Joseph Hubertus Pilates (1880-1967), born in Germany, was a frail child suffering from rickets, asthma and rheumatic fever. He had practiced many of the physical training regimes which available in Germany in his youth, but he was so devoted to overcoming his ailments, he went on to forming his own exercise method. He combined Eastern disciplines such as yoga, Zen Buddhism and martial arts with those of Western origin, such as boxing, bodybuilding and gymnastics. As well as a having a comprehensive knowledge of anatomy, he was inspired by the ancient Greek ideal of a man perfected in development of body, mind and spirit.
In 1912, he moved to England and worked as a circus performer and boxer. When WW1 broke out he was placed in forced internment. He taught his exercise regime, named “Contrology” to his fellow detainees. Interestingly, those who followed the Joseph’s Contrology method all survived the 1918 influenza epidemic! This survival was attributed to the enhanced lung function that resulted from the exercises he taught. Joseph was then sent to the Isle of Man to care for those wounded by the war. His traditional matwork exercises were not appropriate for these injures soldiers, so he developed a whole new series of exercises using whatever apparatus was available, such as bed springs and beer keg rings to fashion resistance type equipment. From such unlikely beginnings was borne the equipment we use today, such as the reformer, Cadillac and magic circle.
Suffice to say, these unusual pieces of apparatus Joseph Pilates invented, succeeded in returning the injured soldiers to full fitness, regardless of the injuries they had sustained.
After WWI, Joseph Pilates returned to Germany where his reputation as a physical trainer/healer preceded him. He worked briefly for the Hamburg Military Police in self-defense and physical training. In 1925, he was asked to train the German army. Instead, he decided to move to America. On the way, Joseph met Clara, a nurse with a shared interest in restoring others to health, who later became his wife. They set up a studio in New York and over the next forty years Joseph used his method to rehabilitate dancers, athletes, acrobats and entertainers. He continued to evolve his exercise method, invented the Pilates exercise equipment, and of course, trained students.
These students not only applied Joseph’s work to their own lives but also became teachers of the Pilates method themselves. This first generation of teachers who trained directly with Joseph Pilates is often referred to as the “Pilates Elders”. Some committed themselves to passing along Joseph Pilates work exactly as he taught it; called “classical style” Pilates while other students went on to integrate what they learned with their own research in anatomy and exercise sciences.
Joseph Pilates passed away in 1967. He had maintained a fit physique throughout his life, and many photos show that he was in remarkable physical condition even in his older years. He was renowned for having a flamboyant personality. He smoked cigars, liked to party, and wore his exercise briefs wherever he wanted (even on the streets of New York). It is said that he was an intimidating, though deeply committed, instructor. Clara Pilates continued to teach and run the studio for another 10 years after Joseph Pilates death. Today, Joseph Pilates teachings are carried on by the Pilates Elders and by a large group of contemporary teachers.
Although Pilates has recently enjoyed increased publicity, as you can see it is not a new technique. It is merely gained a lot more popularity as it has entered the mainstream fitness arena.
Joseph himself said “People won’t understand the brilliance of my work for 50 years” and, given that he made this quote around 50 years ago, he was right!
Joseph Pilates with client on Cadillac