A little about Joe himself…
by Pilates At PTCare, June 3, 2014
Joseph Hubertus Pilates believed “physical fitness [was] the first requisite of happiness.” His life’s work is a system of exercises meant to improve overall health and quality of life by balancing the human body in strength, flexibility, coordination, balance, and breath. He was inspired by a combination of Western and Eastern philosophies, which is evident in his theories. The Greek ideal of a man equally balanced in body, mind, and spirit was a paradigm for Joe, and it lives at the heart of his teachings.
Born in 1883 near Düsseldorf, Germany, Joseph suffered from rickets, rheumatic fever, and asthma as a young boy. Local children often teased Joe for his condition but he was too weak to fight back and too slow to get away. These experiences frustrated Joe and spurred him into a life-long exploration of health and fitness.
Joe studied any available information on the subject starting with a hand-me-down Anatomy book. He learned and memorized every piece of the human body, moving his own corresponding body part as he read. Combining his interest in Eastern and Western exercise Joe practiced yoga, Zen, and ancient Greek and Roman calisthenics. Soon enough a teenage Joseph Pilates, no longer suffering from ailments, was actually modeling for anatomy charts!
Joe continued to challenge himself physically in his young adulthood and became proficient in boxing, diving, gymnastics, and skiing. After moving to England in 1912 to pursue a boxing career, Joseph’s flawless physique landed him a famed job performing and touring as a Roman Gladiator in the circus. He was also a trainer for police academies and Scotland Yard.
When World War I broke out Joe, along with other German nationals, was moved to an internment camp for enemy aliens. He taught daily fitness classes to his campmates including stretches, wrestling and self-defense. The popularity of these sessions gave Joseph the chance to fine-tune his mat based system of exercises, which he called “Contrology”. Upon being transferred to a camp on the Isle of Man, Joe’s interest in health lead him to assist in the sick bay. He held a role similar to a nurse and helped with internees suffering from a variety of illnesses. When Joseph asked for permission to help the patients with exercises he was told, “You can do anything you like with them, as long as they stay in bed.” In order to adhere to the bed rest policy of the time, Joe had to be creative. He took springs from patients’ beds and, by attaching them in various ways to the bedposts, created exercise apparatus usable from a lying down position. Thus was born the first Trapezium Table, known today as the Cadillac.
Joe boasted his students would emerge from the camp stronger than when they entered. When a flue epidemic hit the internment camp with disastrous effects not a single one of Joe’s followers fell ill. Built on the six principles of Pilates; control, breath, concentration, flow, centering, and precision, his teachings were noticeably effective.
At the end of the war Joseph Pilates returned to Germany where he took charge of training the Hamburg Military Police in physical fitness and self-defense. He was offered a position training the New German Army but, because he did not agree with the political direction in which Germany was headed, he decided to leave his home country for good. On the boat ride to America in 1925, Joe met Clara, who later was to become his wife.
Joe and Clara opened the first Pilates studio in New York City. It was located in the same building as a plethora of dance studios. This proximity helped kick start the popularity of Contrology within the New York dance community. Pilates is famous for his work with dancers, but socialites, doctors, and businessmen were also among his clientele.
Joe was known for his vibrant personality, for a fondness of cigars and whiskey, and for wearing nothing but his exercise briefs, even when out in the streets of New York City. He was said to have been a rough, but considerate and committed teacher to his students. He wrote several books; the two most well known were Return to Life through Contrology and Your Health.
Joseph Pilates died in 1967 at the age of eighty-three of advanced emphysema. It bothered Joe greatly throughout his life that his work was never taken seriously by the physicians, who were considered the “authorities” of his time. “I’m fifty years ahead of my time,” Joe claimed, and he was correct. It was not until the 1980s that his exercises, known to the public as Pilates, became popular and began to receive proper recognition.
Clara continued to instruct and run the studio for another ten years after Joe’s death until her own in 1977. Joe’s work lives on through his first generation of students, known as the Pilates Elders. Some continue to teach the exercises exactly as Joe had leading to the term “classical” Pilates. Others have integrating their own knowledge and research in anatomy and exercise science, while still maintaining the integrity of Joe’s intentions.
Pilates is now practiced internationally and widely recognized as an effective and successful exercise system. Many doctors and physical therapists will recommend Pilates to their patients as a safe and healthy way to continue exercise during and after recovery from injury or post-surgery. The Pilates method can be easily tailored to match any fitness or experience level making it a wonderful choice for any individual.