Information on the origins of Pilates

Who was Joseph Pilates?

Joseph Pilates was born in 1880 in Düsseldorf (Germany) into a family interested in naturopathy and gymnastics.  He was a fragile, sickly child who suffered from asthma and rickets. In his teens, he developed a passion for anatomy and spent a lot of time observing animals, the way they moved and their flexibility. He devoted himself to practising different kinds of exercise derived from Western techniques such as athletics, alongside learning Eastern techniques such as martial arts, tai chi and yoga, and borrowed the basics of training from Greek and Roman soldiers. By the age of 17, he was an accomplished athlete.

Interned in a detention camp on the Isle of Wight during the 14-18 war, he continued to develop his own method of maintaining good physical condition and training his fellow inmates with matwork exercises. A year later, transferred to another camp on the Isle of Man, he took on the role of nurse to the wounded soldiers, some of whom were no longer able to stand up and with whom he developed a series of exercises using rings and springs attached to the bed frame (the origin of the Cadillac and Reformer machines). During his period of incarceration, British camp guards taught him boxing, a discipline that he reintroduced to Germany at the end of the war (a sporting activity that was banned at the time and practised illegally in confidential competitions).

In his homeland, he worked as a trainer for the Berlin police.

In 1926, he emigrated to the United States, leaving Hamburg on the ship “Westphalia” bound for New York. It was on this ship that he met Clara Zuener, who was to become his partner and collaborator. When he arrived in New York, he founded “The Pilates Universal Gymnasium” at 939 Eight Avenue. A practice studio where he welcomed the city’s elite: actors, athletes and dancers including Martha Graham and George Balanchine. All agreed that Joe’s training was of the highest quality; his exercises perfected and complemented their traditional programme, adding strength without adding bulk, balancing strength with flexibility, and achieving perfect harmony between body and mind. He called this training “Contrology” (later renamed “Pilates”).

“A body free of tension and fatigue allows you to face all the complexities of life”.

Joseph Pilates

In 1934, he wrote his first book on fitness and health, Your Health. In 1945, Uncle Joe set out the rest of his theories and principles in the detailed book containing his 34 original exercises “Return to life through Contrology”.

Joe Pilates died in 1967 at the age of 83, having dedicated his life to the well-being and health of others, accompanied by his wife Clara, who continued to perpetuate his method before his contemporaries.

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