Pilates and the Spanish Flu – it’s all related.
If you think epidemics are all bad news, think again! 1918’s Spanish Flu inspired one of the world’s most beloved fitness practices.
2020’s worldwide quarantines have left most of us in one of two situations. Some of us developed rigorous at-home fitness routines to carry us through lockdown until our favourite gyms reopened. While others used the time to relax, catch our breaths, maybe learn to make sourdough bread and not worry too much about fitness. As well or poorly spent your lockdown may have been, it’s worth reflecting on Pilates strange pandemic origins to consider someone whose lockdown time inspired generations to come.
In 1918 when the Spanish flu was ravaging the world’s population killing over 50 million people, Joseph Pilates, the founder of the movement, was imprisoned on a small island in the Irish Sea with more than 25,000 men—mostly of German descent. During World War I, the British government rounded them up and put foreigners into these camps, and was imprisoned there during the flu pandemic that arrived worldwide in 1918.
Pilates lived through a four-year lockdown and a pandemic. In that time, he became a prisoner, a victim of events beyond his control. A former gymnast, boxing trainer, and a generally positive and driven character, he became determined to remain fit during lockdown. Using the camp as his laboratory and his fellow inmates as his samples, Joseph worked daily on the ideas and inventions, the movement exercises, and the theories called Contrology, that became what we now call Pilates. He spent his time in detainment testing, refining, and sharing his gifts as a movement and physical health guru and inventor.
Joseph’s lockdown ideas are the ones that Pilates teachers still teach every day. Today over 100 years later, he is known around the world as the originator of a powerful, holistic approach to human fitness and wellness.
While there, he worked in the camp hospital as an orderly, looking after the wounded, sick, injured, and those in the camp who had caught the 1918 Spanish Flu. He frequently stated that none of the men in his compound became ill or died from the Spanish Flu because of the fitness routines he developed and taught them.
Joeseph built an outdoor gym for the guys in his compound with lumber that he scrounged from around the camp. He invented the resistance and spring-based equipment we now know as the Reformer and the Trapeze Table to rehabilitate bed-bound patients. Joe practiced and taught what would later become Pilates daily to support the fitness, health and healing of his fellow prisoners and hospital patients.
We bring you this incredible lockdown story to reflect on how Joseph Pilates developed and shared his knowledge with his community during his unique experience of pandemic and lockdown. We’re inspired to consider how Pilates can support our mental and physical health in both the best of times and the worst of times.