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Pilates: The Man Behind the Method

Who was Joseph Pilates, and what made him tick?

Motivated, Determined, Disciplined

Joseph Pilates was a man with a mission. Born in Mönchengladbach, Germany on December 9, 1883, Pilates was a sickly—and bullied--child, suffering with ailments such as asthma, rickets and rheumatoid fever. His father, a metalworker and gymnast, introduced Joseph to gymnastics, bodybuilding, and the martial arts of jiu-jitsu and boxing. His mother may have studied and applied naturopathic remedies. Joseph Pilates’ motivation, determination and discipline to acquire and sustain a healthful body paid off at an early age: by the time he was fourteen, his fit physique allowed him to pose for anatomical charts. (He later became an accomplished diver, skier and worked as a self-defense instructor.) Pilates’ road to gaining and maintaining physical vitality left him with a clear and lasting conviction: modern lifestyles, poor posture, and inefficient breathing fostered poor health and a diminished quality of life. 

An Eye for Balance and Beauty

The classically ideal body established in ancient Greek sculpture captivated Joseph Pilates, with its embodiment of equally balanced physical, mental and spiritual traits, as well as its implication of movement even in stillness. In fact, classical dancers have always drawn on that style, and in future years, Joseph Pilates’ exercise methods would first be adopted by the dance community in Germany, and then in New York.

Intelligent, Curious and Observant

Joseph Pilates had a deeply curious mind and was highly observant of the world around him. He was constantly educating himself and assessing the means to better movement and its implications on well-being. As an example, an old anatomy book, given to him by the family physician, stimulated his interest in body mechanics, and he memorized it. Pilates also observed the natural, flowing movements in animals and how they instinctively moved and breathed to prevent injury.

"I learned every page [of the anatomy book], 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." -Joseph Pilates

Pilates also studied yoga, Zen, and ancient Greek and Roman regimens before developing a comprehensive methodology that he called his own: Contrology.

Resourceful and Inventive

The Road to the Pilates Reformer

Joseph Pilates moved to England in 1912. While interned with other Germans there during the First World War, Pilates was permitted to train his fellow “enemy aliens” in self-defense and wrestling. Some of these inmates were bed-ridden, and he was told:

"You can do anything you like with them, as long as they stay in bed."

Resourceful and inventive, Pilates resorted to converting the hospital bunk beds into strength building devices by rigging them with springs. These ingenious apparatus provided opportunities for resistance training as well as stretching, and were the forerunners to Pilates’ future inventions: the Reformer and the Cadillac, in use today. He was quite the innovator and inventor, with over 26 patents cited. 

A Clear Vision

Ultimately, Joseph Pilates devised a series of exercises and training techniques, inventing all the equipment, specifications, and tuning designed to share his experience and methods properly. The subsequent results are a workout program that consists of a unique succession of precise and calculated movements intended to build core strength, increase organ function, enhance breathing capacity and balance, and improve flexibility and coordination.

A Visionary

“I’m fifty years ahead of my time.” -Joseph Pilates

Pilates died in October 1967, at the age of 84.  Well aware of the integrity and effectiveness of his system and equipment, Joseph Pilates nonetheless was disappointed at not receiving the success he felt he deserved. If he were alive today, Pilates would witness his lasting legacy in the legions of passionate Pilates enthusiasts, classes and studios around the globe who participate in what could only be deemed a worldwide phenomenon.

Joseph Pilates as a Young Man and Older Man