A Little History of Joseph Pilates


Every time I do Pilates I say a little thank you to Joseph Pilates. I can't imagine my life without his incredible system.

The Joseph Pilates method of exercise was originally called contrology. At its roots lays the idea that poor posture, inefficient breathing, and the “modern lifestyle” are primary causes of unhealthiness. Both of the books authored by Pilates dealt with Contrology and how to create a healthy life.

Born in Germany with a prize winning gymnast for a father and a naturopath for a mother, Pilates had early examples of healthy living. As a child he suffered from ailments such as asthma, rickets, and rheumatic fever, but his dedication to physical health sent him on a remarkable lifelong journey that not only helped him overcome such early sicknesses, but made him a leader in fitness and an example of athletic versatility. He posed for anatomical charts at the early age of 14.

Pilates worked with bedridden patients while he was interned as an “enemy alien” during World War 1. He attached springs to hospital beds to create resistance for these patients, enabling them to exercise and move un-injured parts of their bodies. These hospital beds were the humble beginnings of the equipment that we all know and love. Pilates claimed that his system was the reason that none of his trainees suffered from the 1918 flu epidemic, and it certainly raised morale and may have aided in faster recoveries from injuries.

After the war, Pilates returned to Germany but after seeing the social and political conditions and receiving pressure to train the German military, he decided to immigrate to the United States. Clara, his future partner and collaborator (there is speculation of whether or not they ever married,) was on the same ship to America.

Joe and Clara went on to change the destiny of fitness together.

When they finally landed in New York the couple established a studio where they could teach the Pilates method of exercise. “Contrology” quickly became known among the dance and theatre community in New York City and the method was touted to create flexibility, stamina and strength. Well known artists, Martha Graham and George Balanchine become devotees of Pilate’s work, referring their students. Society women of New York City soon followed.

Joe Pilates passed away in 1967 from complications of smoke inhalation and years of smoking cigars, never seeing the glory that would become his legacy. His New York times Obituary reads like an ad for Contrology, “ a white-maned lion of a man, with steel-blue eyes and mahogony skin, Mr. Pilates kept as limber in his 80’s as a teenager”

Joe Pilates often spoke that his method was ahead of its time and he was certainly correct. It took years, but now in 2013, nearly 90 years since Joe and Clara founded their studio in NYC, most people have heard of Pilates, even if they’ve never done it or don’t know who the man behind the movement was. Joe developed a remarkable system for changing and improving our bodies, and I for one am most grateful.

"I must be right. Never an aspirin. Never injured a day in my life. The whole country, the whole world, should be doing my exercises. They'd be happier." - Joseph Hubertus Pilates, in 1965, at age 86

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And as always, thank you so much for reading.


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