Joseph Pilates at the age of 57
was born in Mönchengladbach, a small town near Dusseldorf,
Germany, in 1880. He was a small and sickly child who
suffered from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever. His
name had been spelled "Pilatu" and was of Greek
derivation but was changed to Pilates. This caused him
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 prizewinning gymnast
and his mother a naturopath. 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 said.
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 modeling for anatomy
Growing up in Germany, he achieved some success as a boxer
and a gymnast in addition to being a skilled skier and
diver. There are 2 versions of how he traveled 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! In 1914 after WWI broke out he was interned
along with other German nationals in a "camp"
for enemy aliens in Lancaster. There he taught wrestling
and self-defense, boasting that his students would emerge
stronger than they were before being 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!
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. He said,
"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. 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. Upon arriving
in New York City they opened a gym at 939 Eight Ave, in
the same building as several dance studios and rehearsal
spaces. 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 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 spontaneously
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 and Amy and
Rachel's teacher 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, whiskey, and women and was to be seen
running on Manhattan streets, in the dead of winter, in
In January 1966 there was a fire in their building. Joe
returned to his studio to try and save anything possible
and fell through the burnt out floorboards, hanging by
his hands from a beam for quite some time until rescued
by the firefighters. It is assumed that this incident
directly led to his death in October 1967, at the age
of 87. Clara, regarded by many as the more superb teacher,
continued to teach and run the studio until her death
10 years later, in 1977. At this time Romana took over
the business and has dedicated her life to teaching Joe's
work as he himself devised it.