21 Nov 2012

Once Upon a Time: the evolution of Pilates Mat work

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… his body of work has truly immortalized him, but his history is so hard to track down that even if you know of him – chances are you may still miss a few facts.

Taking a look at the history and evolution of the Pilates Mat work will take 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.

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 practice these movements today?”

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?

(By the way, 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 between the two. Of course, that’s a whole different story.)