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  • Writer's picturePaula Ramirez

The curious link between Contrology and Cats

Updated: Jan 25

“Cats as well as other animals acquire this ideal rhythm of motion because they are constantly stretching and relaxing themselves.” Joseph H. Pilates

Manx cat (tailless variety) from the Isle of Man 1949 real photo postcard

If you imagine being in Knockaloe's internment camp on the Isle of Man for more than three years, how would you have coped with the situation? Well Joseph Pilates as a keen mover didn't succumb into sadness or stress. He instead rely on his boxing practice and observed how the cats were coping in his same situation. Here I share a fragment of a Sports Illustrated interview with Joseph Pilates, published by Robert Wernick in 1962 entitled “Learning to be an Animal” where he talks about when the principles of Contrology were revealed to him:

“……..The full principles of Contrology were revealed to him during World War I. His circus was caught traveling in England when the war broke out in 1914, and Joe and all the others were interned ……….. on the Isle of Man. Here, as weeks lengthened into months and years, he watched his fellow-prisoners sink into apathy and despair, with nothing to do but stare at the bare crumbling walls of their prison, nothing to break the daily monotony but the inadequate meals (for the German submarine blockade was slowly starving England) and an occasional walk around the bare courtyard with nothing to look at but an occasional starveling cat streaking after a mouse or a bird.

It was the cats which did it. For though they were nothing but skin and bones - even the most animal-loving prisoners could hardly spare them anything from their own pitiful rations when their own children were begging to be fed - they were lithe and springy and terribly efficient as they aimed for their prey. 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? 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, keeping their muscles limber, alive. He began working out an orderly series of exercises to stretch the human muscles, all the human muscles."

His observation of the cats were the inspiration. However, he turned the dire circumstances of his own internment to provide the opportunity to read books on medicine, anatomy and sport. Along with his own gymnastic prowess, he used the time to think and further study the movements and anatomy of humans and animals. His negative experience of internment was turned into a positive and was critical in the development of his methodology. Devising the Pilates physical fitness method that is today estimated to be practised by over 12 million people worldwide. Those who have benefited from using the method are no doubt grateful to Joseph Pilates, but perhaps they should also spare a thought for the cats in the small Celtic island of the Isle of Man who also made their contribution. There is, after all, always a lot that humans can learn from other animals.

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