History of Pilates

Joseph Hubertus Pilates definition of Physical Fitness was: “The attainment 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.”

Joseph Pilates (Pilatu of Greek derivation), was born in Monchengladbach, a small town near Dusseldorf, Germany in 1883. He was a small sickly child who suffered from rickets and asthma. Hi parents owned and ran a gymnasium, his father a prize winning gymnast and his mother, a naturopath. He studied an anatomy book discarded from a family physician, moving each part as he memorized it. He would lie in the woods and watch the movements of animals, how the mothers taught their young and he studied both Eastern and Western forms of exercise, including yoga. He achieved success as a boxer and a gymnast in addition to be being a skilled skier and diver.

In 1912 he went to England to further his boxing training and by 1914 toured England with his brother performing feats of strength as a Greek statue act. After the breakout of WWI he was interned in a camp in Lancaster, with other German nationals. There he taught wrestling and self defense, originating his system of original exercises that later became “Contrology”.

He was transferred to another camp on the Isle of Man and became something of a nurse and worked with many internees suffering from wartime diseases and injuries. He had them exercising in bed and began devising equipment to assist in rehabilitation by taking the springs from beds and rigging exercise apparatus for the bedridden. In

1918 a terrible epidemic of influenza swept the world, killing millions of people, tens of thousands in England. None of Joe’s followers succumbed even though the camps were hardest hit. After the war Joe returned to Germany and began training the Hamburg Military Police as well as well as taking on personal clients. He said, “I invented all these machines, used to exercise rheumatic patients. I thought, why use my own strength? So I made a machine to do it for me. Look, you see it resists your movements in just the right way so those inner muscles really have to work against it. That way you can concentrate on movement. You must always do it slowly and smoothly. Then your whole body is in it.”

In 1925 he was invited to train the German Army but was not happy with the political direction and left for the U.S. It was en route that he met Clara, a kindergarten teacher who suffered from arthritic pain. Joe helped her with that pain and she became his 2 nd wife.

They opened a gym at 939 Eight Ave in the same building as several dance studios and rehearsal spaces. It was this proximity that made “Contrology” such an intrinsic part of many dancers’ training and rehab work. Famous choreographer, George Balanchine and Martha Graham were among the many that both trained with Joe and referred dancers to Joe for strengthening and balance as well as rehabilitation. Here Joe and Clara were able to start the patent process for his apparatus starting with the “Universal Reformer”. Clients travelling up the stairs would be greeted by, “The Breathesizer”, a small device for measuring breath output. Once in the gym they would get a personal workout by Joe or Clara and then follow photos in an order of the exercises they received. “After an hour get in the shower,” and each client would leave with an apple.

“A few well designed movements, properly performed in a balanced sequence, are worth hours of doing sloppy calisthenics or forced contortions.”

Although Joe was a health guru, he strongly believed in fitness supporting life’s riches. He was renowned for liking cigars, whiskey and women and was to be seen running on Manhattan streets in the dead of winter in a speedo! In January 1966 there was a fire in their building. Joe returned to the studio to try and save anything possible and fell through the burnt out floorboards, hanging by his hands from a beam for quite some time until rescued by firefighter. He died in October 1967, age 86, of emphysema. It is believed that fire may have had direct correlation. Clare, regarded as the more patient teacher, continued to teach and run the studio until her death 10 years later, in 1977.