Joseph Hubertus Pilates was born on 9th December 1883, near Dusseldorf, Germany. His father, a native of Greece, had been a prize-winning gymnast, while his German-born mother was a naturopath who believed in the principle of stimulating the body to heal itself without artificial drugs. No doubt his mother’s healing philosophy and father’s physical achievements greatly influenced Pilates’ later ideas on therapeutic exercise.
Small and sickly as a child, he was afflicted with asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever, and was continually taunted by the bigger children. He quickly became determined to overcome his physical disadvantages.
Young Joseph began to educate himself in anatomy, body building, wrestling, yoga, gymnastics and martial arts. He soon achieved an almost Adonis-like ‘anatomical ideal’ to the extent that at the age of 14 he was posing as a model for anatomy charts. He was also an accomplished boxer, skier and diver.
Pilates in his public career as a circus entertainer used to perform a ‘living Greek statue’ act. He was enamoured of the classical Greek ideal of a man who is balanced equally in body, mind and spirit and he came to believe that our modern lifestyle, bad posture and inefficient breathing were the roots of poor health.
In the early 1900s, Joseph Pilates was 50 years ahead of his time in his thinking.
Origins of the Pilates Method
His answer to our modern problems was to design a unique series of vigorous physical exercises that helped to correct muscular imbalances and improve posture, coordination, balance, strength and flexibility, as well as to increase breathing capacity and organ function. He also invented a variety of machines, based on spring-resistance, which could be used to perform these exercises.
There is a famous story about Pilates’ inspiration for his unique apparatus. Joseph was touring England when World War I broke out and he found himself interned as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man.
The health conditions in the internment camps were not great, but Pilates insisted that everyone in his cell block participate in daily exercises to help maintain both their physical and mental well-being. However, some of the injured German soldiers were too weak to get out of bed, Pilates took springs from the beds and attached them to the headboards and footboards of the iron bed frames, turning them into equipment that provided a type of resistance for his bedridden ‘patients’.
These mechanised beds were the forerunners of the spring-based exercise machines, such as the Cadillac and the Reformer for which the Pilates method is known today. During the great flu epidemic of 1918, not a single one of the soldiers under his care died. He credited his technique (which he called ‘Contrology’) for the prisoners’ strength and fitness – remarkable under the less than optimum living conditions of internment camps, which were hit especially hard by this deadly flu.
After the war Joseph Pilates immigrated to the United States. He met his future wife and dedicated teaching partner, Clara, on the boat to New York City. Together they opened the first Body Contrology Studio in Manhattan in the same building as a number of dance studios.
For the rest of his life he continued to develop his exercise system and to create new pieces of equipment for it. He was inventive and resourceful. It is said that his first Barrel was constructed from a beer keg and he used the metal hoops from the keg to make his first magic circle.
The earliest American students of Body Contrology (Pilates) were professional dancers, who were repeatedly injuring themselves and who responded well to Jo’s ministrations. From there the exercise, but not the name, caught on – everyone seemed to prefer to call it Pilates. Several of Jo and Clara’s former students, now masters in their own right, went on to open their own studios to carry on his teachings.
Over the years, his system flourished quietly underground around the US, exploding into mass popularity at the end of the 20th century when its profile was raised by celebrities and the mass media. It has taken all this time to the present day to realise his full genius and intuitiveness.
In the rehabilitation context the equipment can help an injured person perform facilitated functional movement successfully leading to safe recovery.
The Pilates method has now been embraced by doctors and physiotherapists alike who are seeing the benefits when taught by a fully qualified Pilates practitioner.
Pilates died on 9th October 1967 in New York City at the age of 84.