Joseph Pilates was born near Dusseldorf in the late 1800s. He suffered from a number of health issues and bullying as a child. However, his father was a gymnast, and this had profound influence on Joe taking control of his health. He began studying boxing, self-defense, and gymnastics. As a young adult he lived in England and supported himself as a professional boxer. During WWI, he along with other German citizens were placed in internment camps. It was here he began to develop ideas for his new exercise method, developing a series of floor exercises. These were based on the German gymnastics he learned as a child and observations of how animals moved and stretched in space (particularly cats). This became known as his “mat work”. He taught this to the other men in the camp in an effort to keep their strength and morale up.
Following the war he returned to Germany where he continued to teach and expand on his exercise method in his boxing gym. He began developing and designing apparatus to use to teach his
method, such as The Universal Reformer, and his first patent application for the Foot Corrector.
He was eventually pressured to train members of the German army, and at the age of 42 he decided to emigrate to America to further his fitness career. He met his wife, Clara, on the trip over, reportedly helping her with exercises for her arthritic hands. She joined him in opening his gym in N
ew York City, focusing on boxing and his exercise method. It was here he began to further develop and patent different apparatus, mainly The Universal Reformer, for his exercise methodology, which he named “Contrology”.
Some dance studios and art studios were located in the same building as Joe’s gym and their clients consisted of a number of artists, dancers, and choreographers. Contrology improved their form, and helped them recover from injuries.
Over the years Joe designed and built hundreds of pieces of equipment. However, only about a dozen of the apparatus are still widely used in Pilates studios today.
Today, nearly 500 of his exercises are recognized in Pilates methodology. If you want to learn more about Joe’s work please visit your closest Classical Pilates studio (usually equipped with Gratz equipment, or closely resembling) to further you knowledge and body awareness.
(photo credit: Elaine Ewing, Rhinebeck Pilates)