu teachings, which might not be acceptable or suited for the Christian belief system and faith. Pilates, however, offers a clear-cut physical instruction and mindful carrying out of precise exercises. Without the religious roots or the spirituality involved, it is safe to say that Pilates is okay for Christians to do.

When booking your Pilates class, chat with the instructor to ascertain if any of the Eastern meditations or practices are added to the class or if the class is purely based on original Pilates. 

Pilates – for you or not?

At the end of the day, deciding to do Pilates or not is a personal choice. It is important to take a close look at the history of the practice as well as the facts. What I have found is that Pilates is a great alternative for those who have an interest in the practice and benefits of Yoga, but don’t want to practice an art that is linked to any religion or spiritualism.

In my experience, you simply cannot go wrong with Pilates. It’s great for developing a balanced and healthy mindset, it increases flexibility and strength, it improves balance, and it will make you oh-so-agile. And when you can get all of these benefits without compromising your own personal belief system, why wouldn’t you?

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This article was co-authored by our team of in-house and freelance writers, and reviewed by our editors, who share their experiences and knowledge about the "Seven F's of Life".

JC Franco
Editor | + posts

JC Franco is a New York-based editor for Lifevif. He covers topics like spirituality, philosophy, finance, sports, games, and food. JC earned a Bachelor’s degree in Business with a Marketing Concentration at Mercyhurst University. He is a certified USPTA professional who teaches tennis in the New York City Metropolitan area. He has passed the Level I exam of the CFA program.