Joseph Pilates was born in December 1883, in a small town near Dusseldorf, Germany. As a child he suffered from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever. With time, he became frustrated by his poor health and frailty and started to explore ways to improve his physical condition. By his 14th birthday he had developed such a prime physical condition that he was modeling for a series of illustrated anatomical charts as an example of the ideal. As a young man, Pilates could pride himself on being a self-taught gymnast, boxer, skier and body builder with additional interest in self-defense and meditation techniques.
In 1912, Mr Pilates went to England most likely to train as a boxer, but some sources say he and his brother joined a German circus troupe who toured the UK. After some time, he was employed to teach self-defense to members of the British police force and army. When Word War 1 broke out he was placed in internment camp on the Isle of Man, due to his German origins. In this camp, he started to use his knowledge and skills to train fellow inmates and work with the camp’s disabled in the hospital. To help bedridden patients in regaining their strength and full body movement, he adapted hospital beds with straps, springs and pulleys. He found that these accessories improved the whole rehabilitation process. In fact, some of these modified beds were the precursors of the pilates equipment (Reformers, Trapeze Tables) that we use today.
During his placement, Pilates came to a very important finding, that if a body is misaligned or weaker in a particular area, then muscles and joints have to overcompensate in other ways- often causing injuries and further structural abnormalities.
When the war finished, Pilates returned to Germany and not long after, he started to work for the Hamburg Military police as a physical fitness and self-defense teacher where he gained a reputation for his knowledge, skills and working techniques. When he was asked by the German government to train its army, he decided not to be involved in controversial politics and leave for the US.
On the ship to the United States, he met his future wife - Clara, who shared his passion for healthy living and fitness. Shortly after arriving, they opened a studio, which was shared with New York City Ballet. Among their first students were ballet dancers, famous actors and athletes. Over the years of his work, Mr. Pilates wrote two shorts books, “Return to Life Through Contrology” and “Your Health: A Corrective System of Exercising that Revolutionizes the Entire Field of Physical Education”. He believed that his system, which he called “contrology” should be taught in schools throughout United States and embraced by other health care professionals. He felt that everyone should be practicing his method.
“If you will faithfully perform your Contrology exercises regularly only four times a week for just 3 months….you will find your body development approaching the ideal, accompanied by renewed mental vigor and spiritual enhancements” j.pilates
In 1966, a fire hit his Eighth Avenue building. Although he managed to pull himself out of danger, this accident (or more precisely- the smoke inhalation he was exposed to) could have been a factor in his death which happened the following year, at the age of 87. Clara carried on teaching his method at the studio and in 1971 she decided to retire and to turn over the studio to one of Pilates’ most experienced students and system-follower, Romana Kryzanowska.
**Anyone practicing pilates today can thank Romana for carrying on the pilates system. In our next blog post, we will share more about Romana and some of Joseph Pilates’ other students.**
With the years following Joseph Pilates death, his system became more widely known and you could say that it is the original boutique style of fitness. This fitness method practiced across the globe by students ranging from athletes to people with limited capacities, from children to elders is taught in private studios, sport centers, medical facilities and practiced in unlimited households. It could be said, that Joseph Pilates’ dream to present his universal method to a broad public is finally coming true.
Alpers, A. T., Gentry, L., Segel, R. T. (2011), The Everything Pilates Book: The Ultimate Guide to Making Your Body Stronger; Adams Media Corporation
Angell, H. (2017), Pilates for Runners: Everything you need to start using Pilates to improve your running – get stronger, more flexible, avoid injury and improve your performance; Bloomsbury Publishing
Clippinger, K., Isacowitz, R. (2011), Pilates Anatomy; Human Kinetics