About Joseph H. Pilates

by | Nov 10, 2011 | Pilates | 0 comments

The creator and inventor of the Pilates Method – Joseph Pilates

The Pilates Master - Joseph H. PilatesJoseph Pilates was born in Monchengladbach Germany, in 1880.  He was a small, sickly child. Joseph suffered from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever.  Desiring better health, he began his quest for knowledge. A family physician gave him a discarded anatomy book and as he put it, “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.”

Pilates studied both Eastern and Western forms of exercise including, Zen meditation, yoga, and ancient Greek and Roman fitness regimes.  By the age of 14, he was so well developed that he was modeling for anatomy charts.  Growing up in Germany, he achieved success as a boxer, gymnast, skier and diver.  Basically “Joe” athlete!

There are several versions of why Pilates traveled to England.  (1912-1914)  He may have traveled as a boxer, or  a star circus performer touring with his brother in a Greek statue act.  In 1914; during WWI, Pilates’ was interned along with other German nationals in a camp for enemy aliens in Lancaster.  It was here that he began developing his system of original exercises that became the Pilates Matwork.  Transferred to another camp on The Isle of Man, Pilates began working with internees who suffered from wartime diseases and incarceration.  It was at The Isle of Man that he began devising equipment to use for fitness and rehabilitation.  In 1918 an influenza epidemic swept the world killing millions.  None of Joseph Pilates’ followers succumbed even though the internment camps were the hardest hit.

After the war Pilates returned to Germany and began training the Hamburg Military Police in physical fitness and self-defense.  He also began teaching personal clients.  In 1925, Pilates was invited to train the new German army.  Unhappy with the German political situation, he decided to leave Germany and immigrated to the United States.  In route to America, Pilates met his future wife Clara. Together Joseph and Clara taught and continued to refined the exercise system that Pilates called “Contrology.”

The First Pilates Studio - Joe, Clara and Mary Pilates

The First Pilates Studio ~ 939 Eighth Ave. New York, NY
Joe, Clara, and Mary Pilates with Client

Upon arriving in New York City, Joseph and Clara opened their first studio at 939 Eighth Avenue.  Being in close proximity to the New York dance community many dancers used Pilates “Contrology” for strengthening and muscle balancing, as well as injury rehabilitation.  From 1939 to 1951, Joseph and Clara went every summer to Jacob’s Pillow, a well known dance camp in the Berkshire Mountains.  He was a friend and teacher to many renowned dancers and choreographers including George Balanchine, Ted Shawn, Ruth St. Denis, Martha Graham and Jerome Robbins.  Pilates followers were not just dancers.  Among his clients were New York socialites, plumbers, and doctors.

While Joseph Pilates was the creator and inventor of the Pilates Method, his wife Clara was instrumental in teaching and refining the exercises. Clara took the time to help students understand the finer points of how to do the exercises more correctly.  Together they ran a busy and successful exercise studio.

In January 1966, there was a fire at the studio building.  While attempting to save everything he could, Joseph fell through the burnt out floorboards.  By some accounts, he held onto a beam for over two hours and waited for rescue by firefighters.  It is believed that this incident directly led to his death in October 1967, at the age of 87.  Clara, continued to teach and run the studio until her death ten years later in 1977.

Visionaries and Pioneers in Movement and HealthJoseph and Clara Pilates, 1961

  • Joseph Pilates said that his work was “50 years ahead of his time.”
  • Pilates believed in “natural movements” emphasizing doing and being.  He stated, “Everything should be smooth, like a cat.  The exercises are done lying sitting, kneeling, to avoid excess strain on the heart and lungs.
  • He defined physical fitness as “the attainment and maintenance of a uniformly developed body with a sound mind fully capable of naturally, easily and satisfactorily performing our many and varied daily tasks with spontaneous zest and pleasure.”
  • “If your spine is inflexibly stiff at 30, you are old.  If it is completely flexible at 60, you are young.”
  • “True  flexibility can be achieved only when all muscles are uniformly developed.”
  • “A body free from nervous tension and fatigue is the ideal shelter provided by nature for housing a well balanced mind, fully capable of successfully meeting all the complex problems of modern living.”
  • “Contrology develops the body uniformly, corrects posture, restores vitality, invigorates the mind and elevates the spirit.”
  • “To achieve the highest accomplishments within the scope of our capabilities in all walks of life we must constantly strive to acquire strong, healthy bodies and develop our minds to the limits of our ability.”
  • “We retire too early and we die too young, our prime of life should be in the 70’s and old age should not come until we are almost 100.”

The Pilates Legacy Continues…..

The legacy of the work created by Joseph and Clara Pilates has been passed on through apprenticeship training. Several of Pilates’ students embraced the method and went on to become teachers, teacher-trainers and open successful studios across the country.  Among these Pilates proteges are: Mary Bowen, Ron Fletcher, Kathy Grant, Eve Gentry, Romana Kryzanowska, Lolita San Miguel, and Carola Trier.

These Pilates elders continue to teach the philosophy and principles of Contrology to both students and teachers. They have all been instrumental in furthering the growth and participation in Pilates programs by teaching and encouraging future generations to learn and practice Pilates for movement and health.

Growth of the Pilates Community

1967 Instruction in The Pilates Method was only available  in the New York Studio.
1970’s Teachers had taken Pilates to both the East & West coasts.
2000 Fewer than 1 million people participated in Pilates classes & training programs.  The Pilates Method Alliance,  a non-for-profit organization, was established  to  further the work of  Joseph & Clara, and help to  set the standard for  quality education & training in the Pilates Method.
2003 Approximately  8 million people practiced Pilates in the U.S
2010 Participation in Pilates programs is estimated to grow to 40 million participants.

Pilates instruction is available throughout the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Pan-Asia.  The
world is taking notice of this fitness regime for development of whole-body health – strength, flexibility, and total coordination of mind, body, and spirit.

Books Authored by Joseph Pilates

Your Health (1934)

A corrective system of exercising that revolutionizes the entire field of physical education.

Return to Life Through Contrology (1945)

Photos and guidelines for correct execution and development of a fitness program utilizing the Pilates Matwork exercises.

Get insights and wisdom from the Pilates master, Joseph Pilates, with your copy of Return to Life!

Aliesa George: Over the past three decades, Aliesa George has helped assist people with their personal health journeys by sharing, teaching, and developing Pilates, Foot Fitness, and other Mind-Body programs.


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