Joseph Pilates

Pilates – A Brief History of the Man and the Method

Joseph Hubertus Pilates was born in 1883 near Dusseldorf, Germany. He was a sickly child, suffering from asthma, rickets, and rheumatic fever. He was determined to overcome these illnesses, and turned to bodybuilding, gymnastics, yoga, and other forms of exercise to strengthen his health. He was apparently also greatly influenced by ancient Greek and Roman ideas about exercise, and was a firm believer in the positive influence of nature and the outdoors.

In 1912 Pilates moved to England, where he worked as a circus performer and boxer. Some sources also claim that he worked for the Scotland Yard training police officers in self-defense.

With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, he was interned with other German nationals in a camp for enemy aliens. It was during this period that he began to develop his exercise program, which began as a series of matwork exercises that he taught to his fellow camp inmates. He also began to experiment with exercise equipment designed to rehabilitate patients recovering from war injuries. Having discovered that exercises with resistance were more effective than non-loaded exercises, he started using bedsprings to provide patients with the opportunity to exercise while still bed-ridden. These early ideas formed the basis for his inventions of the Reformer and Cadillac machines.

Following the war, Pilates returned to Germany. During the early 1920s, he began to forge links to the modern dance community, meeting Rudolf von Laban, Hanya Holm, and Mary Wigman. There is some indication that Pilates was invited to train the German Army in 1925, but that he did not wish to do so.

Perhaps prompted by the political or economic climate in Germany, Pilates immigrated to the United States in 1926. He met his future wife, Clara, on board the boat. Clara was also a fitness enthusiast, and the couple founded a fitness studio in New York. Dancers were early adopters of the Pilates method, with dance luminaries such as Martha Graham and George Ballanchine attending the Pilates studio, and recommending Pilates to their students. Pilates developed a reputation for helping dancers through rehabilitation from injury, and by the early 1960’s, Joe and Clara were considered the ‘go-to’ couple for dancers, performers, and the social elite. Descriptions of the Pilates studio note that Clara was a gifted teacher, and that her contributions were integral to the development of the method.

Pilates called his method Contrology, and published two books about his method and philosophy.Your Health, published in 1934, laid out many of his ideas about health and posture, while Return to Life Through Contrology, published in 1945, provides instructions for performing 34 of his mat exercises.

Joe continued to train clients at his studio until his death in 1967. Clara continued running the studio until 1972, when she handed it over to a former student, Romana Krysanowska. A privileged few of Pilates original apprentices started up their own studios, and began to disseminate the Pilates method around the world.

In the 1970’s, celebrities began to discover Pilates. Media attention followed, and a Pilates boom began to ripple around the world. More recently, a group of leading research physiotherapists at Queensland University indirectly catapulted Pilates into the mainstream medical world. Using advanced research techniques, they discovered that engaging the deep abdominal muscles, as Pilates taught, is one of the most important mechanisms for stabilizing the spine. Suddenly the medical world could now support what was previously embraced by the artistic fields of dance and theatre. Since then, Pilates has spread worldwide, fulfilling Joseph’s dream was to have a studio on every corner.

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