History of Joseph Pilates

Joseph Pilates was born near sseldorf, Germany in 1880. His father was a prize-winning gymnast and his mother was a naturopath. As a child, Joseph suffered from asthma, rickets, and rheumatic fever. Because of this, he was determined to dedicate his life to becoming physically stronger. He would spend hours studying anatomy books, learning every page, every part of the body; “I would move each part as I memorized it. As a child I would lie in the woods for hours, hiding and watching the animals move.”  By the age of fourteen, he was so successful in his goal that he was asked to model for a series of anatomical charts. He also became a self-taught athlete who excelled at skiing, diving, gymnastics, and boxing.

In 1912 Pilates traveled to England where he made a living as a boxer and self-defense trainer of detectives at Scotland Yard. When World War I broke out two years later, he was considered an enemy alien,  and was interned with other Germans at a camp in Lancaster and later on the Isle of Man.

At the camps he trained his fellow internees in the physical fitness exercises he had developed and began assisting the camp’s hospital in helping the bedridden patients regain strength and muscle control.

To assist these patients in their exercises Joseph adapted hospital beds with pulleys, straps, and bed springs, thus creating what may have been the first exercises utilizing variable resistance a unique concept at least 50 years ahead of its time. These adapted beds were the forerunners of the Pilates equipment we use today. He was widely credited when none of the internees succumbed to an influenza pandemic that swept the world in 1918. Tens of millions of healthy people died from this virulent strain of flu, particularly the incarcerated populations.

After the war he returned to Hamburg, Germany where he continued to develop his fitness theories and exercises while training the Hamburg Military Police. During this period several important movement innovators, such as Rudolf Von Laban and Mary Wigman, had the good fortune to work with Pilates. By 1925 he had achieved a certain fame in his native Germany, and when the government asked him to train the new German army he decided to immigrate to America where he could pursue his own path with his work.

On the ship to America Pilates met his future wife Clara, a nurse. Upon arrival, the couple founded a studio in New York City which is in operation to this day.

Joseph Pilates practiced what he preached, a method he called Contrology, and lived a long, healthy life Upon his death in 1967 at the age of 87, Clara continued to teach the Pilates method at the studio until her retirement in 1971 when she left the studio in the able hands of Joseph’s protege Romana Kryzanowska.