World War 1
Joseph Hubertus Pilates was born December 8, 1880 in Monchengladbach, Germany, not far from Dusseldorf. He was one of four children, plagued as a child by asthma and rheumatic fever. Pilates was determined to overcome these childhood ailments during his youth by studying anatomy, and developing himself as a body builder, a wrestler, gymnast, boxer, skier, and diver. By age 14, Pilates was posing as a model for anatomy charts. His father was a prize-winning gymnast. His mother was a naturopath. It is no wonder why he chose the fields of moving and wellness. He was inspired by Eastern and Western forms of exercise, and specifically by the ancient Greek and Roman philosophies of attaining physical and mental perfection.
During Joseph Pilates internment he began to develop floor exercises that he later called "Contrology." He took springs from beds and created his earliest rehabilitation equipment for the bedridden. The first Cadillac was created from a hospital bed! Pilates was transferred to a camp on The Isle of Man where he became a nurse, working with internees suffering from wartime diseases. In 1918, an influenza pandemic swept the world, killing millions of people. It is said that none of Joe's followers became sick, even though the camps were the hardest hit.
Journey to America
In 1925, Joseph Pilates was asked by the government to train the new German Army. Instead, he packed his bags and took a boat to America. It has been said that he did not like the political direction Germany was taking. Others say he was motivated to come to America by an invitation from the American boxing manager Nat Fleisher. Joseph met a young nurse, Clara, on the way to America. Shortly after they arrived she became his wife and partner in helping develop and teach his method.
Pilates arrived in New York City in 1926, where he began working in a boxers' training gym on Eighth Avenue in the same building where several dance studios were located. By the early 1930's he and Clara had taken over the gym. News of Joe's skill at working with injuries spread by word of mouth and his client base grew quickly. He soon became known as "Uncle Joe." His clientele included people from New York City's high society, such as members of the Gimbel and Guggenheim families. He also worked with movie stars such as Sir Lawrence Oliver and Katherine Hepburn. He also worked with doctors, circus performers, musicians, dancers, gymnasts, business people, tradesmen and students.
Joseph Pilates returned to Germany after the war where he worked with the Hamburg Military Police, training them in self-defense and physical conditioning. He also began working with personal clients. This period of his life is not well documented, though during this time his interest grew in holistic medicine, meditation, modern dance, homeopathy, and breath work. During this period, Pilates met the famous movement analyst Rudolf von Labon, who is said to have incorporated some of Joseph's theories into his personal work. German dancer Mary Wigman was a student of Pilates and incorporated his exercises into her dance warm-ups.
The Dance Phenomenon
Joseph soon began working with dance greats such as George Balanchine, Ted Shawn, Ruth St. Dennis, Martha Graham, and Hanya Holm. The 30's and 40's were the early years of American Ballet and modern dance. Injured dancers would often visit "Uncle Joe" to be fixed. A number of first generation teachers would be among these dancers, including Romana Kryzanowska.
Joseph Pilates: Author and Educator
Pilates wrote two books: Your Health, in 1934; and Return to Life, in 1945. He writes with passion that if his method were universally adopted and taught in our educational institutions, every facet of life would improve. Pilates felt that "Contrology" could eliminate human suffering and reduce our need for hospitals and prisons. Pilates worked very hard to promote his work. He conducted lecture-demonstrations for medical professionals and taught at Armed Force bases in the New York Area.
Joe worked very hard to gather the medical community's attention. His good friend Dr. Henry Jordan, Chief of Orthopedics at Lenox Hill Hospital, was a strong advocate of "Contrology." Jordan referred many of his patients to Pilates. The 50's however, were frustrating for Joe. The medical community could not see past what he considered its definitions of normal health and narrow vision for preventive medicine. Although, "Contrology" experience some rejections, the method was quietly taking root in several Manahattan institutions including New York University, High School of Performing Arts, Dan Theatre of Harlem, 92nd Street Y, and Clark Center for the Performing Arts.
By the mid 60's, the Pilates method had begun to spread beyond New York. Joe's first generation of teachers had moved to Paris, New Mexico, and California where they practiced and taught Pilates' philosophy and techniques
In January 1966, there was a fire at Joe's Eighth Avenue studio. Joe salvaged what he could and fell through the floorboards, hanging by his hands from a beam until he was rescued by the firefighters. Some believe this incident may have led to his death in October of 1967 at age 87. Clara continued to teach for several years after his death. She was considered by some to be the more approachable teacher. She passed away in 1976.
In 1983, at St. Francis Hospital, in San Fancisco, California, Dr. James Garrick, Director of Orthopedics, created one of the first dance-medicine clinics. Garrick made a name for himself recognizing the value of Pilates training, and he hired Ron Fletcher, a first generation student of Joseph Pilates, to help him set up the first medical-based program.
By 1995, marketing, group mat classes, growing media interest, mind-body health club programming, and curiosity within the medical community were increasing the popularity of the method. The word Pilates appeared in the Webster's Dictionary, indicating the method's acceptance into mainstream culture.
An historic turning point came with the trademark class-action lawsuit that began in January 1996 and ended in October 2000. The judgment cancelled the Pilates trademark. The court ruled that Pilates is a generic designation for a method of exercise; that the work Pilates has become associated with this special type of exercise utilizing unique apparatus, a series of controlled exercises, and principles that can't be owned by another name.
Pilates is set apart from other disciplines of exercises by the principles that are applied to the work. Since the ruling, there has been an explosion of in interest in mind-body disciplines, known as "Pilates", with celebrity endorsements, products and equipment, studios, and articles in newspapers and magazines. Pilates is taught in most major countries around the world. Joe believed he was many years ahead of his time.
Resources: Return To Life, 1945;
Your Health, 1934;
It is said that Pilates decided to pursue boxing; another story states that he and his brother toured England with a circus, performing as a live Greek statue act. While working he was placed in forced internment in England with other German nationals at the outbreak of WW1. There, he taught wrestling and self-defense, motivating others to follow his fitness program. He boasted that his students would emerge stronger than they were before their internment.