"I'm fifty years ahead of my time."
December 9, 1883- October 9, 1967
Joseph Humbertus Pilates was the creator, designer, and inventor behind “The Contrology Method”. He was born in Mönchengladbach, Germany, near Dusseldorf, in 1883. His exact date of birth, cause of death, and origin of name are disputed and unclear. His father, Heinrich Friedrich Pilates, was a mechanic and primarily known for his physical achievements as a champion gymnast. His mother Helena Pilates believed strongly in the healing abilities of naturopathy. This more than likely heavily influenced Joseph Pilates toward his rehabilitative exercises alongside self designed and built unique pieces of equipment. There is uncertainty about the original pronunciation of his name. According to Pilates' niece Mary Pilates LaRiche, she remembers it pronounced Pi-LOTTS. According to other accounts, his father’s family spelled it as “Pilatu” and after migrating to Germany from Greece, changed it to Pilates. The story that the family name Pilates is "of Greek origin" is not confirmed by family members alive today, who state that he was thoroughly German.
As a child, Joseph suffered from several ailments such as asthma, rickets, and rheumatic fever and sadly also from being bullied mostly for his last name. As a result of one episode at the age of 5 Joseph lost sight from his left eye. In efforts to restore his own health and spirit, he became enamored by the classical Greek ideal of a man balanced in body, mind, and spirit. This drove him to rigorous physical exercise to learn self defense and found great interest with bodybuilding, gymnastics, and the practice of yoga. Joe began to believe that our modern lifestyle, bad posture, lack of exercise and shallow breathing were the cause and root of poor health, poor organ function, and fatigue.
As an adult, Pilates had overcome his sickly childhood and was so physically fit by the age of fourteen he was asked to pose for anatomical charts. While growing up in Germany, Joe worked in a brewery and achieved some success as a professional boxer, and gymnast. He married in 1905 and had a daughter. His wife Maria died in 1913.
In early 1912, leaving his wife and daughter behind in Germany for unknown reasons, Pilates moved to England to further his boxing career. Eventually he became recognized for his circus and gladiator performances and as a teacher for training self-defense programs to Scotland Yard's Law Enforcement. As World War I erupted in 1914 and Britain entered the War, he was interned with other German citizens of England in a camp in Lancaster. To pass the time, Joseph continued to teach wrestling, self defense, and his exercises to fellow compatriots. It was here where he fashioned the groundwork for what then became known as “Contrology”.
Also during these years, many of his inspirations for his Mat exercises were derived through simple and countless observations of animals found at the camp. Joseph would watch their natural movements and responses, and incorporate them into his concepts. Pilates was later transferred to another camp on The Isle of Man where he again continued to help his fellow man wherever needed and insisted they practice his exercises and at one point found himself assisting patients in the infirmary. This led him to develop his first innovative and rehabilitative mechanical devices to help those who were injured and bed-ridden by using the under springs from the camp bunk beds and reconfiguring them to the bed frame (today recognized as the Cadillac and Reformer). This gave the injured that were forced to stay in bed an opportunity for movement. To Joe, movement was key to a more speedy recovery from physical injury, the well being of mind and body, and was also important for those who with poor overall health. During the influenza epidemic of 1918 that plagued millions, Joe's fitness regimen was widely credited with the fact that not a single man under his care became sick.
Following his release, Joseph returned to Germany at the war’s end and continued his livelihood in personal training in Hamburg. His newly created fitness program gained notice with the city and he was hired to train its policeman. Word of his success with clients began to spread quickly, many took notice, and his exercise program quickly gained interest among dancers, entertainers, performers, actors, and athletes.
In 1923 even German officials took notice and asked Joseph to teach his method to the New German Army. Worsening economic and political conditions led Pilates to emigrate once again in 1926 and sailed for the United States. Between 1925 and 1926, he journeyed once prior to America to visit friends and family before his decision to leave Germany in 1926.
During his second trip, Pilates met a woman by the name of Anna Clara Zener. In 1926 they opened a fitness gym developing “Body Contrology” further evolving "The Method" in New York City. Clara was known to have good business sense and managed the studio well and was credited to have been the better teacher between the two. They remained business and personal partners for the remainder of his life. The “Studio” as Joe referred it, shared an address with the New York City Ballet at 939 Eighth Avenue on the city’s West Side.
