Mind & Motion

Biography of Joseph Pilates

Posted in Pilates by Meghan Pickrell on July 10, 2011

As a pilates lover, teacher and professional I thought it would be appropriate to give a little history about the man behind the exercise discipline, Joseph Pilates. Many pilates professionals have written about Joe’s life thus far so instead of rehashing the accounts of his life to all, I’ve copied Wiki’s rendition for you to read. From all that I’ve heard, Wiki’s history on Joe seems quite accurate. Please see their website for more information and citations http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Pilates. Read below for their story on Joe!

Joseph H. Pilates was born in 1883 in Mönchengladbach, Germany. His father was a prize-winning gymnast of Greek ancestry, and his mother worked as a naturopath. His father’s family originally spelled its surname in the Greek manner as “Pilatu” but changed to “Pilates” upon immigration to Germany. The new spelling caused Joseph Pilates much grief as a child because older boys taunted him calling him “Pontius Pilate, killer of Christ” (despite Pilate’s attempts to speak in Jesus’ defense as recounted in, e.g., the Synoptic Gospels).

Pilates was a sickly child and suffered from asthma, rickets, and rheumatic fever, and he dedicated his entire life to improving his physical strength. Besides skiing frequently, he began studying body-building, yoga, “cong fu” (probably what we now call qigong), and gymnastics. By the age of 14, he was fit enough to pose for anatomical charts. Pilates came to believe that the “modern” life-style, bad posture, and inefficient breathing lay at the roots of poor health. He ultimately devised a series of exercises and training-techniques and engineered all the equipment, specifications, and tuning required to teach his methods properly.

Pilates was originally a gymnast, diver, and bodybuilder, but when he moved to England in 1912, he earned a living as a professional boxer, circus-performer, and self-defense trainer at police schools and Scotland Yard. Nevertheless, the British authorities interned him during World War I along with other German citizens in an internment camp on the Isle of Man. During this involuntary break, he began to intensively develop his concept of an integrated, comprehensive system of physical exercise, which he himself called “Contrology.” He studied yoga and the movements of animals and trained his fellow inmates in fitness and exercises. It is told that these inmates survived the great pandemic of 1918 due to their good physical shape.

After the war (WWI), he returned to Germany and collaborated with important experts in dance and physical exercise such as Rudolf Laban. In Hamburg, he also trained police officers. When he was pressured to train members of the German army, he left his native country, disappointed with its political and social conditions, and emigrated to the United States.

The year 1925 is the approximate time when Pilates migrated to the United States. On the ship to America, he met his future wife Clara. The couple founded a studio in New York City and directly taught and supervised their students well into the 1960s. His method, which he and Clara originally called “Contrology,” related to encouraging the use of the mind to control muscles. It focuses attention on core postural muscles that help keep the human body balanced and provide support for the spine. In particular, Pilates exercises teach awareness of breath and of alignment of the spine, and strengthen the deep torso and abdominal muscles.

Joseph and Clara Pilates soon established a devout following in the local dance and the performing-arts community of New York. Well-known dancers such as George Balanchine, who arrived in the United States in 1933, and Martha Graham, who had come to New York in 1923, became devotees and regularly sent their students to the Pilates for training and rehabilitation.

Joseph Pilates wrote several books, including Return to Life through Contrology and Your Health, and he was also a prolific inventor, with over 26 patents cited. Joe and Clara had a number of disciples who continued to teach variations of his method or, in some cases, focused exclusively on preserving the method, and the instructor-training techniques, they had learned during their studies with Joe and Clara. Joseph Pilates died in 1967 at the age of 83 in New York.

4 Responses

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  1. mom said, on July 11, 2011 at 11:06 am

    Thanks for this history background on Joe. I wouldn’t have looked it up by myself.

  2. mom said, on September 27, 2011 at 2:07 pm

    With your new approach, maybe what you do will be known as Pickrell’s Pilates.

  3. chris said, on December 20, 2012 at 11:02 am

    Several aspects of this are inaccurate. For example, there is no evidence that Mr.Pilates studied yoga. Be careful what you pick up off the internet, because most of what you read is inaccurate. The wiki page on this subject is terrible. The source I have found that seems most informative is PilatesConnections.com. They have a forum section where over the last several years people have compared notes on this history, and debated the evidence. But as far as Yoga, there is no evidence Pilates ever took a Yoga class or studied with a yoga instructor.

    • Meghan Pickrell said, on December 20, 2012 at 11:12 am

      Thanks Chris! I really appreciate your feedback. I took this straight from Wiki to give my clients a sense of Joseph Pilates. I will check out the Pilates Connections board for more information. Best, M

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