Joseph Pilates was born in Mönchengladbach, a small town near Düsseldorf, Germany, in 1880. He was a rather frail and sickly child who suffered from a variety of aliments such as asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever. He overcame his afflictions through training his body in both western and eastern forms of exercise, in addition to being an accomplished diver, skier, gymnast, boxer and circus performer. His fascination with the study of anatomy was promoted through the memorization of anatomy books and studying the movement of animals in their natural habitat. At a later stage his body was so developed that he became a model for anatomy charts.
In 1912 Joseph moved to England to further his training as a boxer and at the same time began his successful career along with his brother as a circus performer. Unfortunately in 1914 when WW1 broke out he was interned in a “camp” for German nationals as an enemy alien. During his incarceration he taught his fellow prisoners a series of exercises later called “Contrology” which combined elements of physical fitness, breathing and mental focus to increase strength and flexibility. During the later part of the war Joseph’s teaching in the camps took on a more rehabilitative structure, in his role as a hospital orderly. Here he developed the use of bedsprings for resistance training for patients to build core strength and increase flexibility while still being bed-ridden. Much of the equipment used today by Pilate’s instructors is designed after the original hospital improvisations Joseph developed, such as the reformer, Cadillac, barrels and magic circles.
After the war Joseph returned to Germany and became involved in personal training as well as in the physical training of the Hamburg Military Police in self-defense. Not content with the growing political climate of Germany in 1925 he parted for the United States. It has also been stated that Joseph was asked to train the New German Army and declined, which further supported his decision to immigrate to the USA. While en route to the United States Joseph met his wife Clara and it is with her that they opened their first studio in New York City on Eighth Avenue.
Joseph and Clara’s studio in New York was located near several dance companies, studios and rehearsal spaces, which helped to promote and lay the strong foundation of the Pilates technique within the dance community. Many renowned choreographers studied at the studio in addition to requiring their dancers to work with Joseph and Clara. George Balanchine, Martha Graham, Hanya Holm, Jerome Robbins and Ted Shawn are just a few of the choreographers that pay tribute to the Pilates technique for the strengthening, balancing and rehabilitating of their dancers.
Joseph Pilates died in 1967 at the age of 87, after suffering injuries sustained in a fire in the studio building. Clara continued to run the studio for 10 years following his death and she passed away in 1977 . Today the Pilates training has expanded its’ realm of devotees beyond the dance world into health care practioners, physiotherapists, fitness trainers, athletes, and persons interested in developing a life-long lasting state of pure and simple “being fit” at any age.