Joseph Hubertus Pilates was born on December 8, 1880 in the German town of Monchengladbach, not far from Dusseldorf. One of four children, he was plagued as a child by rickets, asthma and rheumatic fever. Pilates was determined to overcome these childhood ailments during his youth, and took on various physical regimens including body-building, gymnastics, skiing, and diving. By the time he reached age 14, Joseph was posing as a model for anatomy charts. His father was a prize-winning gymnast and his mother a naturopath – which likely influenced the path he took in life pursuing the fields of movement and well-being. He was greatly inspired by Eastern and Western forms of exercise, and in particular by the ancient Greek and Roman philosophies of attaining and maintaining physical and mental perfection.
There are two versions of the story of how Pilates travelled to England in 1912. The first is that he decided to pursue boxing; the other that he and his brother toured England with a circus, performing as a live Greek statue act. After WWI broke out in 1914, he was interned along with other German nationals in a camp for enemy aliens in Lancaster, England. There, he taught wrestling and self-defence, motivating others to follow his fitness program and boasting that his students would emerge stronger than they were before their internment.
It was here that he be began devising his system of original exercises that he later called “Contrology.” Taking springs from beds and rigging up exercise apparatuses for the bedridden, he devised his earliest rehabilitation equipment. Joseph Pilates was transferred to a camp on The Isle of Man and there he became somewhat of a nurse, working with internees suffering from wartime diseases. In 1918, an influenza pandemic swept the world, killing millions of people – tens of thousands in England alone. Legend has it that none of Joe’s followers succumbed to the illness, even though camps were the hardest hit.
After the war, Joseph Pilates returned to Germany and worked with the Hamburg Military Police, training them in self-defence and physical conditioning. He also began taking on personal clients during this time. This period of his life is not well documented, though it was a time for him of growing interest in Eastern European holistic therapies such as holistic medicine, meditation, modern dance, homeopathy, Trigger Point therapy, and breath work. During this period, Pilates met the famous movement analyst Rudolf von Laban, who is said to have incorporated some of Joseph’s theories and exercises into his own work. Mary Wigman, a renowned German dancer and choreographer, was a student of Pilates and incorporated his exercises in her dance class warm-ups.
In 1925, Pilates was asked by the government to train the new German Army, and some accounts say that Pilates decided to emigrate to America because he didn’t like the direction Germany was heading in politically. Other accounts say the departure from his home country was motivated by an invitation from the American boxing manager Nat Fleischer, and Max Schmeling, a World Title boxer who was also a friend of Joseph. In any case, en route Joe met a young nurse named Clara. She became his wife and shortly thereafter, an integral partner in helping develop and teach his method.
Instead of performing many repetitions of each exercise, Pilates preferred fewer, more precise movements, requiring control and form. He designed more than 500 specific exercises. The most frequent form, called “matwork” involves a series of callisthenic motions performed without weight or apparatus on a padded mat.
He believed that mental health and physical health were essential to one another. Pilates created what is believed to be a method of total body conditioning that emphasizes proper alignment, centring, concentration, control, precision, breathing and flowing movement (The Pilates Principles ) that results in increased flexibility, strength, muscle tone, body awareness, energy, and improved mental concentration.
Joseph Pilates also designed five major pieces of unique exercise equipment that he claimed should be used for best results. Although the two components are often taught separately now, the method was always meant to combine both matwork and equipment exercises. In all forms, the “powerhouse” (abdomen, lower back and buttocks) is supported and strengthened, enabling the rest of the body to move freely.
New York City and The Berkshires
When he arrived in New York City in 1926, Joe began working in a boxers’ training gym at 939 Eighth Avenue in the same building where several dance schools and rehearsal spaces were located. By the early 1930’s, he and Clara had taken over the gym. News of Joe’s skill at working with injuries spread by word of mouth and Pilates’ client base grew rapidly. His clientele was diverse: It included people in New York City’s high society, such as members of the Gimbel and Guggenheim families; along with movie stars Vivien Leigh, Sir Lawrence Olivier and Katherine Hepburn and others. He also worked with doctors, circus performers, gymnasts, musicians, dancers, business people, tradesmen and students.
