Joseph H. Pilates was born in 1883 in in Mönchengladbach, Germany, a small town near Dusseldorf, Germany. He was a small and sickly child who suffered from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever. His name had been spelled “Pilatu,” of Greek derivation, but was changed to Pilates. This caused his much grief because, as a child, older boys taunted him calling him “Pontius Pilate, killer of Christ.” He was so skinny that he couldn’t fight back and it was these conditions that caused him to begin the journey to fitness and health.
His father was a gymnast and the Director of the Rhinelands’ Turnvereins (a gymnastic association) and his mother, Helena Hahn Pilates, was a naturopath. He had three siblings. A family physician gave him a discarded anatomy book and as he put it “I learned every page, every part of the body; I would move each part as I memorized it. As a child, I would lie in the woods for hours, hiding and watching the animals move, how the mother taught the young.” He studied both Eastern and Western forms of exercise including yoga, Zen, and ancient Greek and Roman regimens. By the time he was 14 he had worked so hard he had developed his body to the point that he was modelling for anatomy charts.
Growing up in Germany, he achieved some success as a boxer and gymnast – in addition to being a skilled skier and diver. He was married twice in Germany and had at least one child with his first wife Maria, who died in 1913; his second wife Elfrieda died in 1931. There are two versions of how he travelled to England. One version has it that in 1912 he decided to go there to work as a boxer and another, that by 1914 he had become a star circus performer and toured England with his troupe. In this version he and his brother were performing a Greek statue act!
World War I
In 1914, after WWI broke out, he was interned along with other German nationals in a “camp” for enemy aliens in Lancaster, England. There he taught wrestling and self-defense, boasting that his students would emerge stronger than before they were interned. It was here that he began devising his system of original exercises that later became “Contrology.” He was transferred to another camp on the Isle of Man where he became something of a nurse and worked with many internees who suffered from wartime diseases and incarceration. He then began devising equipment to rehabilitate them, taking the springs from the beds and rigging exercise apparatus for the bedridden! In 1918, a terrible epidemic of influenza swept the world, killing millions of people, tens of thousands in England. None of Joe’s followers succumbed even though the camps were the hardest hit.
Back to Germany
After the war Joe returned to Germany and began training the Hamburg Military Police in self defense and physical training as well as taking on personal clients. “I invented all these machines. Began back in Germany, was there until 1925 used to exercise rheumatic patients. 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 can concentrate on movement. You must always do it slowly and smoothly. Then your whole body is in it.” It was at this time that he met Rudolf von Laban, a famous movement analyst, who is said to have incorporated some of Joe’s theories and exercises into his own work. Mary Wigman, a famous German dancer and choreographer was a student of Joe’s and used his exercises in her dance class warm-up.
In 1925 he was invited to train the New German Army but because he was not happy with the political direction of Germany he decided to leave. On the urging of boxing expert, Nat Fleischer, and with the aid of Max Schmelling, he decided to come to the U.S. He travelled twice to America and it was en route to America that Joe met his future wife, Clara. She was a kindergarten teacher who was suffering from arthritic pain and Joe worked with her on the boat to heal her.
New York City
Upon arriving, eventually they settled in New York City and opened a gym at 939 Eighth Ave, in the same building as several dance studios and rehearsal space. It was this proximity that made “Contrology” such an intrinsic part of many dancers’ training and rehab work and many were sent to Joe to be “fixed.” George Balanchine, the famous choreographer, studied with Joe and sent many of his dancers to Pilates for strengthening and “balancing” as well as rehabilitation, as did another famous dancer/choreographer, Martha Graham. From 1939 to 1951 Joe and Clara went every summer to Jacob’s Pillow, a well known dance camp in the Berkshire Mountains. He was a friend and teacher to such renowned dancer/choreographers as Ted Shawn, Ruth St. Denis, Martha Graham and Jerome Robbins and many required their dancers to go to Joe. Hanya Holm even incorporated Joe’s exercises into her students’ lessons. However, Joe counted many socialites as well as plumbers and doctors, to list a few, as his clients as well. Joe called himself “Director of Physical Culture.”
Joe felt his work was “50 years ahead of (his) time.” Joe’s definition of physical fitness was: “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.” Joe believed in “natural movements” with the emphasis on doing and being. He has stated, “Everything should be smooth, like a cat. The exercises are done lying, sitting, kneeling, etc., to avoid excess strain on the heart and lungs.” Romana Kryzanowska, the heir to Joe’s work is quoted as saying “The key to working with the apparatus is they make you do the work yourself. The fewer springs, the harder the exercise. The springs provide or create endurance, not excess strength. The method is based on the movement of animals, everything about the method is based on moving naturally.” Carola Trier, a longtime student of Joe’s and teacher of his work said “the method emphasizes restoring the body to true balance, ease and economy of movement and a channeled flow of energy.”
Although Joe Pilates was a health guru, he believed in fitness supporting your life’s rich goals. He was renowned for liking cigars, whisky and women and was to be seen running on Manhattan streets, in the dead of winter, in a bikini! He registered many patents with the US Patent and Trademark Office beginning in 1930, including a catapult, the V-Bed, the Wunda Chair and several Reformers. In 1955 a Universal Reformer cost about $150! Joe and Clara had many famous dancers as clients but also actors such as Vivien Leigh and Cliff Montgomery, musicians such as Roberta Peters and George Gershwin, socialites such as the Vanderbilts, as well as regular working class people.
In January 1966 there was a fire in their building. Joe returned to his studio to try and save anything possible and fell through burnt out floorboards, hanging on by his hands from a beam for quite some time until rescued by firefighters. It is assumed that this incident directly led to his death in October 1967, at the age of 84. Clara, regarded by many as the more superb teacher, continued to teach and run the studio until her death 10 years later, in 1977. Romana Kryzanowska took over the business and has dedicated her life to teaching Joe’s work as he himself devised it.
* Text quoted from The Pilates Center Teacher Training manual