Historical Background of Pilates

Joseph Pilates (1883 – 1967) was a native of Germany, born in the small town of Monchengladbach near Dusseldorf. As a child he suffered from various ailments including asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever. Because he was such a skinny and sickly child he was taunted by local bullies and lost sight in his left eye from a stone wielding attack. His mother followed a naturopathic philosophy, believing in the principle of stimulating the body to heal itself without artificial means but with fresh air and exercise. His father had been a prize-winning gymnast who ran a gym with the help of his wife and family. With these influences it is believed that his mother’s healing philosophy and his father’s physical achievements greatly influenced his later ideas on therapeutic exercise, and the experiences from his rough childhood shed light on his special character and the motivations behind his life journey to fitness and health and the desire to help other people in need.

In his determination to overcome his physical disadvantages he began to educate himself and practice various Eastern and Western forms of exercise. He was given a discarded anatomy book by family physician and said, “I learned 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, how the mother taught the young.” Along with his study of human anatomy and natural animal behaviors he also participated in bodybuilding, boxing, wrestling, yoga, gymnastics and martial arts. He was particularly fascinated by the ancient Classic Greek ideal of a man who was balanced equally in body, mind and spirit, schooled in cognitive thinking, philosophy and history while also maintaining a finely tuned, athletic body. By the age of 14, he had achieved an almost Adonis-like “anatomical ideal” to the extent that he began posing as a model for anatomy charts. In 1912, he went to England to further train as a boxer, and there he found a public career as a circus entertainer performing in a Roman Gladiator act. He also taught self-defense to the Scotland Yard police force.

In 1914, after World War I with Germany broke out, Joseph Pilates was interned in England as an enemy alien along with other German nationals in a camp on the Isle of Man. It was during this time that he began refining and teaching his system of exercise that he later called “Contrology.” The health conditions in the internment camps were not great, but Pilates encouraged his fellow detainees to participate in his daily exercise routines in order to maintain both their physical and mental well-being. Some of the injured soldiers were too weak to get out of bed, and rather than to leave them lying idle a determined Pilates devised ways to include them in his regime. With an invention born of necessity he utilized items that were available to him and created the forerunners of what would become the Reformer and Cadillac. He took springs from the iron beds and rigged them up to the bed posts, providing a type of spring assistance/resistance for his bedridden “patients.” For instance, they could use the assistance of the springs to help roll their body to an upright position, or they could use the resistance of the springs to strengthen their arms, legs and the rest of the body. Legend has it that during the unusually severe and deadly flu pandemic of 1918, cited as one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history when an estimated 50 to 100 million people died from the flu, not one of the followers under his care died. With the less than optimal living conditions in the internment camps, which were hit especially hard by this deadly flu, he credited his exercise program for the prisoners’ strength and fitness.

It could be said that he had become a “nurse-physiotherapist” with his powerful and revolutionary approach to life enhancing therapeutic exercise. After WWI, Joseph Pilates briefly returned to Germany where his reputation as a healer/physical trainer preceded him. He briefly worked for the Hamburg Military Police as a self-defense and physical fitness trainer. Eventually he was asked to work for the Kaiser to train the German Army; however, because he was not happy with the new political direction of Germany and also had a clear desire to help heal people rather than to train them to harm others, he decided instead to pack his bags and move to America. In 1926, at the age of 43, he immigrated to the United States and met his beloved Clara on the boat to New York City. With Clara as his dedicated teaching partner they opened the first Body Contrology studio as a gym at 939 Eighth Avenue at 56th Street in Manhattan. This was a building full of dance studios and rehearsal halls, and soon the directors called upon “Joe” to rehabilitate and strengthen their dancers who were repeatedly injuring themselves. Soon his exercise program became an intrinsic part of the life, rehab and training of many dancers. Many famous movement visionaries such as George Balanchine, Martha Graham, Hanya Holm and Ruth St. Denis also became firm believers in Body Contrology, and from 1939 to 1951 Joe and Clara went every summer to Jacob’s Pillow, a well known dance camp in the Berkshire Mountains. Dance Magazine in February 1956, reported “At some time or other virtually every dancer in New York has meekly submitted to the spirited instruction of Joe Pilates.” The enthusiasm for Pilates by the dance community then brought many athletes and performers of all kinds flocking to Joe and his gym for the strength and grace his exercise method provided. Mr. Pilates also counted everyone from socialites to plumbers to doctors as his clients.

Joseph Pilates taught in New York from 1926 – 1966, and during this time he continued to develop his exercise system and to create new pieces of equipment for it. He eventually outlined his approach to fitness in his book Return to Life Through Contrology (1945), however it was his method of exercise and not the name that caught on—everyone seemed to prefer to call it “Pilates.” He trained a number of students who applied his work to their own lives and became teachers of the Pilates method themselves. He maintained a fit physique throughout his life, and there are many photos that show his remarkable physical condition in his older years. He passed away in 1967, after living a remarkably long life for a man whose lungs and heart were compromised from the effects of rheumatic fever as a child of the 19th Century. He is said to have had a rough but kindly manner with his clients and a flamboyant personality. He was renowned for enjoying cigars, whiskey and women. He was often the life of the party and wore his habitual “bikini bottom” exercise briefs even on the streets of New York City. He has been described as an intimidating yet deeply committed teacher. Clara continued to teach and run the studio for another ten years after his death. The popularity of his work continues to spread, originally through his first generation teachers, referred to as the Pilates Elders, and eventually through their students, referred to as the second generation teachers, and now their students, and so on, and so on…