(last updated Jun 16, 2021)


Learning To Be An Animal

If you love animals, you’ll be happy to know cats were the inspiration for Pilates. Joseph Pilates (1883 – 1967) was inspired to create a movement method, which is practiced by millions of people around the world today, by watching how cats move.

“It was the cat which did it,” Joseph Pilates said in an interview with Sports Illustrated in 1962. The interview, entitled “Learning To Be An Animal,” was re-posted on the website of Knockaloe Centre. 

Joseph Pilates spent World War War One interned in Knockaloe on the Isle of Man. He recounted the experience in Knockaloe, located off the coast of England, and how cats became the source of inspiration for his exercises while on the island.

There was nothing to look at in the camp, he told Sport Illustrated, except for an occasional starving cat chasing after a mouse of a bird.

“For though they were nothing but skin and bones…why was the cats in such good shape, so bright-eyed,” Pilates asked rhetorically. Yet the humans were becoming paler, weaker and apathetic by the day, and ready to give up when they caught a cold, fell or sprained an ankle. 

Pilates began observing the cats for hours on end. The answer came to him, he said. 


When the cats had nothing else to do, they were stretching their legs out. They were always “stretching, stretching,” Pilates said. They stretched to keep their muscles nimble and alive.

Pilates began working on a sequence of exercise to stretch and strengthen all the muscles in the body. He taught these exercises to the fellow internees. For internees who were too sick to get out of bed, he invented equipment so they could stretch and strengthen the body in a supine position. 

Pilates challenges you to stretch like a cat
A cat resting on a Pilates reformer. Joseph Pilates credited the cat as the source of inspiration for the exercise (Photo source: Instagram / Balanced Body)


The trapeze table (also known as Cadillac,) and the reformer or a prototype of the reformer were created while Joseph Pilates was in Knockaloe. These equipment use bed springs as resistance. 

Although bed springs are no longer used today, Pilates equipment continue to be based on a spring system, where the springs provide tension to the exercise. While you cannot quantify the load you are carrying with springs unlike weights, springs offer a constant tension through the range of motion when you exercise. It makes the spring system better for stretching and lengthening of muscles, compared to weights. 

On the other hand, weights are better for muscle hypertrophy, as weights can be quantified and loaded accordingly.


Under Pilates supervision, the internees in the Knockaloe camp began to practice the exercises. “They became more and more confident, more and more bouncy, like cats.” Pilates told Sports Illustrated. 

The great influenza swept through America and Europe at the time. The 1918 Spanish flu was the worst pandemic before COVID-19. “Not one of them was down with it,” said Pilates in the interview. 

“They ended the war in better shape than when it started,” he said.


There were letters from former internees to Joseph Pilates thanking him for his work, said Pilates biographer Eva Rincke in a New York Times article. The article examined whether doing Pilates boosted the immunity of internees from the 1918 influenza, and the implication on today’s battle COVID-19.

“What he did for his fellow internees was help them stay healthy and fit,” Rincke was quoted to have said.

The exercises reinvigorate the mind and body, and it was perhaps, the improvement of both mind and body, which increased the internees’ resistance to the great influenza.

 “He helped them not to freak out during the very long time they spent locked away behind barbed wire,” said Rincke.  

Joseph Pilates often emphasised the importance of cultivating “a sound mind” through exercise. Pilates believed fitness is as much about achieving physical, as well as mental well-being.


Joseph Pilates went back to Germany after the war, and later emigrated to the United States. He continued to improve on the Pilates reformer after the war, and designed other equipment such as the Pilates chair, barrel and spine correction. Pilates told Sports Illustrated, the purpose of the machines was to create, “carefully graduated stretching exercise” for all the muscles of the body. 

Below are examples of a Pilates exercise inspired by a cat. One is performed on the mat, and the other on the Pilates chair. The exercise on the chair is an example of a gradual stretch. Using the resistance from the springs, the exercise stretch and length the back muscles and hamstrings further.

Also, you would have to turn on your core muscles to resist the springs. Feel a deeper stretch on the low back and hamstrings when you can recruit the stabilising muscles of the trunk in the stretch.

Cat Stretch on the mat.

How to recruit your core muscles in a stretch
Cat Stretch on a Pilates chair.

Does the movement below look similar? The Long Stretch is done on the Pilates reformer. It is similar to the downward dog pose in yoga. There are many similarities and differences between Pilates and yoga. Both exercise method draw inspiration from animals. 

The Long Stretch or downward dog is a happy stretch. According to PinPaws, an online platform for pet owners interested in pet health, the dog goes into a downward position when it is happy. The dog may greet you in this position when you come back home from work, or when you wake up in the morning. 

It is your dog’s way of saying “hello,” said the Dallas-based website.

A Happy Stretch
Photo source: Pin Paws

Exercise inspired by the dog

Do they look the same? The Long Stretch, an exercise on the Pilates reformer, is inspired by the happy stretch of a dog.


Apart from domestic cats and dogs, Pilates also draw inspiration from other animals. He showed a love of animals. He also had the opportunity to observe them, having worked in a circus. There are many animal performers in a circus. The Elephant, Dolphin, Seal, Swan and the Parakeet are examples of Pilates exercises, inspired by the movement of these animals. 

There is much to learn about movement from the animal world. The most important lesson as Pilates discovered was the importance of stretching. He created a system of exercises, using body weight and equipment, to stretch and lengthen the body. 


Being more flexible not only reduces injury, but also increases your range of motion, which allows you to move better. Stretching also releases muscle tension and relaxes the body. Take it from the cats. 

If you don’t enjoy stretching, try a Pilates session on the mat or equipment. It’s time to stretch more. The session may just rekindle your joy of stretching. 

Medical Disclaimer: Always consult your physician if you have an existing pain or a pre-existing medical condition before beginning any exercise. The above information is not intended to diagnose any medical condition or replace your healthcare professional.

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