Joseph Pilates was born in Germany in 1883. He had been a sickly child with asthma and rickets, written off by doctors as an invalid. He decided at a young age that this wasn’t to be his role in life and set about learning all he could about his body and how to improve it.
At the outbreak of the World War I in 1914, he was living and working in the UK as a circus performer and a boxer – a testament in itself as to how well his method had worked on his own body. As a German national he was placed under forced internment. In the camps he taught fellow camp members the concepts and exercises he had developed over many years of his own study of disciplines such as yoga, Zen, and ancient Greek and Roman physical regimens and many others. He called his form of exercise “Contrology”.
Later, he started to work as a nurse/caretaker to the many internees struck with wartime disease and physical injury. Here, he began devising equipment to rehabilitate his “patients”, taking springs from the beds and rigging them to create spring resistance and “movement” for the bedridden. This was where Pilates developed his many inventions including the Reformer, The Cadillac, Chair, Ladder and Barrels.
After the end of the War, Joe left for New York City, meeting his wife Clara on the journey. They founded a studio in New York City and over time, Joe and Clara’s work became well known and their business grew and continued into the 1960s. His method related to encouraging the use of the mind to control muscles. One of Pilates favourite quotes is “It’s the mind itself that builds the body”.
Joseph and Clara Pilates established a devout following in the local dance and the performing arts community of New York. Well-known dancers, actors and athletes became devotees and regularly attended the Pilates studio for training and rehabilitation.
Joseph Pilates wrote several books, including “Return to Life through Contrology” and “Your Health” and was a prolific inventor with over 26 patents cited. Joe and Clara had a number of disciples who continued to teach variations of his method or in some cases focused exclusively on preserving the method and the instructor-training techniques they learned during their studies with Joe and Clara.
These “Pilates Elders” included Romana Kryzanowska, Mary Bowen, Robert Fitzgerald, Ron Fletcher, Eve Gentry, Kathy Grant, Jay Grimes, Bruce King, Lolita San Miguel and Carola Trier and are known as First Generation Teachers.
Joseph Pilates died in 1967 at the age of 87 in New York.
Want to know more about the origins of Pilates? View a detailed history of Joseph Pilates’ life by Mejo Wiggin.