Origins of Pilates

“Physical fitness is the first requisite of happiness. In order to achieve happiness, it is imperative to gain mastery of your body. If at the age of 30 you are stiff and out of shape, you are old. If at 60 you are supple and strong then you are young.”

– Joseph H. Pilates 

Joseph Hubertus Pilates was born in Germany in 1880. He was a sickly child and suffered from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever. As a teenager, he studied various exercise regimens, ideas from Eastern and Western philosophies and modern sports training techniques, to expand his knowledge, develop his method and combat his ailments. His methods were so successful; he was soon posing for anatomical charts. He became an avid boxer, diver, gymnast and skier and attracted a following keen to study his techniques.

Joseph Pilates originally called his method Contrology and in 1912 travelled to England, where he worked as a self-defence instructor for detectives at Scotland Yard.

At the outbreak of World War I, being a German national, Joe was interned and helped other internees to develop their fitness. He went on to work in the infirmary at a hospital in the Isle of Man helping patients to recover and developing early versions of his specialised equipment, introducing rehabilitation in recovery.

He attached spare bed springs to the hospital beds, encouraging patients to exercise using the resistance, and created the “Bed-nasium”, an initial version of the Cadillac: the first piece of Pilates equipment he developed, still an essential part of the Pilates Equipment, used widely in studios world-over today.

After the war, Joe returned to Germany where he used his exercise methods to train the Hamburg Police. His methods were also influencing artists in the dance community, including Rudolf Laban, who, like Pilates, was developing his work in the science of movement. The Pilates method would remain a strong support for training dancers and is still widely utilised in dance training today.

Joe became increasingly discontented with Germany’s political climate and left Germany for good when he was asked and refused to teach the national army his exercise methods.

Joseph Pilates

He emigrated to the United States in 1926, meeting his future partner in life and in his exercise venture, Clara Zeuner on the journey. Clara, who was a nurse, shared a passion for his theories and arriving in New York, they soon opened a fitness studio, close to the hub of the dance and theatre world.

Finding huge favour with professional dancers, actors and gymnasts, by the early 1960s, Joe and Clara were changing the face of physical training with their challenging, hands-on and personalised approach to exercise.

Pilates was a pioneer of exercise, constantly inventing new equipment and developing the technique for better results. By all accounts, he was an extraordinary and talented man. He scrubbed his skin with a floor brush saying: “It makes my skin breathe all over!” Frequently he would wash his face in the snow, wear no overcoat and encourage his followers to do the same.

In 1932 Pilates published a book “Your Health”, closely followed by another “Return to Life Through Contrology” in 1945. Through these Pilates was able to pass his methods to his students and followers and these remain widely published workbooks for the original repertoire and exercise approach used by his followers today.

Joe and Clara trained clients at the studio until Joe’s death in 1967, at the age of 87. He left no instructions for the Pilates work to carry on, however his work continued and developed due to the nurturing approach of Clara and the increasing number of protégés, now referred to as the “Pilates Elders” including Mary Bowen, Kathy Grant, Ron Fletcher, Eve Gentry, Bruce King and Romana Kryzanowska, keen to develop and continue the work.

He would be very pleased to know that his methods and repertoire, whether on the mat or on his equipment, are not only internationally recognised and delivered, but today’s clients are still gaining massive benefits from his work. 

“Time and progress are synonymous terms – nothing can stop either. Truth will prevail and that is why I know that my teachings will reach the masses and finally be adopted as universal.”

– Joseph H. Pilates.