History of Joseph Pilates

Joseph Pilates class 1943

Joseph H. Pilates was born in 1883 in Mönchengladbach, Germany. His father was a prize-winning gymnast of Greek ancestry, and his mother worked as a naturopath.

Pilates was a sickly child, suffering from asthma, rickets, and rheumatic fever, and dedicated his entire life to improving his physical strength. Pilates came to believe that the “modern” lifestyle involving bad posture and inefficient breathing, lay at the root of poor health. He ultimately devised a series of exercises and training-techniques and engineered all the equipment, specifications, and tuning required to teach his methods properly.

Joseph Pilates on Reformer machineDespite Pilates poor health in childhood he eventually became a gymnast, diver and bodybuilder. When he moved to England in 1912, he earned a living as a professional boxer, circus-performer, and self-defence trainer at police schools and Scotland Yard. Nevertheless, the British authorities interned him during World War I along with other German citizens, first in Lancaster Castle where he taught wrestling and self-defence. It was here that he began refining and teaching his system of mat exercises that later became known as “Contrology”. It was here too that he was inspired by the use of hospital bed springs to rehabilitate soldiers eventually leading to the invention of the Reformer.

After the first World War he returned to Germany and collaborated with important experts in dance and physical exercise, such as Rudolf Laban.

Joseph Pilates

In 1925, Pilates emigrated to the United States. On the ship to America, he met his future wife Clara. The couple founded a studio in New York City and taught well into the 1960s. His method, which he and Clara originally called “Contrology,” related to encouraging the use of the mind to control muscles. It focused attention on core postural muscles that help keep the body balanced and provide support for the spine. In particular, Pilates exercises taught awareness of breath, alignment of the spine, and how to strengthen the deep torso and abdominal muscles.

Joseph and Clara Pilates established a devout following in the local dance and performing arts community of New York. Well-known dancers such as George Balanchine and Martha Graham became devotees and regularly sent their students to Pilates for training and rehabilitation.

Joseph Pilates died in 1967 at the age of 83 in New York. His unique method of body-conditioning is now taught all over the world benefiting, if not changing, the lives of an estimated 11 million people.