His teachings and its effectiveness once again spread quickly among the community and the couple had local respected dancers, actors, and athletes regularly attending his studio. Joseph and Clara taught the "Contrology" method of activating the muscles of the body with intent and focus with conscience attention to proper breath execution, timing, and pattern. Over the years Pilates trained some of his students to become teachers of his method; those who adhered strictly to his teachings became known as the Pilates Elders and practiced what became known as "Classical Pilates”. Other students went on to integrate what they learned with their own research in anatomy and exercise sciences. They carried with them different experiences and interpretations of Joseph Pilates’ method. This has produced various styles of Pilates with some Elders disagreeing on how to practice “Pilates”. Among these original direct disciples and most influential include: Mary Bowen, Ron Fletcher, Eve Gentry, Kathy Grant, Lolita San Miguel, Jay Grimes, Bruce King, Carola Trier, and Romana Kryzanowska.
Romana’s first encounter with Joe’s work was after a dance related injury at the age of seventeen. After travels to Peru, she returned to New York in 1958 and apprenticed in Joe’s studio under his tutelage until Joseph’s death in the 1967. Romana and Clara continued to run the studio and teach the Pilates Method until Clara's passing in 1977. After several changes in ownership, names, and locations, Romana continued to manage and teach at Joe’s studio into the early 1980’s. She died on August 30, 2013 at the age of 90.
Though he firmly believed in his work, Joseph also understood the importance of conscious eating habits. In one of his books he states: "It would be grave error to assume that even Contrology exercises alone will remake a man or a woman into an entirely physically fit person; proper diet and sufficient sleep must supplement our exercise in our quest for physical fitness”. As an instructor Joe was deeply committed to the work and was described as intimidating, focused, and direct. In private life however Joseph Pilates was known as a gregarious party lover with a flamboyant personality and somewhat of a ladies man.
One of his weaknesses later in life was an addiction to cigar smoking and a gravitation towards alcohol which was believed to have been the cause of his bitterness and resentment over not receiving the recognition from the medical community that he so deserved. Overtime, this caused Joseph professional and personal strife. His death in 1967 was more than likely due to advanced emphysema, and not by smoke inhalation from a fire located in a storage room below his studio one year prior, as some references would claim. Joseph 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 remained robust and vital and continued to practice his own work in later life regularly despite his shortcomings.
The Pilates Method was grounded in a series of exercises that called for stretching, pulling, and contracting parts of the body to strengthen muscles in the abdomen and pelvic area by fostering proper spinal alignment, while simultaneously applying rhythmic and fundamental breathing principles. Breathing, proper posture, and the correction of various physical ailments were the focus at Joseph’s studio and in his two books: Your Health: A corrective System of Exercising that Revolutionizes the Entire Field of Physical Education published in 1934 and Return to Life Through Contrology published in 1945. He also patented over more than two-dozen exercise devices. Subsequently, it could be said that Joseph Pilates had become a "Nurse-Physiotherapist", with a powerful and revolutionary approach to life enhancing therapeutic exercise.
Pilates remained a largely exclusive practice until the 1990's when it began attracting a wider following among the older generation becoming increasingly fitness-conscious. Joe himself, who often expressed the belief that he was fifty years ahead of his time, had predicted the “Pilates” craze that has ensued. As of 2008 there were more than five hundred Pilates studios throughout the United States alone, and continues to grow. Joseph Pilates always knew that his exercise method would someday become a worldwide sensation. He stated it in not only in his book, but also two days before his death to his lawyer.
Joseph Pilates dedicated his life’s work to restoring the health and vitality of others. Though it has been some time since his passing, his work continues well into the 21st century. “Pilates” has been a best-kept secret of the dance, professional athletic, performance and entertainment industry, since the 1920’s. Today still, celebrities, entertainers and laypersons alike attest to the method's effectiveness. The work continues to sculpt bodies and change lives today through his publications and to those individuals committed to furthering his revolutionary ideas. Mary, Joseph's nice, once said that Joseph asked two things of a student and two things only: "Learn the exercises and learn to breathe!"