Joseph Hubertus Pilates was born in 1880 in Germany near Dusseldorf, a very important port on the Reno stream in the North-West
that rapidly turned into an industrial center.
His father, a prize-winning gymnast and his mother, a naturopath, were both attracted by the idea of taking care of oneself through workout.
Joseph grew up being convinced that fresh air and a lot of workout could prevent and cure diseases. He was a sickly child and was afflicted with many physical problems such as asthma, rheumatic fever and rickets. His weak constitution led him to take up a strong interest in medicine, in some relaxing and concentration oriental techniques, and into the practice of several western sports (ski, boxing, gym and diving), being influenced by the ancient Greek and the Roman physical regimens, with the purpose of going beyond his physical disadvantages. He began to self-educate himself in anatomy and muscular development using a book that was given to him by a family physician; in addition to this activity he studied the dynamics of the animal movements, observing them while hiding in the woods. By the age of 14, he went beyond the physical disadvantages that highlighted his childhood and was posing for anatomical charts.
When he was 18, he started practicing boxing and in his twenties he worked as a professional boxer in Germany. In 1912 he moved to England to teach
self-defense to Scotland Yard police force and to train Max Schmelling. During the same year he added to his abilities the circus performing.
By 1914 he had become a star and started moving through Europe for his tour where him and his brother performed as Greek statues
Later on he was transferred to another internment camp on the Isle of Man, where he was compelled to confront a more dramatic reality,
being in very close contact with disabled soldiers injured during the war, constrained with immobility and needing rehabilitation therapies.
He became some kind of nurse and started constructing machinery and tools that were appropriate for the physical recovering of the injured
and all along his life he continued developing and creating new tools in the basement of his original studio in New York, where he had a small workshop
in which he used to work with passion with his brother Fred.
At the beginning these Pilates tools were just simple objects that were used daily or working tools that had been reattempted with the purpose
of practicing exercises focused on regaining the mobility and the muscle tone without compromising the injured areas.
The so called Magic circle for instance was in its origin just the iron circle of a beer keg that was keeping the axis together (as an authentic German,
Joseph Pilates loved Beer!) and the sophisticated Cadillac was nothing but a similar structure to a canopy that could be put above a bed hospital on which
some springs of its net were applied to (he even created a smaller version that was supposed to be put above a wheelchair!). During the following years
he worked as a circus artist, where he first had the idea of the Wunda Chair that he developed later on, turning it not only into a real Reformer for domestic use, but even into a design object, highly innovative and original, as once you would turn it, it would become a couch for all purposes.
Within 1918 and 1919, a terrible flu plague called ‘the Spanish’ swept Europe and killed twenty million people,
more than the double of victims of World War I. Even though most of the victims were in the prison camps, none of them were Joe’s students.
Many of them associated their surviving to the exercise program they followed.
After World war I Pilates returned to Germany where he met Rudolf von Laban, a famous movement analyst. That was his first fruitful
contact between the ‘Pilates method’ and the contemporary dance world. Pilates realised that the partnership with this world could become very fruitful:
for the dancers indeed, the need of moving their bodies in a certain precise way was the most important way for preventing injuries.
Pilates’ fame spread out so much that he got an offer as instructor of the Hamburg Military Police. Some years later in 1926 the Kaiser invited him to train
the elite troupes of the New German Army, but as a pacifist, Pilates didn’t appreciate the offer and refused it. The Nazi government’s attention towards
the physical education of the German army components was part of that wide movement of the twenties that was promoting the Korperkultur.
Its ideals of health and physical prowess as expression of even moral superiority were followed by the left wing movements as a way to prepare
and confirm the working class and the national-socialism that will first support its nationalist belief and therefore its myth of the racial superiority.
At that time many Germans were leaving the country, because of its widespread militaristic atmosphere.
The boxer Max Schmelling, old client of Pilates was about to move to New York when his manager offered Pilates to follow them in a studio in town
and continue training Max. At the age of 42, Pilates accepted the offer preparing himself to start a new life and emigrated to the United states.
During his journey through the Atlantic, Pilates met his future wife Clara in April 1926 (according to some she was a nurse, and to some others
she was a kindergarten teacher). She will become his most faithful long term partner. Schmelling’s manager found a studio for Pilates on Eight Avenue
at the 939 on the 8th Avenue in New York, and Joe started his tough challenge, trying to find enough clients to be able to gain something to live during the Great Depression.
