The Joseph H. Pilates Story

dragonfly icon

Joseph H PilatesA lot of people don’t realize the Pilates method of exercise was developed by a man, Joseph Hubertus Pilates who was born in Germany in 1883. He was a sickly child, suffering from rickets, rheumatic fever, and asthma. By the time he was entering his teens he was discouraged about his poor physical condition. So, he studied and learned how the human body works, anatomically, physiologically, and biomechanically; he also studied Eastern philosophy and martial arts. He was very interested in the classical Greek ideal of a man – balanced in body, mind, and spirit. He developed his own exercise routines, such that by the time he was 15 years old he was a model, posing for the artists who were drawing the medical anatomical charts! This pursuit of fitness and well-being included skiing, diving, gymnastics, and boxing.

Joe was in England, training detectives of Scotland Yard in self-defense techniques, when World War One broke-out in 1912. Because he was German, he was swept up with other German nationals and ultimately ended up in an internment camp on the Isle of Man. There he found ways to continue his fitness routines, developing exercises which required little or no equipment. This caught the attention of various staff members who requested instruction from Joe. It is said those who trained with Joe survived the influenza epidemic of 1918. Ultimately, he was allowed to work in the infirmary where he would detach the springs from under the mattresses of the hospital beds, attaching them to the headboard and footboard. This allowed bedridden patients to exercise in bed!

After the war, Joe returned to Germany. There he trained the Austrian military; his work also attracted the attention of many dancers. When the German officials inquired with Joe about training their military, he decided to leave Germany and emigrate to the U.S. In 1926, on the ship to New York, he met his future wife, Clara. Eventually, together they opened a fitness studio where Joe continued to train boxers, dancers, and other athletes. Joe called his work “Contrology”. The dancers were particularly enamored with Joe’s work; many stayed on to train to be teachers. These are now referred to as the “Master Teachers”. They passed on their knowledge and skills to a new generation, as well.

Joe died in 1967. Clara and the Master Teachers vowed to carry on the integrity of Joe’s work. By the late 1980’s, the Pilates method finally gained the wide-spread notoriety it deserved.

Pilates at 57 and 82