Joseph Hubertus Pilates was born in a small town near Dusseldorf, Germany in 1880. His mother was a naturopath, and his father was a prize winning gymnast. Joe, however, was a small, sickly child. He suffered from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever. He was often teased by the other children and felt unable to fight back. This sparked in him the desire to begin the journey toward health and fitness.
A family physician gave Joe a discarded anatomy book. He learned every page and with it, every part of the body. He would move each part as he memorized it. As a child, he would lie in the woods for hours, watching how animals moved and how the mother taught her young. He studied both eastern and western forms of exercise, including yoga and the ancient Greek and Roman regimens. By the age of fourteen, Joe was strong and healthy. He began modeling for anatomy charts.
Growing up in Germany, Joe achieved success as a boxer, gymnast, skier and diver. Around 1912, he traveled to England. Some say he went to work as a boxer. Others say he was touring as a circus performer. World War I began in 1914, and Joe was interned with other German nationals in a camp for enemy aliens in Lancaster, England. He taught wrestling to other interns in the camp. It was here that Joe began to develop a system of original exercises. He named it Contrology. It later became known, as it is today, as “Pilates.” He often boasted that the interns would emerge from the camp stronger than they were when they had entered. Later, Joe was transferred to another camp on the Isle of Man. Here, he worked with interns suffering from wartime injuries and illnesses. This is where he began to develop equipment to assist with the exercises. To avoid using his own body to support the men who were bedridden, he pulled springs from mattresses and rigged exercise equipment to do the job for him. In 1918, a terrible epidemic of influenza swept the world. It killed tens of thousands of people in England. The internment camps were often hit the hardest. None of Joe’s students fell ill.
After the war, Joe returned to Germany. He headed the training of the Hamburg Military Police in physical fitness and self-defense. During this time, he met the famous movement analyst Rudolf von Laban. Rodolf von Laban is said to have incorporated some of Joe’s theories into his own work. Joe also met Mary Wigman, a famous dancer and choreographer at that time. She used many of Joe’s exercises in her dance classes. Joe was invited to train the new German army in 1925, but he was not happy with the cultural and political direction of Germany, so he decided to leave for the United States. On the boat to America, he met his wife Clara. She was a kindergarten teacher and suffering from arthritic pain. While en route to the U.S. he worked with her to heal her.
When Joe and Clara arrived in New York City they opened a gym at 939 Eighth Avenue. Several dance studios shared the same space. George Balanchine, choreographer of the New York City Ballet, sent many of his dancers to Joe to balance their bodies as well as rehabilitate injuries. Many dancers from the Martha Graham Dance Company did the same. Joe’s work became an integral part of training for many dancers.
There was a fire in the building in January 1966. Joe returned to his studio to save what he could, but fell through the floorboards, at the time he was 86 years old. He hung by his hands from a beam for some time before he was rescued by firefighters. This may have indirectly led to his death in October of 1967.
Joe believed that his work was fifty years ahead of his time. He defined physical fitness as “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 spontaneous zest and pleasure.” While Joe was the genius behind the work, Clara was regarded by many as the more superb teacher. She continued to teach until her death in 1977. A number of Joe’s students then carried on his legacy, including Romana Kryzanowska, Eve Gentry, Carola Trier, Kathy Grant and Ron Fletcher. These masters have passed Joe’s gifts on to the Pilates teachers of today.
Courtesy of Globetrekker Pilates