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. His father’s family originally spelled its surname in the Greek manner as “Pilatu” but changed to “Pilates” upon immigration to Germany.
Pilates was a sickly child and suffered from asthma, rickets, and rheumatic fever, and he dedicated his entire life to improving his physical strength. Besides skiing frequently, he began studying body-building, yoga, “kung fu” (probably what is now known as qi-gong), and gymnastics. By the age of 14, he was fit enough to pose for anatomical charts. Pilates 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.
Pilates was originally a gymnast, diver, and bodybuilder, but when he moved to England in 1912, he earned a living as a professional boxer, circus-performer, and self-defense trainer at police schools and Scotland Yard. Nevertheless, the British authorities interned him during World War I along with other German citizens in an internment camp, first in Lancaster Castle where he taught wrestling and self-defense, boasting that his students would emerge stronger than they were before their internment. It was here that he began refining and teaching his minimal equipment system of mat exercises that later became “Contrology”. He was then transferred to another internment camp on the Isle of Man. During this involuntary break, he began to intensively develop his concept of an integrated, comprehensive system of physical exercise, which he himself called “Contrology.” He studied yoga and the movements of animals and trained his fellow inmates in fitness and exercises. It is said that these inmates survived the 1918 flu pandemic due to their good physical shape.
After the war (WWI), he returned to Germany and collaborated with important experts in dance and physical exercise such as Rudolf Laban. In Hamburg, he also trained police officers. When he was pressured to train members of the German army, he left his native country, disappointed with its political and social conditions, and emigrated to the United States.
In about 1925, Pilates migrated 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 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 he was also 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 had learned during their studies with Joe and Clara.
Joseph Pilates died in 1967 at the age of 83 in New York.