We’ve all heard of Pilates in one way or another, however very few people know that the founder, Joseph Pilates was in fact a living, breathing (very deeply) man!
Born in Germany in 1883 to Heinrich Friedrich Pilates, a metalworker and prize winning gymnast from Greece, and Helena Pilates, a naturopath whose belief in the body’s innate capability of healing itself undoubtedly his family lineage had an impression on the young son, Joseph.
As a child Joseph suffered from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever, and as a result he was small and quite underdeveloped for a child his age. This lead to him being teased and taunted by the larger children in the community. Resolving to take his future into his own hands he devised a training regimen for himself, applying techniques and philosophies from various different disciplines including bodybuilding, wrestling, yoga, gymnastics, and martial arts. With his already strong grasp of anatomy and biomechanics, the routine itself became a powerhouse for Joseph, and his body began to strengthen and surpass what was previously unthinkable in a historic time well before the modern age of gyms and bodybuilding!
By the age of fourteen his body had reached such a pinnacle of physical fitness that he was requested to model for anatomy charts. His newly discovered strength and trust in his body also lead him to become an accomplished boxer, skier, and diver. It’s no wonder that he became known for the quote “Physical fitness is the first requisite of happiness”.
In 1912, at the age of 29, Joseph moved to England where his Adonis-like physique lead to him becoming a professional boxer, circus performer and even a teacher of self defense in the Police schools of Scotland Yard. However when World War I broke out in 1914, he was interred by the British Authorities in Lancaster Castle and later, on the notorious Isle of Man. Determined not to allow his interment to hinder him any further than it had already, he began teaching his newly created “Contrology” program to his fellow inmates. Spending time breathing and moving in the fresh air was a welcome change to the mire that awaited many of the imprisoned soldiers inside the internment facility. A number of the soldiers were bed bound and unable to attend his daily lessons so Joseph took springs from the beds and attached them to the headboards and footboards of the beds to provide resistance against which the inmates could build strength and rehabilitate their injuries. These spring-based, mechanized bed frames were the earliest incarnation of the Reformer and the Cadillac, pieces of equipment for which Pilates is known today.
Once the war ceased in 1918, Joseph Pilates returned to Germany. Settling back into his German homeland, he began to collaborate with a number of expertfs in dance and physical exercise as well as training police officers in Hamburg. He gradually began to grow discontent in Germany’s postwar political climate which led Joseph to his decision to immigrate to the USA in 1925. This is also where he met his future wife, Clara, on the ship crossing the Atlantic.
Trained as a nurse, Clara, and her husband Joseph saw eye to eye and the two of them quickly became entrenched in the movement community of New York, opening the first “Body Contrology Studio” on Eighth Avenue at 56th Street in Manhattan, in the same building as a number of dance studios. Before too long the studio became popular with the dancers, performers and social elite of New York City. Joseph recorded his knowledge in two books, “Your Health” (1934) and “Return to Life through Contrology” (1945).
A prolific inventor, with over 26 patents cited, Joseph strove to bring forth his ideals in as many ways as he could. It is said that his first Barrel was constructed from a beer keg, and he used the metal hoops from the keg to make his first Magic Circle.