Pilates and the Great War

Did you know that the invention
 dates back to WW1 years?
Pilates was recently ranked as one of the Wellness-Trends of the past decades, and we guess a description of this training method is therefore not required. Yet, this “system of exercises that promote the strengthening of the body, often using specialized equipment”, as its founder described it, is closely related to the Great War. It is someway funny to compare the image of all people that nowadays go to the training centers and stand on their comfortable exercise mats on the one hand, and, on the other, the image of the places where actually this sport was ideated: an hospital for German prisoners in the Isle of Man during the WWI.

Born on December 9th, 1883 in a small village near Düsseldorf, Joseph Hubertus Pilates was the second oldest child of nine children. His father was a gymnast, his mother a self-educated naturopath, and they likely provided him the suitable environment for his early commitment with both Eastern and Western form of training, combined with the study of Greek and Roman Philosophy. Being during most of his childhood ill, Joseph Pilates tried in fact to overcome his physical illness developing his body with body building, boxing, gymnastic and diving. In his late twenties, after the death of his first wife, he moved to England, where he wanted to further his boxing-training. Here he was hired with his brother by a German circus troupe and toured through England.

But as in August 1914 the Great War broke out, he was submitted to the new policy of internment (in the United Kingdom, the “Aliens Registration Act” was introduced on 5th August 1914). With other German nationals he was confined first in Lancaster, then at the Isle of Man. It is not clear to which of the two Camps – the Cunningham’s Young Men’s Holiday Camp in Douglas or the Camp at the Knockaloe Moar Fram, established only by October 1914 – Joseph Pilates was sent. For sure, he spent almost five years of internment in the Isle of Man. And it was during this period that he started developing his new training method. First he offered wrestling and self-defense training to his fellow internees, then, in the fall of 1916, he began working in one of the hospital as a physical therapist. He tried to assure benefits also to those confined to a bed from illness or injury. Fixing bedsprings to the headboards and the footboards of the hospital beds, he enabled bedridden patients to exercises against resistance and offered so simple, yet effective instruments to train the patients and improve their strength and health. As the influenza epidemic that killed thousand in England in 1918 started to spread in the camp, he stated that most of the internees he had trained didn’t got sick.

After the war, Joseph Pilates came back to Germany, where he improved his exercise method combining it with the dance technique. Impressed by the results of his training, the German government asked Pilates to train the new German Army. But Joseph disliked the political climate of his home country and decided to move in April 1926 to New York, where he spent the rest of his life working and improving his techniques. Pilates’ history is for sure an adventurous one, and the training exercises and instruments he has invented and developed are for sure well known, and it is not up to us to talk about them. We referred shortly to Pilates, just to say once again, that we shouldn’t forget the even some of the most funny “trend” of our societies are rooted in the past, even up to the WWI Camps in the Isle of Man.