Joseph Pilates was born in Monchengladbach near Dusseldorf in Germany in 1880. Joseph’s father was a gymnast and his mother a naturopath; however Joe was a sickly child suffering from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever. As a youngster he was taunted as being a weakling and at an early age decided to devote his life to improving his feebleness. He began by studying bodybuilding, gymnastics and yoga. He managed to overcome his weaknesses and was even posing for anatomy posters at age 14.
In 1912, Joseph moved to England and worked in a circus as a boxer and fitness instructor. As with many German nationals, in 1914 Joe was imprisoned in a British prisoner of war camp – Lancaster – during World War I. In an effort to keep the prisoners active and relatively healthy, Joe taught wrestling and self-defence. He was later transferred to the camp on The Isle of Man. It was here that he worked with internees suffering from wartime diseases and incarceration. His efforts to rehabilitate them included taking the springs from beds and fashioning makeshift exercise apparatus for the bedridden. These were to become the proformas for the modern-day cadillac.
After the war, Joseph returned to Germany where he continued to develop his fitness system. He was employed at that time to train the Hamburg Military Police in self-defence and physical training. During this time, Joe met Rudolph von Laban – a famous movement analyst – who is said to have incorporated some of Joe’s exercises and theories into his own work. In 1925, the German Army invited Joseph to train them. Joe was unhappy with the political direction of Germany at that time and so declined, opting instead to immigrate to the United States.
On the ship to America, Joe met his wife Clara who was suffering from arthritic pain. They worked together on the journey to heal her condition. Upon arrival in New York, they opened a gym at 939 Eighth Avenue teaching Joseph’s method of exercising which he called ‘Contrology’ – the name coming from the method’s actions to lead the mind and control the muscles.
The studio was located in the same building as several dance studios and rehearsal spaces. Due to the proximity of Joe’s contrology classes to the dance studios, dancers were sent to Joseph and Clara for rehabilitation after injury. It was this humble beginning that led contrology to become an intrinsic part of the life and training of many dancers.
Joseph and Clara together continued to run the contrology studio in New York until Joe died in 1967. Clara Pilates then continued to teach and run the studio until the end of her life 10 years later in 1977.
Pilates – as we know contrology today – was borne of Joe’s enamourment with the Greek ideal of man. One who is balance equally in body, mind and spirit. He came to believe ‘modern’ lifestyle, inefficient breathing and bad posture were the roots of poor health. His answer: the series of life-enhancing physical exercises that help correct muscular imbalances, and improve co-ordination, strength, posture, flexibility and balance, as well as increasing breathing capacity and organ function.
Joseph Pilates – a man way ahead of his time. He left a legacy for which the world should be eternally grateful.