Work Outs and World War I

pilates3I walked into the classroom with trepidation. I looked at all the tables and contraptions neatly arranged around the room and wondered if they didn’t look a little like torture devices. I shortly learned just how wrong I was.

Beth walked into the room with the grace of a dancer, long and lean and carrying a lightness about her that I long for. She welcomed me to the class and we soon discovered that I would be the only student today – Divine intervention perhaps? This way she could spend the entire hour with me, teaching me how to move and stay strong and educating me on why we do it this way.

Welcome to Pilates.

The first thing I learned was that Joseph Pilates’ inspiration for his unique apparatus had an interesting, historical story. Before World War I he was touring England as a circus performer and professional boxer, and even teaching self-defense to the Scotland Yard police force. But when war broke out, he found himself interned in England as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man.

The health conditions in the internment camps were not great, but Pilates insisted that everyone in his cell block participate in daily exercise routines to help maintain both their physical and mental well-being. However, some of the injured German soldiers were too weak to get out of bed. Not content to leave his comrades lying idle, Pilates took springs from the beds and attached them to the headboards and foot boards of the iron bed frames, turning them into equipment that provided a type of resistance exercise for his bedridden “patients.”

These mechanized beds were the forerunners of the spring-based exercise machines for which the Pilates method is known today. It is said that during the great flu epidemic of 1918, not a single one of the soldiers under his care died. He credited his technique for the prisoners’ strength and fitness — remarkable under the less than optimum living conditions of internment camps, which were hit especially hard by this deadly flu. His fellow prisoners left prison stronger than when they entered.

Strength in the face of adversity. We should all be so fortunate to have someone like this in our lives who pushes and pulls us through hard times in any way that they can. And then we should pay it forward at our earliest convenience.

The class was terribly hard – challenging in every way. I’ve never worked so hard but felt so good afterward. I guess you can learn something new everyday – even in very unexpected places.


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