Who was Joseph Pilates?

In the May Masterclass some of you were asking about Joseph and as a result, I've been talking about him a lot more in class recently. Who he was, how he came to devise 'Pilates', if he was still alive. Some of the history is a bit sketchy but for those who don’t know the background here is a brief outline:

  • Joseph H. Pilates was born on 9 December 1883 in Germany.

  • As a child he suffered from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever and it was his drive and determination to overcome these ailments that led him to become a competent gymnast, bodybuilder, boxer, diver and skier.

  • There are differing accounts of how he came to the UK. One version accounts that he came in 1912 to work as a boxer and self-defence trainer at police schools and with Scotland Yard, another tells that in 1914 he was a circus performer and toured England with his troupe.

  • During the First World War, he was interned with other German nationals in Lancaster Castle. During this time, he taught his fellow internees wrestling and self-defence and began devising his system of original exercises that later became "Contrology".

  • He was transferred to another camp on The Isle of Man where he became an orderly in a hospital for internees and worked with patients who were unable to walk. It’s believed he attached bed springs to the hospital beds to help supports the patient’s limbs and rehabilitate them; which lead to the development of his most famous pieces of equipment, known today as the ‘Cadillac’ (named after the car because it was so strong).

  • After the war, he returned to Germany and began training the Hamburg Military Police in self-defence and physical training as well as taking on personal clients.

  • In 1925, he was invited to train the New German Army but because he was not happy with the political direction of Germany he decided to leave.

  • He emigrated to the US and on the crossing, he met his future wide Clara. Together they founded a studio in New York to teach Joe’s body conditioning method, then known as ‘Contrology’.

  • ‘Contrology’ encouraged the use of the mind to control muscles, focusing attention on core postural muscles that help keep the body balanced and provide support for the spine. The work was based on three principles; breath, whole-body health and whole-body commitment with the whole-body encompassing mind, body and spirit.

  • The studio featured much of the equipment Joe has designed for his rehabilitation work and soon word spread. The studio became very popular with the dance community, offering the chance to improve technique or recover from injury.

  • In 1932, Joe published a booklet called “Your Health” and followed this in 1945 with the book ‘Return to Life Through Contrology’.

  • Although Joe was a health guru, he believed in fitness supported your lifestyle. Apparently, he was fond of cigars and whiskey (everything in moderation!)

  • Joe died in 1967 at the age of 83. After his death, his teachings became known as the Pilates Method. Joe and Clara had a number of disciples who had trained in the studio and continued to teach their own variations of the method.

  • Alan Herdman bought the Pilates Method to the UK in 1970, after being invited to New York to train with Carola Trier and Bob Fitzgerald, two instructors who had been trained by Joe himself.




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