Pilates and Clara founded “The Studio” gym in a building located right next to New York City Ballet headquarter. This event seemed to be fundamental
and the students of the school started going to Pilates after they got serious physical traumas, to start rehabilitation and start dancing again.
Pilates became friends with the dancers Ted Shaun and Ruth St Denis, and while the rumours of the extraordinary efficiency of his method were spreading out, new devotees started attending the Pilates gym such as Ron Fletcher, Hanya Holm, Merce Cunningham. Martha Graham, one of the most famous dancers
of the American modern dance gathered all that Pilates taught her and reworked the method by creating her own technique, that has many things in common with Pilates ideas. To understand the high quality level of the Pilates technique in Classical ballet, we can recall an anecdote in which George Balanchine would strongly recommend his students “to go to Joe” to be “fixed” and reach a stable balance and body control.
Pilates continued his activity by perfecting his method and the machinery for the exercises in his personal workshop, he continued to rehabilitate injured
dancers, and formed students that after his death decided to open schools all over America in which they taught their great and tireless Master’s method.
In 1966 the building of “The Studio” went on fire and Joe tried to save what he could. The wood floor collapsed under his feet, he grabbed on to a beam
and stayed in that position for a long time until the firemen arrived and saved him. According to many, the death of Pilates in October 1967 at the age of 87
was a direct consequence of that accident.
Clara continued guiding the center. Compared to Joseph Pilates, she was a more compassionate, clever and gentle teacher. Ten years later Clara passed away,
and one of her very close students, Romana Kryzanowska, took over the Studio and transferred it into a new headquarter at 56th Street,
between the 5th and the 6th Avenue. Romana was a great teacher, but unfortunately in 1986 she had to sell the Studio after a long and unstoppable
economic decline. The denomination of ‘Studio Pilates’ spread after the founder’s death.
Only by that time Clara accepted to give an official name to the Pilates activity hoping she would find the necessary funds to carry on the activity.
Anyhow the Pilates method history didn’t end up this way: its efficiency became its core characteristic giving good results in the physiotherapy field among athletes and cultists of the physical and the psycho-physical wellness. Nowadays it became part of the common language, and ‘Pilates method’
represents a “generic product” just as aspirin, or yoga…
Joseph Pilates deeply believed in this system as a way of living, being convinced that this method could concern any facet of the human being and of the entire society. He was hoping his philosophy would be taught in any school and institute, believing any child had to be aware of their own body and that the necessary information should have been simple and accessible.
Many earliest articles about Pilates were describing his passion for animals, as “the animal as a movement”, in other words as example of elegance and simplicity. This also shows by the names he gave to many exercises. He would have liked Manhattan to have Pilates studios in each block, and this dream of his became reality, not only in America. He would have been really proud about this.
In 1934 he published a first brief book about his methods called “Your Health” which contains his life theory based on the balance between mind and body.
In the book he complains about those who were following his ideas and methods without any kind of gratitude towards him, and he continued complaining about this fact during all his life.
In the opening paragraph of his second book “Return to life through Contrology” published in 1945 Pilates explains: “Physical workout is the first necessary requirement to reach happiness. Our interpretation about the physical workout is the fulfilment and the conservation of an evenly developed body with a healthy mind that is totally able to face in a natural easy and satisfying way our various daily duties with constant enthusiasm and delight”.
In this text he analyses the principles he delineated in his first book, supplying a list of 34 exercises to be replicated on the mat that readers can practice
at home to regain the control of their body. To this day it is still possible to view some old footage of Pilates in which he was doing the sequence
of his 34 original exercises, and they show how hard and intense his system was, compared to the Pilates that is commonly taught nowadays.
After he passed away, nobody could preserve his ideas, and some of his disciples fused together the Pilates method and their own one, creating new hybrids.
If Pilates was still alive, he would have continued to adapt his exercises considering the modern knowledge and nowadays issues, and he would have allowed teachers to use his name only in case they had received a complete and qualified instruction about his updated methods.
Joe Pilates was a health enthusiast that considered the physical fitness a way to enjoy a fulfilling life; his passion for cigars, whiskey and women was renowned.
“My method is unique and revolutionary. It shines on its own”.
(J. H. Pilates)