Pilates routines have swept through studios and home gyms alike since the turn of the 21st century, but the popular workouts may have originated as a way to counter “barbed wire disease” within a World War I internment camp. German-born exercise guru Joseph Pilates, who lends his name to the strengthening exercises, would later refine his career-defining work to rehabilitate soldiers and civilians injured in the war.
The day after England declared war against Germany, the British government passed the Aliens Restriction Act of 1914. All German-, Austrian-, and Hungarian-born residents deemed a threat to society became outcasts labeled as enemy aliens. Not unlike the US did to Japanese, German, and Italian Americans during World War II, the British interned more than 23,000 residents at the Knockaloe Internment Camp on the Isle of Man throughout the first world war.
Life behind the fence quickly deteriorated. The internees soon experienced a mental and physical decline due to scarce food and limited space to move around. Many inside the encampment suffered from a condition akin to depression and commonly known as “barbed wire disease.”
Pilates, an amateur boxer and self-defense instructor, traveled through England with the circus until he too was rolled up by authorities and sent to Knockaloe, where he watched his fellow internees sink into mental despair and physical frailty. Then he noticed, of all things, the resilience of the campground cats.
“Why were the cats in such good shape, so bright-eyed, while the humans were growing every day paler, weaker, apathetic creatures ready to give up if they caught a cold or fell down and sprained an ankle?” sportswriter Robert Wernick asked in his 1962 Sports Illustrated feature on Pilates. “The answer came to Joe when he began carefully observing the cats and analyzing their motions for hours at a time. He saw them, when they had nothing else to do, stretching their legs out, stretching, stretching, keeping their muscles limber, alive.”
Simple stretches practiced by the once dejected skeletons of humans in the camp led to a lively boost in confidence. The effort aimed to correct poor postures and restore balance within the mind, body, and spirit. The methodology, originally termed “Contrology,” combined stretches and poses into 34 mat exercises practiced in Pilates studios to this day.
Later in the war, Pilates was an orderly in a nearby hospital on the Isle of Man. He created makeshift exercise machines for bed-bound patients, using bedsprings to provide resistance for simple exercises they could do while lying down. The early resistance training contraption for rehabilitation eventually led to the revolutionary development of the Trapeze Table. When the Contrology movement spread across Europe, soldiers and casualties of World War I used the method to recover from war wounds.
Pilates immigrated to the United States in 1925. A year later, Pilates, alongside his wife, Clara, opened their first “body-conditioning gym,” which remained in operation for 40 years. His fitness regime became the standard for professional dance training.
“You have to learn how to tense your muscles if you want to really know how to relax,” he often told his clients, according to The New York Times. Prominent social figures, such as actress Katharine Hepburn, ballet choreographer George Balanchine, dancer Vera Zorina, and composer Gian Carlo Menotti followed his teachings.
Pilates argued his methods fought off common colds and flu and compared his practice to fire trucks putting out fires within the body.
“You have these firemen on their trucks parking in firehouses all around in your body,” Pilates said, pointing to his armpits, neck, and groin area, according to photojournalist I.C. Rapoport, who spent a day shadowing Pilates in 1961. “They are waiting to put out the fires in your body — fires that start when there is the germs coming inside when you have a cut. An open wound. Then the alarm goes off and the firetrucks rush to the trouble — this is happening all the time. But, when you have the everyday aches and pains, also, the firemen are going, busy, busy all the time. [...] So, with Contrology, when you practice this, the body is healthy and in good shape and the firemen, they are quiet in their firehouses and when the bad germs come, like influenza or bronchitis, there is plenty of firetrucks ready to go out — and kill them.”
The calisthenics once used by struggling internees to survive in the first makeshift Pilates studio of its kind have since been adopted by the US Army and even elite special operations units such as the Navy SEALs to promote health and wellness in the armed forces.
As Pilates adjusted the springs on one of his resistance machines, he confided in Rapoport, who was about to ship out for military service, that he liked to run barefoot in the snow.
“Do that when you’re in the Army,” Pilates said. “They make you a commando.”