Joseph H. Pilates

Joseph H. Pilates was born in Mönchengladbach in Germany, in 1880. His father, a prize-winning gymnast, had Greek origins; his German mother worked as a naturopath. The family originally spelled their surname in the Greek manner as “Pilatu” but changed to using “Pilates”. This caused Joseph Pilates much grief because, as a child, older boys taunted him calling him “Pontius Pilate, killer of Christ”. A sickly child who suffered from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever, he dedicated his entire life to becoming physically stronger. Joe began studying body-building,yoga and gymnastics, and by the age of 14 was fit enough to pose for anatomical charts. He came to believe that the “modern” life-style, bad posture, and inefficient breathing lay at the roots 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.

In 1912 Pilates moved to England, earning a living as a boxer, circus-performer and self-defense trainer. During World War I the British authorities interned him with other German citizens in a camp in the Isle of Man, where he trained other inmates in fitness and exercises. Here the beginnings of the Pilates Method began to take shape. About 1925 Pilates migrated to the United States of America. On the ship to America he met his future wife Clara. The couple founded a studio in New York City and directly taught and supervised their students 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 focuses attention on core postural muscles that help keep the human body balanced and provide support for the spine. In particular, Pilates exercises teach awareness of breath and of alignment of the spine, and strengthen the deep torso and abdominal muscles. Joseph and Clara Pilates soon established a devout following in the local dance and the performing-arts community of New York. Well-known dancers such as George Balanchine (who arrived in the United States in 1933) and Martha Graham (who had come to New York in 1923) became devotees and regularly sent their students to the Pilates 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 pupils 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. Joseph Pilates died in 1967 at the age of 87.