Joseph H. Pilates – The Man Behind The Method
Growing up in a small town outside Dusseldorf, Germany, Joseph Pilates was a frail, sickly child, who suffered from asthma, rickets, and rheumatic fever. Determined to rehabilitate himself, he studied yoga, bodybuilding, martial arts, and gymnastics. Eventually, he developed a repertoire of over 500 exercises, focusing on the core muscles – the deep muscles that support the spine. Contrology proved so effective for him that by age of 14, he was modeling for anatomical charts. Twenty years later, Pilates introduced his system to others. After immigrating to England to continue his training as a boxer, he found work as a circus performer. In 1914, at the start of World War I, Pilates was imprisoned in an enemy camp in Lancaster. Subsequently transferred to a camp on The Isle of Man, he worked as a hospital orderly, devising equipment to rehabilitate bedridden patients. He exercised patients’ extremities by attaching springs to their hospital beds as a way to support their limbs. During the 1918 influenza epidemic, when millions of Europeans died, not one of his patients succumbed to the contagion. Later, this rudimentary spring system formed the basis of Pilates’ apparatus.
After the war, he returned to Germany, teaching his system of Contrology to the Hamburg police force. In 1925, he was invited to train the German army. Disenchanted with the political direction of the country, he immigrated to the United States. During the voyage, he met Clara, who became his second wife. They opened the first Pilates studio on Eighth Avenue in New York City, working with performers and dancers, such as Martha Graham and George Balanchine. The couple strengthened and rehabilitated clients until 1967, when Joseph passed away at age 84. Clara continued to teach and manage the studio until her death in 1977.
During the years that Joseph and Clara ran their studio, they trained many teachers. Romana Kryzanowska, Kathy Grant, Carola Trier, Eve Gentry, Ron Fletcher, Lolita San Miguel, and Mary Bowen, all known as the “elders”, subsequently introduced the system all over the world. In the 1970′s, Hollywood celebrities flocked to Ron Fletcher’s studio in Beverly Hills. The media took note, and word of this revolutionary fitness regime spread like wildfire. No longer is the domain of elite athletes and Hollywood stars, Pilates now accessible to everyone. Today, over five million Americans practice Pilates and the numbers continue to grow.