Pilates, with its medieval-looking lengthening and strengthening equipment, used to scare me. Then a few weeks ago, an airy new outpost of a big Pilates franchise opened in my neighbourhood on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. I peered into its spotless glass door and everything looked fresh and clean and citrus-scented. What grabbed my attention most was the promise in the window: “In 10 sessions you will feel the difference, in 20 sessions you will see the difference, in 30 sessions you will HAVE AN ENTIRELY NEW BODY!”
Oh really? This studio wanted to sell me an entirely new body? The woke millennial in me cringed—but as someone who sometimes struggles to climb subway stairs and fit into my jeans, I was intrigued. I signed up for a free intro class and, at the end of the not-that-daunting workout—a series of full-body stretches and resistance exercises—I felt invigorated.
As I was leaving the studio, I noticed that the hyperbolic sales pitch in the window was not the endorsement of a gushing Instagram influencer or an overly enthusiastic franchise owner. The quote was attributed to the workout’s long-deceased inventor, Joseph Pilates, a German circus performer and boxer who first introduced his method more than a 100 years ago. Its original meaning, I would learn, didn’t invoke Lycra or Gwyneth Paltrow’s secret to lithe limbs, but the fundamental idea that good health can be in one’s control.
The ubiquitous influence of Pilates
The story of how, in the first half of the 20th century, Joe Pilates developed his method, which he fittingly called “Contrology”, is the stuff of fitness legend. Pilates’ series of rehabilitative exercises, designed to create total balance of the body and mind, was revelatory in the decades before recreational exercise was a part of the average person’s doctor-recommended daily routine. And Pilates, a true believer in his own method, knew it. “All new ideas are revolutionary,” he wrote in a promotional pamphlet in 1934. “When the theory responsible for them is proved through practical application, it requires only time for them to develop and to flourish.”
Today, to boutique fitness regulars, Pilates can feel a bit trite despite the more than 12 million people who practise it, but its teachings are reflected throughout the industry. “Joseph Pilates’ fitness legacy is everywhere,” says Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, PhD, a fitness historian at The New School. “Any workout that focuses on core and breath work exhibits his influence.” In short, that’s pretty much all of them.
A fitness method born in captivity, and out of necessity
Born near Düsseldorf in 1880s, Pilates was a sickly child whose health challenges, as the fairy tale goes, motivated him to become strong. He trained to become a gymnast, which led to a career as a circus performer. Muscular men and women weren’t aspirational at the turn of the century; they were oddities. “It was less that people were like, ‘Oh, I want to look like that,’ and more, ‘Look at these weirdos who spend all day training,’” says Petrzela. For his act, Pilates posed as a Greek statue.
Pilates and his German circus troupe were touring England in 1914 when the First World War broke out. He was arrested and interned in a camp on the British Isle of Man—and it was there that his eponymous workout was born.
To help pass the time, Pilates would watch the island’s scrawny cats chase mice and birds, marvelling at their energy and agility—a striking contrast to the physical and emotional state of his follow internees. He studied the cats’ movements and concluded that frequent stretching gave them their vim. Pilates then began devising a series of exercises to stretch human muscles, and he’s rumoured to have tinkered with the camp’s hospital beds to build crude workout equipment. Happy with the results in his own body, he taught the regimen to the camps’ prisoners—a captive audience, as it were. When the Great Influenza reached the island, supposedly none of Pilates’ trainees got sick. They were, according to the legend, in better shape at the end of the war than when it began.
Laying the foundations of a global fitness phenomenon
It’s been exactly a century since Pilates was released from the camp in 1919—and that’s when he set to work spreading his fitness gospel outside of the camp’s walls. In 1926, he left Germany for Manhattan and met his wife, Clara, on the ship over. Together, they would help launch a multibillion-dollar industry.
But first, the couple settled into a space on the third floor of a building on New York City’s Eighth Avenue, right next to where the city’s ballet companies rehearsed. The space doubled as an apartment and a gym, which he began to fill with his homegrown fitness apparatus—early models of today’s Reformer and Cadillac. He soon began working with dance luminaries George Balanchine and Martha Graham, who sent their ballerinas to him to rehabilitate from, and eventually prevent, injury. Then came the Hollywood celebrities, including Katharine Hepburn and Sir Laurence Olivier.
Throughout the next few decades, Pilates gradually attracted everyday people with the means to pay five dollars for a session. He would roam the gym wearing tight swimming trunks, homemade espadrilles, and often little else, showing off his impressive physique, according to Lolita San Miguel, one of only two living disciples to have been trained by Pilates himself—and who, at 84, still teaches. He was tempestuous, occasionally telling clients to “get out” if they frustrated him. He had a glass eye, some say due to a boxing accident, which along with his mane of white hair, could make him appear cartoonish. He drank more than a litre of alcohol and smoked 15 cigars every day. His wife, Clara, wore a white nurse’s uniform and provided a gentler approach. “Clara was the other side of the coin,” says San Miguel. “She was very tender and very loving. She was perhaps a better teacher because she had patience.”
Pilates was a vociferous critic of the American lifestyle—the way Americans sat at desks, moved, even their love for sports like baseball, which he believed threw the body out of balance. “Americans! They want to go 600 miles an hour and they don’t know how to walk!” he told Sports Illustrated in 1962. “Look at them in the street. Bent over. Coughing! You men with grey faces! Why can’t they look like animals? Look at a cat. Look at any animal! The only animal that doesn’t hold its stomach in is the pig.” Pilates believed he could fix Americans with his method by aligning body and mind in perfect harmony. “By exercising your stomach muscles you wring out the body, you don’t catch colds, you don’t get cancer, you don’t get hernias.”
A multibillion-dollar legacy
When Pilates died in 1967, the 86-year-old had trained a small handful of protégés, who opened their own studios and trained more teachers. The workout continued quietly in a handful of gyms across the US, mostly followed by dancers who relied on it to stay limber and strong.
It wasn’t until the 1990s, when Americans burned out on heart- and body-pounding aerobics and weightlifting, that Pilates exploded from niche to mainstream. “Everything about Pilates disagreed with conventional exercise at the time,” says Joan Breibart, founder of the PhysicalMind Institute and a Pilates devotee for more than 50 years. “It wasn’t more weight, it was less weight. It wasn’t faster, it was slower.” Throughout the decade, a growing roster of professionally beautiful people, from Uma Thurman to Shalom Harlow, began talking up the workout and demand soared. “We were opening studios and we wrote books and we launched classes,” says Alycea Ungaro, owner of New York-based Real Pilates who helped to fuel the Pilates boom. “It was an incredible time.” When TV infomercials began selling at-home Pilates equipment in 1996, Pilates’s disciples knew it had officially taken on a life of its own. Pilates is now a nine-billion-dollar industry.
I asked the keepers of Joe Pilates’ teachings about his promise to give students an entirely new body. There is no written record of Pilates saying this, it turns out, but his protégés nonetheless repeat it as a mantra. Like its origin story, and like the workout itself, as the sales pitch has been passed along to studios today, its significance morphed to fit today’s needs. The method is, after all, a shape-shifter.
Danielle Friedman is a New York-based journalist specialising in health, sexuality and culture, and is currently writing a new book about the history of women’s exercise culture.