Pilates 101

Pilates Basics

Joseph Pilates balances on the stomach of his student -- the opera singer Roberta Peters.
Joseph Pilates balances on the stomach of his student -- the opera singer Roberta Peters.
Michael Rougier/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

The development of the Pilates technique had much to do with the childhood of its founder, Joseph Pilates. Born in 1880 in Mönchengladbach, Germany, Joseph Pilates was the son of a competitive gymnast father and a naturopath mother who believed in natural healing. As a young child, Pilates suffered from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever. However, the young Pilates had a burgeoning interest in fitness and health and when a family physician gave him an old anatomy book, the child began memorizing and exercising each body part. By 14, Pilates had developed his body enough to model for anatomy charts.

By early adulthood, Pilates was well trained in boxing, gymnastics, skiing and diving. When World War I broke out in 1914, Pilates, who was living and working in England, was placed in an internment camp for enemy aliens. He taught fellow detainees wrestling and self-defense and began developing the exercise method he would later call Controlology. Pilates was eventually transferred to serve as a nurse for patients with wartime diseases. He began creating equipment to help rehabilitate his patients.

In 1926, Joseph Pilates moved to the United States and opened a Pilates fitness studio in New York City with his wife Clara. Their new mode of exercise became popular with injured dancers who needed rehabilitation. Because Pilates builds strength without adding bulk, it's an effective exercise for dancers who must remain lithe. Pilates is still used today for sports injury prevention and rehabilitation. Pilates can also help restore distortion in a body that has been using certain muscles to compensate for injured ones.

In the next section, we'll learn about the main components of Pilates.