Joseph Pilates

Mr Pilates seems to have been rather an enigmatic character and new research has thrown some of his personal history into doubt. What is in no doubt however, is that he developed a method of exercise and movement, and also invented incredible apparatus, which was way ahead of its time and has become world renowned. His original story as I heard it is as follows: 

Joseph Pilates, Joe, as he came to be called, was born in Germany in 1883. He was a poorly child suffering from rickets and asthma. Determined to improve his health he embarked on a life journey of exploring various health and fitness methods. By the age of 14 he had improved his physique to the point that he was asked to model for anatomical drawings. Over the years he tried martial arts, yoga, boxing, weight training, gymnastics, skiing, even joining a circus for a while. He selected the parts of each discipline which he found to be the most effective and developed a movement system which he believed to provide the perfect balance of flexibility and strength for both mind and body.  

During the first World War Joe was interned in a prisoner of war camp on the Isle of Man. During his internment he took it upon himself to help rehabilitate the wounded prisoners who arrived at the camp. Apparently, this is where he started to develop his resistance equipment using bed springs so that the internees could exercise even with their injuries. He ran a strict regime and believed strongly in fresh air on the skin. There are photos showing Joe wearing swimming shorts in the snow!  

After his internment he returned to Germany where he taught self defence and fitness again but this time to the German Police and Army. As a pacifist he decided, in 1926, to emigrate to America. On the boat he met his future wife Clara, a nurse and kindergarten teacher. She was suffering from arthritis and Joe worked with her during the voyage to help relieve the pain. They soon realised they shared the same ideas about fitness and decided to set up a studio in New York to teach Joe’s Contrology method. Initially many of Joe and Clara’s clients were male, boxers and athletes. But as he became more well recognised amongst the fitness elite more and more dancers turned to Joe and Clara, especially as they shared a building with a dance studio. Dancers found that they could still maintain their overall fitness whilst recovering from injury using many of Joes exercises and could also prevent further injury following Joes strict method. Most of the people who went on to assist and learn to teach his method were dancers.  

With his brother, Joe designed and made his own equipment – the Universal Reformer, Cadillac (Trapeze table), Wunda Chair, High Chair (aka the Electric Chair), the Armchair, Ped-O-pull, Ladder Barrel, Spine Corrector, Foot Corrector, Toe Gizmo, Magic Circle and more. It is all still in use today.  

In 1945, Joe published a book of his 34 mat work exercises, called Return to Life through Contrology, Contrology being the name that Joe gave his method.  The Classical mat work repertoire follows this sequence exercises with modifications where necessary. 

“Contrology is complete coordination of body, mind and spirit.” 

 “Contrology develops the body uniformly, corrects wrong postures, restores physical vitality, invigorates the mind and elevates the spirit.” 

Joseph Pilates died in 1967 but his legacy lives on.