Joseph Hubertus Pilates (pronounced Puh-lah-tes: of Greek origin), was born in 1880, near Dusseldorf, Germany. As a child, he suffered from such ailments as: asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever. Determined to overcome these, he began studying any type of exercise method he could find, including: yoga, Zen and ancient Greek and Roman exercise regimens.
After the war, he returned to Germany and trained the Hamburg city police. His teaching came to the attention of the German government, and he was asked to train the New German Army. At that point, he decided to leave Germany for America, and emigrated to New York in 1926. He and his wife Clara, a nurse, opened a studio there, bringing his revolutionary method of physical and mental conditioning to the United States.
In New York, his work was noticed by the dance world, and his technique became incorporated into dance training. Dance luminaries, such as Ruth St. Denis, Ted Shawn, Martha Graham, George Balanchine, Hanya Holm and Jerome Robbins all studied Pilates’ method, and taught the regimen to their students. In addition, he worked with actors, singers, lay people and helped people from all walks of life attain health and fitness.
Joseph Pilates died in 1967, at the age of 87. It is believed he died in or from injuries sustained from a fire in his studio.
Considered a forerunner of physical therapists, he believed his work was fifty years ahead of its time. Though he originally named his method “Contrology,” after his death, it became known as the Pilates Method.
In his book, Return to Life Through Contrology, Joseph Pilates said, “Ideally, our muscles should obey our will. Reasonably, our will should not be dominated by the reflex actions of our muscles.” His technique stressed quality of movement over quantity of repetitions and resulted in a body that was strong and sleek with a natural grace: “Everything should be smooth, like a cat. The exercises are done lying, sitting, kneeling, etc., to avoid excessive strain on the heart and lungs.”
Joseph Pilates’ definition of physical fitness was: “The attainment and maintenance of a uniformly developed body with a sound mind fully capable of naturally, easily and satisfactorily performing our many and varied daily tasks with spontaneous zest and pleasure.” This statement is as relevant today as when he wrote it in 1945.