In the Beginning (Who is Pilates?)

Born in Germany in 1880, Joseph H. Pilates was a frail, sickly child, suffering from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever. Growing up, Pilates was enthralled with exercise and continuously searched for new ways to strengthen his body and improve his health. His personal quest for better health and well-being, eventually led to the creation of his unique method of exercise.


Joseph Pilates

In 1912, Pilates moved to England, possibly to pursue boxing. At the onset of World War I, due to his German citizenship, Pilates was interned in a camp for “enemy aliens” first in Lancaster and later on the Isle of Man. During his internment, he began experimenting with exercises using springs attached to hospital beds, to keep himself and other internees healthy. Over time Pilates refined his revolutionary ideas into several pieces of ingenious exercise equipment (apparatus) and developed a series of over 500 different exercises.

Pilates Comes to the New World

After his release from internment, Pilates returned to Germany, where he trained the Military police force in the city of Hamburg. In 1926, Pilates immigrated to America, possibly upon the invitation of German World Title boxer Max Schmelling. Along with his wife, Clara (a nurse he met on the ship to America), Pilates opened his first studio in New York City in 1926 in a boxing gym at 939 8th Avenue. By the 1930’s, the couple had taken over the gym and trained many dancers, athletes, actors and circus performers in the method they called “Contrology”. Early followers of Joseph and Clara Pilates were Katherine Hepburn and Sir Lawrence Olivier along with many members of New York’s high society.

The New York dance community enthusiastically embraced “Contrology”. Both Martha Graham and George Balanchine were his clients and referred their dancers to him. Each summer between 1939 and 1951, Joseph and Clara Pilates spent their summers teaching at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in the Berkshire Mountains. Joseph Pilates also taught at Armed Forces Bases in New York. Upon Joseph Pilates’ death in 1967 at the age of 87, his method became simply known as “Pilates”. Today, with more than 4.7 million Americans practicing Pilates (including many of the country’s elite athletes), it has become the fastest growing method of mind-body exercise in the world.