Once Upon a Time… Chapter 1: Inspiration

By Benjamin Degenhardt

If you are new to Pilates, you may think it’s an exercise trend of recent years. Or maybe, you already know that once upon a time, there was a man named Joseph Pilates… a man whose body of work has truly immortalized him, but whose history is so hard to track down that even if you know of him – chances are you may still miss a few facts.

This is the first of three chapters breaking down the history of Pilates Mat work – which takes us back to a time well before Joseph Pilates was even born, but for context’s sake we will start by looking at the early years of the founding father of the method:

Joseph Pilates was born in 1883 in the German town of Mönchengladbach. The second oldest of 8 siblings in a poor family, he grew up in a very healthy, yet politically uncertain Germany. His family moved houses and towns often, and it’s unlikely Joseph got to enjoy academic schooling of any kind. He worked as a beer brewer for the majority of his young life. According to his own accounts, he started developing the Mat work in 1902, at 19 years of age living in the city of Gelsenkirchen – which,  by the way, just so happens to be my home town!

But when he “developed” his work, he didn’t have to start from scratch. He grew up during the peak of German physical culture of the late 19th century, a movement that viewed physical activity as a means to encourage a sense of community and national identity – unlike sports, which focused on the individual. The methods that were practiced included gymnastics (movement practices mainly involving gymnastic apparatus such as rings , parallel bars, the pommel horse, etc.) and calisthenics (rhythmic group exercise). Despite his likely lack of formal schooling, Joseph Pilates certainly was exposed to these practices and sure enough, if you look at literature of the time you’ll be surprised to see exercises that look very much like… Pilates!

Roll Up is called “Rumpfbeuger” (trunk-bender)… there is the Rocker with Open Legs called “Beinstrecker aus dem Sitz” (seated leg stretch)… something that looks like Side Kicks… even Horseback, called “Vorhebhalte”… and the “Überrolle”, aka Roll Over:

Gymnastik 19Jhd

On a side note, much of my own research began when my late grandfather peeked over my shoulder one day, as I studied a Pilates book back home in Germany, and he pointed at the Corkscrew exercise and said: “So you guys still do those drills today?”

European gymnastics, early 20th century

And so, many books on physical culture of the late 19th and 20th century later, I realize that Joseph Pilates didn’t “invent” his exercises. They predate him by decades, if not centuries. One has to wonder, how did we come to know these as Pilates exercises, not as “gymnastic” exercises then?

Stay tuned for Chapter 2: Invention next week!

Physical Culture 1916By the way, did you know that what is now considered Yoga was strongly informed by European physical culture as well? In fact, the practice of asana / postures has its roots in Scandinavia more than in India. Given that both ‘Pilates’ and ‘modern’ Yoga evolved out of the same methods, it seems to make a whole lot more sense that there are so many similarities… but that’s a whole different story…

14 thoughts on “Once Upon a Time… Chapter 1: Inspiration

  1. This is so wonderful Benjamin! I’m so glad that you are talking more about the “Physical Culturalists! (said slowly so I can actually get the words out)” There is so much to learn from that time and from you. I look forward to sharing our discussion where you talk about this a bit more as well as Chapter 2 and 3! Thanks! KC ~

  2. Benjamin! I am fascinated by your research and grateful that you are so openly sharing it.
    I always take clients, who show a keen interest in Pilates, to the Mat poster (I got from you) in the Studio. One of the things we talk about is the connection between Pilates and Physical Culture, based on my own research and the conversations between us in the past. My uncle who is a bit over 90 years old now, was a Physical Culturist (with moustache, floor exercises,rudimentary welded dumbells and all :) ) a word that continues to be used in Spanish (Fisico Culturista) although that discipline has now derived into what is now known in English as Body Building.
    Thank you Bejamin! Lali

  3. Thank you Kristi and Lali! It’s an endless topic of fascination and learning indeed… Physical culture, what it stood for, and what Joseph Pilates was looking to accomplish will remain at the heart of my work – until we finally live up to to what should be common sense: our health is up to us.

  4. I have arrived at the same conclusions that you share here through my own investigations. I don’t say that to toot my horn, rather to make the point that we can enjoy a fair amount of insights into Joe Pilates’s work despite the many omissions of verifiable facts surrounding him. And the fact that we can arrive at similar conclusions to me is proof of something. Many years ago, I had a client who told me about his experiences in yoga classes in the 1970’s. They would last for a very long time and include just a few poses that the students would hold for upwards of 1/2 hours. It was then that I realized that the moving yoga of today is something like what JHP set out to do when I endeavored to take the best of the west and east and blend them together. The more thoroughly we understand the work, each and every bit of it, the more chance we have of truly embodying it. Thanks for sharing!

  5. “The more thoroughly we understand the work, each and every bit of it, the more chance we have of truly embodying it.”

    I couldn’t agree more! It’s fascinating to discover the historical base of it all, and how straightforward it can be. It’s so important to understand that the work didn’t materialize out of nothing – to the contrary, there were many before Joe who were to him what he is to us: a puzzle, and a muse.

  6. Thanks for posting this! I have been doing some research for a project on the Turnverein influence (the German physical culturalists you talk about above) and Turnverein clubs in the US. They were the major force of introducing physical education into the American school system. I was able to meet with the director of the LA Turnverein club last week. It was established in 1871. We went through a lot of very cool archives. Some of the books and pamphlets were from the mid-1800s. Many had drawings, like the ones you show above. of men AND women doing exercises that look just like the ones we do on the mat today. Let me know the next time you are in LA, I will take you to the club. Their website is LATurners.org I’m sure you would love to go through these old treasures. A lot of the text was in German, so I wasn’t able to read it, but the pictures spoke loud and clear!

    1. Nicole! I remember you talking about this when we met, it’s so fascinating! I will be in LA the end of May / early June and would love to connect and perhaps see these archives. Thank you so much for stopping by and chiming in here!

    2. Hi Again. When we met I had made some discoveries with some Weimar exiles. Now, I’m digging deeper and half a century earlier into the Turnverein movement. Obviously, Turnverein, Weimar cultural/physical movement, and Pilates are all very connected to each other!

  7. My father had similar exercises detailed in his books that he insisted we do. The big thing is we were in Australia in the 1960s. In the end we have to remember that Joseph Pilates was a teacher who nspired people in the States. Those people started evolving and developing the work in an era known for its focus on “human potential” with the likes of Feldenkris, Rolfing, Somatics etc etc. In the end the exercises and the concepts are part of our evolution in understanding the body and its response to our society and environment.

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