Joseph Pilates was a German-American fitness expert who achieved iconic status as the inventor of the ‘Pilates’. It is a holistic training method that focuses on breathing, mind, and muscle control. He was inspired by the Greek image of an ideal man. This led to him developing a lifelong passion for physical fitness and mental health. He was also motivated to develop resistance training devices from everyday objects while interned during ‘World War I’. Many of these machines were the forerunners of modern equipment like the ‘Universal Reformer’, the ‘Magic Circle’, and the ‘Cadillac’, etc. Joseph Pilates can be truly defined as one of the first fitness icons who achieved celebrity status. His methods of ‘Contrology’ have inspired generations to understand the importance of the balance between mind and body. His legacy is untouchable and has been immortalized by the ‘Pilates Elders’. They have in turn inspired new ‘Pilates’ teachers who combine modern techniques with classical ones.
As a child, Joseph Pilates suffered from asthma, rickets, and rheumatic fever, etc. to name a few. He was also bullied by bigger German children. At a very young age, he stopped seeing from his left eye, the result of an attack by a bully. To become stronger, he started educating his body through gymnastics, yoga, skiing, boxing, and martial arts. By the age of 14, he was posing as a model for anatomy charts due to his Greek God-like physique.
In the next few years, Pilates dedicated his life to learning from Eastern practices, and Zen Buddhism. He was also convinced that modern lifestyle, bad posture, and unproductive breathing were hindering the development of mind and body. This led him to invent a series of muscular exercises to correct muscular imbalance and improve mind and body together. In 1912, he moved to England and started earning a living as a professional boxer and circus performer. He also started giving self-defense lessons at the Scotland Yard and police schools.
Unfortunately, Joseph Pilates was interned in Lancaster Castle during ‘World War I’. He was later transferred to camp ‘Knockaloe Moar Farm’ on the Isle of Man. It was while interned that he trained his fellow prisoners. He also developed resistance training equipment from bedsteads and bedsprings for bedridden patients. Once he returned to Germany in 1919 after the war, he started working rigorously with the likes of Eugen Sandow, Jens P. Müller, and others to analyze different fitness systems. He also learned from dance theorist Rudolf von Laban. All of these influences led to the development of his own comprehensive training system, known as ‘Contrology’.
Following that in 1925, he made his first trip to the USA. He also filed a patent for the ‘Universal Reformer’ on October 8, 1925, in the USA. From 1926, he started living in America and teaching ‘Contrology’. It became more famous as the ‘Pilates’ method. In 1929, Joseph Pilates opened ‘The Pilates Studio’, with his partner Clara, at 939 8th Ave, ‘The Van Dyck Building’. It was a massive success, inspiring Hollywood megastars like Catherine Hepburn and Sir Lawrence Oliver. It also became a “high-class exercise salon” for celebrity ballerinas and dancers, like George Balanchine, Martha Graham, Romana Kryzanowska, and others.
In 1934, Joseph Pilates published his first book ‘Your Health’, followed by ‘Return to Life Through Contrology’ along with William John Miller, in 1945. In his lifetime, Pilates also patented more than 20 devices. He continued teaching ‘Contrology’ until his death. The first generation of his students, many of whom formed their own studios, came to be known as the ‘Pilates Elders’.
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Family & Personal Life
Joseph Pilates was born in Mönchengladbach, Germany on December 9, 1883. His father, Heinrich Friedrich Pilates, was a prize-winning gymnast. His mother, Helena Pilates, was a naturopath. He was the second of nine children.
Joseph Pilates was married to Katharina Maria, nee Tüttmann from 1905 until 1913. Their daughter Helene (Leni) was born on November 30, 1905. A son, Hans Heinrich was born in 1908 but sadly passed away just ten months later. He was also married to Elfriede Samm from October 10, 1919, until 1930.
His first trip to the U.S.A. was on October 6, 1925, abroad the steamer ‘Albert Ballin’. His second and final trip occurred on April 14, 1926, abroad ‘Westphalia’. He met his future wife Anna Clara Zeuner on the ship. He applied for naturalization on June 20, 1929. He was granted citizenship on February 7, 1935. Clara gained her citizenship on January 14, 1937. Joseph Pilates died of emphysema on October 9, 1967, in the Lenox Hill Hospital, New York.