The 30’s and 40’s were the early years of American ballet and modern dance. Many luminaries such as George Balanchine, Ted Shawn, Ruth St. Dennis, Martha Graham, Hanya Holm, plus many other lesser-known dancers studied with and sent injured dancers to “Uncle Joe,” to be “fixed.” “Contrology” became an intrinsic part of many dancers’ training and rehabilitation. A number of first generation Pilates teachers would be among these dancers including Romana Kryzanowska, Carola Trier, Eve Gentry, Ron Fletcher, Kathleen Stanford Grant, Bruce King, and Lolita San Miguel. The majority of aspiring teachers would work in the gym in exchange for exercise sessions. Hannah Sakmirda was Joe and Clara’s regular assistant. Other first generation teachers include Jerome Andrews, Bob Seed, Nadja Cory and Mary Bowen. The Pilates’ dearest students and assistants were their nieces, Mary Pilates and Irene Zeuner Zelonka.
Every summer between 1939 and 1951, Joe and Clara spent their weekends and several weeks at a stretch relaxing and teaching at Jacob’s Pillow, a well-known dance camp in the Berkshire Mountains.
Pilates wrote two books: Your Health, in 1934; and Return to Life, in 1945 – a refined treatise of his philosophy. In that book he writes with passion that if his method were universally adopted and taught in our educational institutions, every facet of life – from individual to universal – would improve. “Contrology,” could no less than eliminate human suffering and reduce our need to hospitals, sanatoriums, lunatic asylums, even prisons.
Pilates worked very hard to promote his work. He conducted lecture-demonstrations for medical professionals. He taught at Armed Forces bases in the New York area, created exercise pamphlets, and sold his equipment on Saturdays at Macy’s.
His good friend Dr. Henry Jordan, Chief of Orthopaedics at Lenox Hill Hospital, was a strong advocate of Pilates work. Dr. Jordan referred many of his patients to Pilates, and took Carola Trier under his wing. Some of Dr. Jordan’s students became prominent orthopaedists as well, and they also referred patients to Pilates.
The 50’s however, are marked to Joe’s unsuccessful efforts to see his work embraced by mainstream medical and educational systems. The fact that the medical community could not see past what Pilates considered its passive definitions of normal health, narrow vision for preventive medicine, and abysmal standards for proper physical conditioning, left him deeply embittered.
The Pilates Diaspora
In spite of these rejections, the method was quietly taking root in several Manhattan institutions including New York University, High School of Performing Arts, Dan Theatre of Harlem, 92nd St. NY and Clark Centre for the Performing Arts. By the mid 60’s, the Pilates Method had begun to spread beyond New York; Jerome Andrews moved to Paris, Eve Gentry to New Mexico, Ron Fletcher to California. This first generation continued practicing and teaching the Pilates’ philosophy and techniques.
In January 1966, there was a fire at 939 Eighth Avenue. Joe attempted to salvage what he could and fell through the burnt-out floorboards, hanging by his hands from a beam until he was rescued by the fire-fighters. Some believe this incident may have led to his death in October 1967 at the age of 87. Clara, regarded by many as the more superb and perhaps more approachable teacher, continued to teach, and ran the studio for several years until her retirement around 1970. She passed away in 1976.
Medical Acceptance and Wider Appeal
In 1983, at St. Francis Hospital, in San Francisco, California, Dr. James Garrick, Director of Orthopaedics, created one of the first dance-medicine clinics. Garrick made a name for himself recognizing the value of Pilates training, and he hired Ron Fletcher to help him set up the first medical-based Pilates program.
By 1995, marketing, growing media interest, group mat classes, mind-body health club programming, and curiosity within the medical community were propelling the method forward. The word “Pilates” appeared in the Webster’s Dictionary – another indication of the method’s acceptance into mainstream culture. An historic turning point came with the trademark class-action lawsuit, that began in January 1996 and ended in October 2000: The judgment cancelled the Pilates trademark. The court ruled that Pilates is a generic designation for a method of exercise; that the word Pilates has become ubiquitously associated with this special type of exercise utilizing unique apparatus, a series of controlled exercises, and principles that can’t be owned or called by another name.
The New Pilates Millennium
Since the ruling, there has been an explosion in interest in mind-body disciplines and intelligent exercise options which have finally catapulted Joseph Pilates’ vision into a global phenomenon, known simply as “Pilates,” with a plethora of studios and health club openings, training programs, products and equipment, celebrity endorsements, and newspaper and magazine articles about Pilates. There is mention of it in radio, television, and movies. Pilates is taught in most major countries around the world, and now counts more than twelve million practitioners.
Joe knew his work was “50 years ahead of (his) time.” His intuitive understanding of the body and innovative equipment design are simply components of his greater vision of a universal paradigm for healthy living.
Your Health, 1934
Return To Life, 1945
Pilates, Inc. V Current Concepts, Inc., 120 F. Supp.2d 286, 57 U.S.P.Q.2d 1174 (S.D.N.Y.2000)
Personal stories from First Generation Pilates teachers and family members of Joseph and Clara Pilates.