Born in a small town near Dusseldorf, Germany in 1880, Joseph Pilates was a small and sickly child. Given an anatomy book by a family physician, Joe began his study of the human body at an early age. Using movement of his own body to learn and memorize every page of the book, by 14 he was modeling for anatomy books himself. The son of a gymnast father and naturopath mother, Joe later became a skilled boxer, gymnast, circus performer, skier and diver; he also practiced yoga and Zen meditation. Through his own physical transformation, Joe came to realize the simple truth and Power Pilates motto: Movement heals.
German born Joseph Pilates was living in England, working as a circus performer and boxer, when he was placed in forced internment in England at the outbreak of WWI. While in the internment camp, he began to develop the floor exercises that evolved into what we now know as the Pilates mat work.
As time went by, Joseph Pilates began to work with rehabilitating other detainees who were suffering from diseases and injuries. It was invention born of necessity that inspired him to utilize items that were available to him, like bedsprings and beer keg rings, to create resistance exercise equipment for his patients. This was unlikely beginnings of the equipment we use today, like the reformer and the magic circle.
Joseph Pilates developed his work from a strong personal experience in fitness. Unhealthy as a child, Joseph Pilates studied many kinds of self-improvement systems. He drew from Eastern practices such as yoga and Zen Buddhism, and was inspired by the ancient Greek ideal of man perfected in development of body, mind and spirit. On his way to developing the Pilates Method, Joseph Pilates studied anatomy and developed himself as a body builder, a wrestler, gymnast, boxer, skier and diver.
After WWI, Joseph Pilates briefly returned to Germany where his reputation as a physical trainer/healer preceded him. In Germany, he worked briefly for the Hamburg Military Police in self-defense and physical training. In 1925, he was asked to train the German army. Instead, he packed his bags and took a boat to New York City. On the boat to America, Joseph met Clara, a nurse, who would become his wife. He went on to establish his studio in New York and Clara worked with him as he evolved the Pilates method of exercise, invented the Pilates exercise equipment, and of course, trained students.
Joseph Pilates taught in New York from 1926 to 1966. During that time, he trained a number of students who not only applied his work to their own lives but became teachers of the Pilates method themselves. This first generation of teachers who trained directly with Joseph Pilates is often referred to as the Pilates Elders. Some committed themselves to passing along Joseph Pilates work exactly as he taught it. This approach is referred to as “classical style” Pilates. Other students went on to integrate what they learned with their own research in anatomy and exercise sciences.
Joseph Pilates' New York studio put him in close proximity to a number of dance studios, which led to his “discovery” by the dance community. Many dancers and well-known persons of New York depended on Pilates method training for the strength and grace it developed in the practitioner, as well as for its rehabilitative effects. Until exercise science caught up with the Pilates exercise principles in the 1980s, and the surge of interest in Pilates that we have today got underway, it was chiefly dancers and elite athletes who kept Joseph Pilates' work alive.
Joseph Pilates passed away in 1967 at age 87. He had maintained a fit physique throughout his life, and many photos show that he was in remarkable physical condition in his older years. He is also said to have had a flamboyant personality. He smoked cigars, liked to party, and wore his exercise briefs wherever he wanted (even on the streets of New York). It is said that he was an intimidating, though deeply committed, instructor. Clara Pilates continued to teach and run the studio for another 10 years after Joseph Pilates death. Today, Joseph Pilates teachings are carried on by the Pilates Elders, and by a large group of contemporary teachers.
Joseph Pilates called his work, contrology. He defined Contrology as “the comprehensive integration of body mind and spirit.” This philosophy is beautifully elucidated in his book, Return to Life Through Contrology.