Joseph PilatesJoseph Pilates history courtesy of Pilates Technique Certification.

Joseph Humbertus Pilates was a man who believed completely in his method and practiced what he prescribed to others well into his eighties. Even as an older man he was quite robust and vital until his death, at the age of 87. There is debate to whether his death was due to smoke inhalation from a fire in a restaurant below his studio on 8th Avenue in New York City or that he died two years later, in 1967 from advanced emphysema from smoking cigars for too many years.

In 1880 near Dusseldorf Germany, Joseph Pilates was  born to a  prize-winning gymnast father  and a mother who subscribed to naturopath forms of healing. His unusual name is actually derived from his Greek heritage and would have been spelled “Pilatos.” Some controversy surrounds the correct pronunciation of his name. Nearly all publications phonetically spell it (Pi-LAH-teez), however, according to Joseph’s niece, Mary Pilates LaRiche, she recalls it as pronounced (Pi-LOTTS).

As a child, Joseph suffered from several health ailments: asthma, rickets, and rheumatic fever.  In an effort to restore his own health, he studied anatomy books and reinforced what he learned by observing animals in the woods. “Take a horse,” he later said in discussing body conditioning, “If a man wants to race him, he keeps him in top form. He makes the horse move. Why not keep humans in top form too?” Joseph studied Eastern disciplines, like yoga and martial arts, and blended them with more Western forms of physical activities, such as bodybuilding, gymnastics, boxing and recreational sports; even incorporating ancient Greek and Roman forms of fitness practices. By the age of fourteen he had sculpted his physique to such an extent that he was posing for anatomical charts.

Joseph PilatesAs a young man, Joseph boxed, and taught self-defense.  In 1912 he moved to England where he continued to box and taught self-defense at police schools and Scotland Yard. He also performed a Greek statue act in the circus with his brother to earn money. When Britain entered World War I, his German citizenship led to his imprisonment along with other German nationals as “enemy aliens.” Despite the unfortunate circumstances, this was a fundamental time in the development of his method. Photojournalist I.C. Rapoport, who interviewed Joseph in 1961, documents that Joseph said he observed animals in the camp stretching and incorporated this into the foundation of his matwork. During his imprisonment Joseph taught his exercises to fellow compatriots, and later he acted as a nurse-physiotherapist of sorts. Here he developed the first concepts for his innovative machines by disassembling the camp bunk beds and using the springs as a form of resistance to rehabilitate the injured and bed-ridden.  One of the greatest examples of the immense benefits of practicing Joseph Pilates’ holistic approach to health is the outbreak of a terrible influenza in 1918. The 1918 influenza epidemic decimated populations all over the world; areas of close co-habitations of people, such as internment camps, were especially hard hit. However, all those who followed Joseph’s routine survived due to their good health.After the war Joseph returned to Germany. He continued training police officers in Hamburg and also worked with dance and movement experts. When he was pressured to train the New German Army, Joseph chose to leave Germany. He immigrated to New York, and on the boat met Clara, a nurse. The two married and founded a studio that taught his developing method, “Contrology.” 

Joseph and Clara taught their method of using the mind to control the muscles to a devout following in New York. Local dancers came regularly to heal injuries quickly and improve their strength while maintaining their flexibility. George Balanchine and Martha Graham became devotees to Joseph Pilates’ method and often sent their dance students to “Uncle Joe,” as some called him affectionately.  Joseph also taught his mat work at Jacob’s Pillow in the summer to young dancers in Becket, Massachusetts. His hour-long classes began with deep breathing--a fundamental element of the Pilates method.

Breathing, proper posture, and the correction of various physical ailments were the focus at Joseph’s studio and in his two books: Your Health published in 1934 and Return to Life Through Contrologypublished in 1945.  The essence of his work continues to change bodies and lives today through his publications and those individuals committed to furthering his revolutionary ideas.

The “Elders,” as the first instructors of his method are commonly called today, transplanted all over the world after studying with Joseph. They carried with them different experiences and interpretations of Joseph Pilates’ method. (As Joseph did not always teach the same exercise in the same manner each time; taking into account different bodies). This has produced various styles of Pilates; with some Elders disagreeing on how to practice Pilates. 

In 1938, dancer Eve Gentry commenced studies with Joseph and Clara, and she taught alongside them until 1968. She then relocated to Santa Fe, New Mexico and opened a studio.  Carola Trier came to Joseph Pilates because of a non-stage related injury that kept her from performing in 1940.  In the late 1950s, she opened her own studio of Contrology in New York, with Joe’s blessings. In 1941, Romana Kyrzanowska sought Joseph’s help for an ankle injury and studied with him for three years. She then left the country with her husband, only to return in 1959. She resumed her tutelage until his death in 1968. She remained in Joe’s studio and later became the director of the original Pilates studio.  Martha Graham dancer, Ron Fletcher sought Joseph Pilates’ help in rehabilitating chronic knee and ankle injuries in 1940.  In 1975, he opened a studio in Beverly Hills, California, which was quite popular with movie stars.

Joseph’s obituary, appearing in the New York Times in 1967, reads like an advertisement for his methods. He is described as a white-maned lion with steel blue eyes (one was glass eye from a boxing mishap), and mahogany skin, and as limber in his 80’s as a teenager.

Joseph PilatesJoseph and Clara operated their exercise studio for over 40 years. He had dedicated his life’s work to restoring the health and vitality of others. Gone now for thirty-five years, the essence of his work continues on into the 21st century. Joseph Pilates’ method of physical and mental wellness has been a best-kept secret of the dance and entertainment world since the 1920’s when his studio was discovered by Martha Graham, the mother of modern dance, George Balanchine, the artistic director for the New York City Ballet, and Rudolf Von Laban, founder of Labonotation. Dancers such as Hanya Holm and Romana Kryzanowska, along with prizefighters, actors, actresses, and traveling circus performers embraced his methods both for the total body conditioning needed for the rigors of their work and also for rehabilitating the injuries that often plague dancers, performers, and athletes.

Dance companies all over the world use Pilates’ exercises to keep their dancers in top form. Today his method is taught around the world in studios, gyms, in universities and even grade schools. Due to the attention the mainstream public gives to Hollywood celebrities, the name Pilates is now a household word thanks to the many film and television stars who credit Pilates for their toned-physique.

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