Pilates — More Than Just An Exercise Class

Romana Kryzanowska at the original art of pilates studio in Milan, Italy

Romana Kryzanowska opens her Milan studio, 2007

The art of pilates Milan studio.

What Is Pilates?

Joseph Pilates trains a student on the BarrelAs many readers are already aware, the form of exercise now referred to generically as “Pilates” was originally conceived in the late 19th century and developed in the early 20th century by German fitness enthusiast Joseph Pilates.

Plagued as a child by rickets and asthma, young Pilates was the son of a gymnast father and naturalist mother. Presumably this predisposed him to develop what would today be considered an original holistic route to healing his damaged body, guided only by a hand-me-down book on anatomy, direct observation of animals he observed in the surrounding woods and forests, and an intuitive insight into the body’s complex biomechanical relationships.

Through intensive study - “I learned every page, every part of the body; I would move each (body) part as I memorized it,” he said - Pilates’ dedication eventually made him a self-taught expert on how the body moved through space. This, in turn, led to his accomplishments as a gymnast in his own right, as well as a student of boxing, yoga, and the exotic fighting form we recognize today as martial arts.

In 1912 he left Germany for England to pursue his boxing career, but after World War I broke out he was instead interred as an enemy alien. He worked in the prison hospital for the duration to rehabilitate casualties. It was this experience that inspired what is now recognized and practiced internationally as Classical Pilates.

Joseph Pilates Refines His Theory

The real breakthrough was that Pilates, a physical therapist, understood that properly designed and constructed machines could multiply his efforts, dramatically extending his ability to work with patients. It was that insight, the notion that concentration on the movement coupled with consistent resistance, that led not just to rehabilitation of wounded soldiers, but a totally new discipline of fitness training.

His first apparatus used bed springs for the resistance hospital patients needed for his evolving exercise routines. It was the genesis for what he labeled Contrology (The Art of Control) after his return to Germany following the war’s end.

Pilates chair

In 1925 he left Germany for New York, meeting his future wife, Clara, on the crossing. In 1926 he opened his first studio in a building that was also home to dance and acting studios. The physical benefits of Contrology - Pilates - were quickly appreciated by future dance legends George Balanchine and Martha Graham, and that is why today Pilates is so closely associated with dance.

Romana Continued The Pilates Tradition

Joseph Pilates died in 1967 at age 87. Until her passing in 1977 his wife, Clara, continued to operate the studio, assisted by Joseph’s protege Romana Kryzanowska. Romana, the last surviving Elder, as those who were trained directly by Joseph Pilates are referred to, continued to inspire and train new generations of instructors in classical Pilates from her New York studio, True Pilates, until her death in August, 2013.

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