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Joseph Pilates

Pilates, the early years

Joseph Hubertus Pilates was born in Mönchengladbach, a town west of Düsseldorf 1883 (yes, not in 1880).
Early in his life he would be exposed to alternative health methods, since his mother was anaturpath, and with the world of fitness through his father, who was a gymnast, award winning too. This would not prevent him from beeing a rather frail child, he suffererd from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever. Having survived diseases that killed thousands each year he grew determined to overcome his weaknesses. This experience the lack of health - will shape his method and his understanding of the mind and body of the invalid and the weak.

From his early teens he began studying, practising and reearching. A family physician gave him an anatomy book as a child and as he put it "I learned every page and every part of the body". He frequented the university libraries, studied yoga, Zen, meditation, ancient greek and roman exercise routines, anatomy and how it is related in an effort to get stronger. He will try every exercise he found and keep record of his improvement. He will observe nature and how animals behaved and moved in the wild, noticing the purpose, use and grace of their movements. The philosophy of the east and the ancient european will make an impression to him. He will always refer to them later in life. He made the ancient roman saying "mens sana in corpore sano" his own motto "a healthy mind in a healthy body".

By the time he was 14 he was an accomplished diver, skier, gymnast and a martial artist. He developed a body that was strong and fit. So much so that Joseph was claimed that he posed for anatomical charts at that young age. Through knowledge he had changed his body. He had transformed his body and could start transforming others. This attitude will continue for the rest of his life. His thirst for knowledge made him an avid reader. His personal library contains many titles if mental and physical health, exercise and sexuality. His exercises like his knowledge will be polished over time as he encountered different individuals with different problems. Pilates continued to develop mind and body together, energized by his spirit and zest. He focused on their relationship, on how the spirit build the body through the mind, and came out with his own combination: a physical art form.


We find Joseph some years later being requested to train the elite troops of the Kaiser. He refuses. Instead Joe goes to england to train as a boxer. This is the year 1912. There he works as a self-defence instuctor for the detectives at scotland yard and as circus perfomer. By 1914 he had became known and toured in England with a troupe. Hhe and his brother Fred will perform a Greek statue act. Then the first world war broke out. Together with other German nationals he was interned in Lancaster, in an old wagon factory, as an "alien enemy".

Wartime conditions did not diminish his enthusiasm. He taught wrestling and self defence inside the camp, claiming that his students would end up stronger than they were interned. It was during this period that he began to put together his system of exercises. What would become contology: the art of movement. The name never stuck. With the war still going on, he gets tranferred in an other camp. This time it was the isle of man. Again, undeterred by the war events, he continues to work with his fellow inmates, becoming a sort of nurse to the many facing diseases or wartime injuries. Many of them were bedridden. Joseph refines his method the and starts devising machines out of beds by adding springs, straps and pulleys to assist them in their rehabilitation. These machines allowed his patients to exercise while lying down, which stabilized them, allowing them to restore muscular functions with their full range of motion, an advance that will lead to his later equipment designs.

In 1918-1919 an influenza pandemic swept the world, killing more people than the war, tens of thousands in the British islands, but none of Joe's followers died, considering the camps were notoriously the hardest hit by the virus. Furthermore, the warden of camp where Pilates was confined made the method obligatory for all in the camp, prisoners guard and the warden himself.


After the war Joe went back to germany and put into practice what he had learned in the war years. He refined the machines and began to train the Hamburg Military Police and at the same time, started to work one on one with clients. Pilates said "I invented all these machines for my rheumatic clients, 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 cao concentrate on the movement, you must always do smoothly and slowly. Then your whole body is in it." His exercise method gained support in the dance community, mainly through Rudolph von Laban, the creator if the dance notation system most extensively used today. He integrated some of Joe's theories and exercisees to his own work. Also Mary Wigman, a famous german dancer and choreographer, was a student of Joe's and used his exercises in her danceclass warm-up.


His work started to be known and by 1925 he was invited to train the new German Army, which Hitler was rebuilding in violation of the treaty of Versailles. Again Joseph refused and decided to leave Germany again. He took the advice of Nat Fleischer (founder of the ring magazine) and with the help of Max Schmeling he decided to go to the US. Schmeling the boxing legend who, apart from being a close friend, won the heavyweight boxing championship while he was under Pilates instruction, wanted Joseph to share his revolutionary methodof body conditionong and his expertise in boxing. It was on the way to america that Joe met Clara: an intelligent nurse and caring kindergartenteacher who will become his second wife. She was suffering from arthritic pain. On the ship, Joseph will work with her to heal her. She will then become his life long professional partner.

They arrived in New York City in 1926. They opened a gym at 939 Eighth avenue. The studio was in the same building that George Balanchine housed his New York City Ballet and every dancer sometime or another entered the studio, as did many other performers, among the Laurence Olivier, Katherine Hepburn, James Stewart, Yehudi Menuhin. Balanchine worked out at Joe's as he used to call it, and will usually send his dancers to Joseph. There they get stronger and "balanced" or receive treatment. He was so taken by Pilates method's movements that he incorporated them into his "seven deadly sins". He dubbed Joseph "the scientist of the body". Hanya Holm, a pioneer in modern dance was another frequent pupil and adopted many of Joe's exercises in their program, and they are still a part of the Holm Technique. Another famous Choreographer to follow Joseph was Martha Graham. She not only recommended it to her dancers but will call "Uncle Joe" whenever her own body needed attention. She also incorporated Joes exercises in to her own work. For decades, Pilates continued to dedicate his life to to training othres in his method, developing and polishing exercises and making new aparatuses and modifying the existing ones. He will take new clients with differnt and new problems as a new challenge, and new exercises and new modifications will appear. In his eighties Joseph was a perfect example of the reliability of his method:he continued to have incredible strength and energy and continued to run his studio.


Joe died in 1967 of a lung emphysema. Many like to think that he either died in a fire in the storage room on the back of the studio or due to injuries sustained in the fire. Clara died 10 years after him in 1977.

When Joe passed away there was no testament and had no designated line of succesion for the "Pilates work" to carry on. Clara continued in the studio. ROMANA KRYZANOWSKA had studied with Joe and Clara from the 1940 on and had a recommendation from her teacher George balanchine. After some years in Peru she returned to the studio in the mid fifties and then following Claras request became the direcror of the NEW YORK Studio in 1970. She has devoted her life to teach the method exactl as she learned it from Joseph, something that she continues to do together with her daughter Sari Meija Santo at Drago's gym at New York.

Claras Hands

Joseph was the outgoing type, while Clara was much quieter, excelled at applying the method to help those more seriously injured or ill. She brought to method her nursing, patience and her careful hands - Joe was known to be a bit rougher. To a great extent most trainers nowadays do teach like Clara, making it very approachable. Her special techniques are reflected how we handle most clients. One could say that instructors today teach his method with her hands. Joe and Clara never had children, one living relative is Fred Pilates Daughter Mary in Florida, who is 83 and have a studio in Florida.

Pilates knew he was 50 years ahead of his time. And indeed, while his method survived through the dance companies, in the studios of his followers and as a form of physical therapy, only in the last 10 years it had seen the light of the day. Sure he may not have been happy with the lots of decaffeinated versions of his workthat came up the last years, but enough good teachers and serious students will remain for a long time. Even if the majority of the world sees it as the new passing fashion, many will keep the method alive and will, once again pass the test of time.