We’ve all heard of Pilates, but most of us don’t know the fascinating history behind the fitness movement. For one, most of us don’t know that the original name for Pilates was Contrology (interesting, right?) or that Pilates founder Joseph Pilates first dreamed up the fitness routine while imprisoned in a World War I internment camp in England. Keep reading to learn more interesting tidbits, debunk the myths of Pilates history, and feed your inner fitness historian.

Pilates History 101: The Life of Founder Joseph Pilates

Born in Germany in 1883, Joseph Pilates didn’t have a normal childhood. He suffered from various illnesses, including asthma, rickets, and rheumatic fever. To combat his illnesses, he began training in boxing and gymnastics; thus igniting his passion for physical fitness at a young age. By the time Joseph Pilates was an adult, he was free of his ailments. In his adulthood, Joseph Pilates became an avid skier and diver in addition to his training as a gymnast and boxer. (He was a man of many talents!)

Fast forward to the early 1910s, and we find Joseph Pilates in an internment camp in England. Why was he there? Joseph had moved to England in 1912 to work as a self-defense instructor for detectives at Scotland Yard. But because he was from Germany, when World War I started in 1914, Joseph was put in an internment camp along with other “enemy aliens.”

As the days rolled on, Joseph began observing the physical fitness of his fellow internees deteriorate. He also spent some time observing the natural movement of cats on the premises and began envisioning ways to translate these natural movements into the human frame. 

With a clear problem (lack of physical stimulation) and a ton of inspiration (from the cats he observed), Joseph began building an exercise program for his fellow internees. These exercises were the beginning of modern-day Pilates. And it worked; legend has it that when the 1918 influenza pandemic raged through the world, all of Joseph’s early Pilates students survived. Coincidence, or a measure of the mens’ improved health as a result of early Pilates training? 

The Myth of the “Dancer Workout”

When Joseph—often called Joe—finally left England in 1926, he decided to bring his new exercise to the US. On his way over there, he met his wife, Clara Zeuner. Together, they opened the first Pilates studio in New York City.

While Pilates immediately attracted the interest of professional dancers, probably because the first location shared an address with the New York City ballet, there is a common misconception that Pilates is a dancer’s workout. Not true! Remember, Joseph was a boxer. Dancers may love Pilates, but Joe himself mostly worked with everyday people and athletes of all kinds. Pilates is for everyone, athletes, regular people, and those recovering from injury.

During these early years in New York City, Pilates was gaining immense popularity. So much so that Joseph’s students began opening up their own studios across the country. These early Pilates instructors are known as Pilates “elders,” the first generation of Pilates Masters. 

The Original Pilates Masters: The “Elders”

While Joe was still kickin’ it and teaching his Pilates classes in his original studio, two of his students opened their own practices. Carola Trier was the first. A contortionist and dancer, she fled Nazi Germany in 1940 and discovered Pilates as she recovered from injury. She opened her studio with Joe’s help in the 1950s. Bob Seed, a former hockey player, opened his studio without Joe’s support. Rumor has it that Bob was trying to attract some of Joseph Pilates’ morning bird clientele by offering early classes. As you can imagine, Joseph didn’t love this; they stopped being friends. (Bet you didn’t expect Pilates history drama!)  

Ron Fletcher, a Martha Graham dancer and choreographer, opened the first Pilates studio in Los Angeles in 1970. A Black woman and beloved dancer, Kathy Grant was the first elder to introduce inclusivity into Pilates. Lolita San Miguel, a Puerto Rican woman and dancer, opened her first Pilates studio in Puerto Rico in 1977. Other Pilates Elders include Eve Gentry, Bruce King, Mary Bowen, Robert Fitzgerald, and more. (Trust us, we could write a book about these influential Pilates masters!) 

But if you’re wondering who brought Pilates to the mainstream, it was Ron Fletcher’s LA Studio. Thanks to its popularity among Hollywood celebrities, Pilates was all over the media in the late 1980s, officially transforming Pilates into mainstream fitness. Today, Pilates can be found in fitness facilities all around the world and is an important part of training for Olympic athletes and over 10 million Americans. But if you love Pilates so much that you wish you could go back in time and train with the original Pilates Masters, we have good news for you!

Modern Pilates Master: John Garey

While most of the Pilates Elders have passed away, there are a number of modern-day Pilates Masters who have studied the traditional Pilates method and are considered teachers of the original Pilates practice as it was intended by Joseph Pilates himself.

Story time! One of Joseph Pilates’ students was figure skater Adele Inge, the first woman to do a backflip on ice skates. Joseph Pilates helped Inge recover from a back injury when she was a performer back in the 1940s. They were close, she called him Uncle Joe, it’s no biggie. Whenever she was in NYC, she would continue to see him. But when Joseph Pilates passed away in 1967, Inge was on the search for a new Pilates instructor. It wasn’t until 2001 when Inge met John Garey that she finally found a comparable instructor. She was in her 80s when she told John Garey that he trained the most like Joseph Pilates of any instructor she ever worked with since. 

Modern Pilates Master John Garey offers virtual Pilates training for people living all over the world! To learn more about his offerings, check out John Garey TV. Psst, while John Garey was traditionally trained, he is most known for making Pilates fun. Expect a mix of intense athleticism and laughter in his class offerings, whether you have a home Pilates studio or not! 

 If this overview of Pilates History has got you yearning for more Pilates knowledge, check out John Garey’s blog. There, you can discover a Pilates challenge to fit your lifestyle, learn the benefits of Pilates, and even get the answer to your question, Is 20 minutes of Pilates a day enough?