How Joseph Pilates started today’s mind-body boutique craze nearly 100 years ago
Meet Well+Good’s fitness historian, Natalia Petrzela, PhD, a history professor at The New School in New York City and a premier IntenSati instructor, who shares the sweaty past with us in this new column.
If your town is Manhattan or West Los Angeles (or a handful of certain swanky suburbs and smaller cities) it’s easy to believe that the multiplying market of upscale boutique studios is all about the new—offering every fitness flavor from HIIT to hatha yoga.
And it might be easy to believe that Pilates—which birthed this cosseted culture as far back as the 1920s (Pay-per-class! Celebs! Society ladies in stretchy pants! Crowded waitlists!)—has now fallen victim to its own success as former devotees are lured by sweatier, sexier options, as a recent article in New York magazine proclaimed.
Not so fast! Not only do plenty of Pilates players report steady growth and expansion, but the influence of Joseph Pilates’ eponymous program reaches far beyond boutique fitness, and is as present today in a scented SoulCycle studio as in a no-nonsense New York Sports Club. (Just ask the raging “Pilatespocalypse”-deniers in the New York article’s comments section.)
Pilates’ healing origins
The practice now associated with a gleaming Reformer or rows of neatly laid mats was born in a room of jerry-rigged hospital beds in a British internment camp during World War I. Pilates, who had grown up a sickly child in his native Germany, was detained as an “alien enemy” in England and devised these contraptions to help fellow prisoners regain their strength after illness and injury.
But what began as rehab revealed its radical preventative potential when every single of one of Pilates’ trainees survived the 1918 influenza outbreak that killed 30–50 million globally.
In other words, half a century before seekers from Esalen to Kripalu experimented with a radical idea of preventative “self-care,” a German boxer-circus-performer-detainee had beaten them to it.
The other mind-body connection
It’s hard to find a sweat session these days that doesn’t also promise mental and spiritual enlightenment, and it’s intuitive to attribute this to yoga, the quintessential “mind-body practice” that began moving from the margins to the mainstream in the late 1960s.
Yet Joseph Pilates, his wife Clara, and their team of top instructors (called “elders”) embraced an overtly holistic approach to physical exertion. It had acolytes from his famed Manhattan studio, the Eighth Avenue Pilates Studio for Natural Rejuvenation, to his LA offshoot “Body Contrology” swooning. They said the class was “a high in itself” and “a total trip”—due mostly to the breathwork and mental focus of exercises as central to Pilates sessions as the postural poses the Hundred or the Saw.
Dancing as a sport
Whether it’s Misty Copeland as the face (and body) of Under Armour or the popularity of dance-based workouts like Zumba populating prime time at the gym, there’s no doubt today that dancers are athletes. Pilates made this an accepted fact.
When Pilates returned to Germany after World War I, he trained famous dancers such as Hanya Holm and Rudolf von Laben. (He negged an offer from the military to train soldiers—might we have gotten Pilates-boot camp earlier if he’d said yes?!)
Soon after, he opened his Manhattan studio adjacent to the New York City Ballet, attracting a steady flow of ballet dancers and Martha Graham students as clients, and eventually, teachers.
When people started to care about their core
“None of us [dancers] cared about strength or core training until Pilates came along,” one dancer recalled of the early 1960s. “Then it became something all of us did.” A decade later, when fitness became “a thing,” affluent women flocked to Pilates to achieve a “dancer’s body,” an ideal heavily marketed today far beyond Pilates, from DanceBody to barre classes.
As demand for the core-strengthening regime grew, Pilates-inspired movement was popping up in new health clubs and exercise classes far beyond the Eighth Avenue stronghold or the authorized studios begun by “the elders.”
In 1964, the New York Herald Tribune reported that “around the United States, hundreds of young students limber up daily with an exercise they know as ‘a pilates,’ without knowing that the word has a capital P, and a living, right-breathing namesake.”
Pilates died in 1967 without trademarking his practice, but a physical therapist did so in the early 1990s and not until a federal court’s ruling in 2000 did a legion of committed Pilates instructors win the right to stop using the awkward “I teach a program based on the teachings of Joseph Pilates” explanation with their students. (Thankfully!)
Pilates devotees and detractors can debate endlessly about whether the studios have staying power in a crowded industry (there’s little hard research to confirm either side), but there’s no doubt that the booming health and wellness world owes much to Pilates and the surprising power of his 34 original exercises.