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Joseph Pilates, the founder of Pilates, using his reformer apparatus.
Joseph Pilates, the founder of Pilates, using his reformer apparatus.

Origins and history of Pilates

7 minute read

If you’re a Pilates enthusiast or just starting your own journey on a  Pilates instructor course, you may be unaware of the rich and interesting history behind Pilates.

As a form of exercise, Pilates is used by millions the world over for those looking to improve flexibility, balance and enhance core strength. In the UK alone, it’s estimated that over 900,000 people a week take part in Pilates classes.

This article delves into the incredible personal journey that the eponymous Joseph Pilates undertook and how his own experiences shaped both his attitudes to exercise and rehabilitation and his methods.

Who was Joseph Pilates?

Joseph Hubertus Pilates was born on 9th December 1883 in Mönchengladbach, a city in western Germany near the Dutch border. His father, Heinrich, was a Greek-born gymnast and mechanic, who would go on to run his own gym. His mother was a German housewife, said to have been a big believer in naturopathic medicine methods.

Pilates suffered greatly as a child. He had asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever, with doctors telling his parents that he would die prematurely. It’s also reported he was bullied, losing sight in one eye following an incident at the age of five. As terrible as these adversities sound, they are really where the journey begins.

Joseph remained determined to return his body to peak physical condition and learn self-defence. He began to study yoga, martial arts, boxing and bodybuilding, and many of these early influences can be seen in the Pilates methodology today.

His dedication almost immediately paid off – by the age of 14, Pilates was not only overcoming his health conditions, but also modelling in anatomy charts due to his fantastic physique.

After spending some time working as a boxer and a gymnast in his homeland, Pilates moved to England in 1912, looking to further pursue a career as a professional boxer. He continued boxing and taught self-defence to police officers in Scotland Yard, but it is also reported that he and his brother, Frederick, worked as circus performers for a German circus troupe, providing a public display of their impressive physicality as a pair of ‘live human Greek statues’.

Joseph Pilates using Pilates equipment

The First World War

Misfortune once again came Pilates’ way when World War One broke out in 1914. Despite doing nothing wrong, the German was interned at a camp in Lancaster as an ‘enemy alien’. Alongside other foreign nationals who had settled in the UK, including Germans, Austrians and the Turkish, Pilates was effectively a prisoner for the duration of the war.

It was in Lancaster where he would teach fellow inmates wrestling and self-defence, claiming his students were becoming stronger and fitter as a result. Crucially, he would also begin laying the very first foundations for the origins of Pilates and Contrology through mat-based exercises. With potential seen in his interests in health, he was transferred to Camp Knockaloe on the Isle of Man to work as a hospital orderly.

While interned at Knockaloe, Joseph continued to hone his methods while helping the sick and injured to recover. Pilates worked tirelessly to ensure that all the internees performed daily exercise, both for their mental and physical strength.

Joseph Pilates using an early version of the reformer

Interestingly, it was during his time on the Isle of Man that Pilates developed the prototype for his first of many pieces of exercise equipment, the reformer.

With rest still seen as the best recovery method by doctors at the time, Pilates was told his patients had to remain in bed. As a result, using the springs from old hospital beds to create resistance, Pilates designed an extensive repertoire of exercises that would help to rehabilitate his fellow campmates. Today, reformer Pilates is used widely by practitioners to develop the core principles and fundamentals of the Pilates method.

With food rationed during the war, good nutrition was incredibly sparse and hard to come by. Consequently, many people were severely malnourished and the risk of infection and disease was heightened. The influenza pandemic of 1918-1920, dubbed Spanish flu, claimed three times as many lives as the war itself.

Due to their closely confined nature, most internment camps were harshly affected by the outbreak of the Spanish flu and many of the internees died. However, it is widely reported that Pilates taught his Contrology exercises to over 8,000 internees during his incarceration, and quite remarkably not a single one of them died from influenza.

In 10 sessions you’ll feel the difference, in 20 you’ll see the difference, and in 30 you’ll have a new body. Joseph Pilates - Pilates Founder

Joseph Pilates at peak physical fitness


Perfecting his methods post-war

After the War, Pilates returned to Germany for a few years. Similar to that of Scotland Yard, he begun work training the Hamburg Military Police in self-defence and his exercise methods, which also gained traction in the dance community. This included Rudolf von Laban, who is considered one of Europe’s founding fathers of modern dance.

Following this short stint of success, Pilates was invited by officials to train the German Army. However, unhappy with the political direction of the country, he decided to decline the offer and set sail to the United States of America. It was on this journey he would meet Clara Zeuner, who he married soon after.

Joe and Clara settled in New York where they opened the first body Contrology studio on 8th Avenue, sharing the premises with the New York City Ballet. It was in this studio that Pilates really refined his work and expanded his skills, focusing on a restorative form of exercise.

Lying in close proximity of Broadway and New York’s biggest dance studios, Pilates’ studio attracted many people from the world of performing arts, including high-profile dancers like Martha Graham, George Balanchine, Hanya Holm and Jerome Robbins. It’s also reported that he worked with Ruth St. Denis, a true pioneer who is considered by many to be the ‘first lady of American dance’.

Pilates trained a number of apprentices in his New York studio, with some of which subsequently going on to open their own studios. One of these apprentices was Bob Seed, a former professional hockey player.

Seed set-up a studio directly competing with Pilates and sought to poach his customers by opening earlier in the morning. According to Joseph Pilates’ business manager, John Steel, Pilates visited Seed with a gun and ordered him to leave town. Unsurprisingly, he did!

Joseph Pilates teaching a class his original exercises

Contrology and Pilates’ legacy

In 1945, Pilates published his most notable book, Return to Life Through Contrology. It was in this book that Pilates presented his principles for creating a healthy mind and body, and documented the 34 Contrology exercises that embody the classical method of mat Pilates as it is known today. This, alongside other notable work, is prominently featured in our list of essential books for Pilates instructors.

Pilates continued to work in his New York studio teaching and developing his Contrology exercises until he died in 1967 at the age of 83. Thereafter, his wife Clara kept the legacy of Joseph Pilates alive by continuing with his teaching until she died in 1977 aged 95.

According to the Pilates Elders, the teachers who were taught personally by Joseph Pilates (including Mary Bowen, Carola Trier and Bruce King), Clara played an instrumental role in developing the apprenticeship programme and nurturing the future generation of Pilates teachers. It is said that she was the driving force behind the evolution of the method, ensuring that it stays abreast of scientific developments and exploring new ways to adapt Pilates to meet the specific needs of individual students.

Joseph is noted as often saying he was 50 years ahead of his time, and the events following his death most certainly back his statement. Hollywood celebrities begun to take interest in Pilates in the 1970s and 1980s, with the media spreading the popularity of the exercises to the public as a result.

Pilates is now widely practised across the globe and it is said that there are now as many different variations of the method as there are people who practice it. There are numerous schools of Pilates, each teaching the philosophy and principles of the Pilates method slightly different from the next.

There are those schools that are more contemporary, which seek to use modern thinking to support the way in which they apply the method. Then there are those hard-liners, who remain true to the Joseph Pilates way of doing things, delivering in both letter and spirit a truly authentic Pilates experience.

Either way, there are endless Pilates instructor jobs and opportunities available, with many turning their passion into a profession.

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