History of Pilates

"In 10 sessions you'll feel the difference, in 20 you'll see the difference, and in 30 you'll have a new body." —Joseph Pilates. Joseph Pilates on the Reformer in NYC, 1961. Photographer: I.C. Rapoport Joe's definition of physical fitness was: "The attainment and maintenance of a uniformly developed body with a sound mind fully capable of naturally, easily and satisfactorily performing our many and varied daily tasks with spontaneously zest and pleasure." Joe was born in Mönchengladbach, a small town near Dusseldorf, Germany, in 1880. He was a small and sickly child who suffered from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever. His name had been spelled "Pilatu" and was of Greek derivation but was changed to Pilates. His father was a prize-winning gymnast and his mother a naturopath. A family physician gave him a discarded anatomy book and as he put it "I learned every page, every part of the body; I would move each part as I memorized it. As a child, I would lie in the woods for hours, hiding and watching the animals move, how the mother taught the young." he said. He studied both Eastern and Western forms of exercise including yoga.

By the time he was 14 he had worked so hard he had developed his body to the point that he was modeling for anatomy charts. Growing up in Germany, he achieved some success as a boxer and a gymnast in addition to being a skilled skier and diver. In 1912 he went to England for further training as a boxer. He found employment there as a circus performer. By 1914 he had become a star and toured England with his troupe. He and his brother were performing a Greek statue act! In 1914 after WWI broke out he was interned along with other German nationals in a "camp" for enemy aliens in Lancaster. There he taught wrestling and self-defense, boasting that his students would emerge stronger than they were before being interned. It was here that he began devising his system of original exercises that later became "Contrology". He was transferred to another camp on The Isle of Man where he became something of a nurse and worked with many internees who suffered from wartime diseases and incarceration. He then began devising equipment to rehabilitate them, taking the springs from the 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 the hardest hit! After the war Joe returned to Germany and began training the Hamburg Military Police in self-defense and physical training as well as taking on personal clients. He said, "I invented all these machines. Began back in Germany, was there until 1925 used to exercise rheumatic patients. I thought, why use My 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." It was at this time that he met Rudolf von Laban, a famous movement analyst, who is said to have incorporated some of Joe's theories and exercises into his own work. Mary Wigman, a famous German dancer and choreographer was a student of Joe's and used his exercises in her dance class warm-up. In 1925 he was invited to train the New German Army but because he was not happy with the political direction of Germany he decided to leave. On the urging of boxing expert, Nat Fleischer and with the aid of Max Schmelling he decided to come to the U.S. It was en route to America that Joe met Clara who was to become his second wife (there is really no information available about his first wife). She was a kindergarten teacher who was suffering from arthritic pain and Joe worked with her on the boat to heal her. Upon arriving in New York City in 1926 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 and many were sent to Joe to be "fixed".

George Balanchine, the famous choreographer, studied with Joe and sent many of his dancers to Pilates for strengthening and "balancing" as well as rehabilitation, as did another famous dancer/choreographer, Martha Graham. From 1939 to 1951 Joe and Clara went every summer to Jacob's Pillow, a well-known dance camp in the Berkshire Mountains. He was a friend and teacher to such renowned dancer/choreographers as Ted Shawn, Ruth St. Denis, Martha Graham and Jerome Robbins and many required their dancers to go to Joe. Both Hanya Holm and Martha Graham incorporated Joe's exercises into their students' lessons. Although Joe Pilates 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 his 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 the firefighters. It is assumed that this incident directly led to his death in October 1967, at the age of 87. Clara, regarded by many as the more patient teacher, continued to teach and run the studio until her death 10 years later, in 1977. "A few well-designed movements, properly performed in a balanced sequence, are worth hours of doing sloppy calisthenics or forced contortion." —Joseph Pilates