Born in 1883 near Dusseldorf, Germany, Joseph Pilates was a sickly child. During his early years he suffered from rickets, asthma and rheumatic fever. As his mother and father were, respectively, a naturopath and prize-winning gymnast, it is likely he was taken to the spas and subjected to the exercise regimens that were commonly prescribed in the late 1800’s to people in poor general health.
Before the advent of antibiotics and other treatments available with modern medicine, staying healthy and alive meant staying fit and strong. In Germany fitness was encouraged through regular trips to the Bads (spas) and daily exercise. Modern gymnastics, derived from the ancient Greeks, were developed in Sweden and Germany before being introduced into the school systems of Europe and North America. This was the climate in which the young Joseph grew up, introducing him to physical activity and sowing the seeds of his own future system, “The Art of Contrology”.
Joseph had already developed and refined his body to such a degree by the time he was 14 that he was posing for anatomy charts. As a teenager he skied, dived and practiced gymnastics. Eventually, he became a professional boxer and taught self-defense while continuing to pursue his interest in exercise theory. He delved deeper into mind-body connections, studying karate, yoga, Zen meditation and the exercise regimens of ancient Greeks and Romans.
At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Joseph had been working in England for two years and was interned as an enemy alien. It was at this internment camp that he first saw dramatic results from his work. He encouraged other internees to participate in his exercises, which seemed to lead to improved health and well-being. Later on, when the influenza pandemic of 1918-1920 spread across Europe, it appears none of those who followed his regimen fell ill.
Towards the end of the war Pilates was transferred to the Isle of Man where he began to apply his methods to the rehabilitation of the war-injured. It was here that the Cadillac, or Trapeze Table, had its beginnings as Pilates experimented with the use of bedsprings as resistive equipment for those who were bed bound. He found that with the effective removal of gravity he could better align the spine and pelvis during exercise. This work later influenced additional exercises in the Pilates Mat syllabus.
Pilates returned to Germany after the war and worked with the Hamburg Police Force, teaching self-defense and taking on private clients. Some of his clients went on to notable success such as Rudolf Laban, originator of Labanotation, still a widely used movement notation system in dance. Pilates even gained recognition from the new German Army who requested his services as a trainer; he appears to have refused by simply leaving Germany, this time for good.
In 1926, Pilates met Anna Clara Zuener, who would later become Clara Pilates, as the two made the journey across the Atlantic to the United States of America. Joseph and Clara opened a studio together on 8th Avenue, New York, across the street from the American Ballet. By the end of the 1940’s Joseph had forged a close relationship with the New York dance community, including such notable personalities as Hanya Holm, Martha Graham, Ted Shawn and George Balanchine. It was through the invitation of Shawn to Jacob’s Pillow (a dance camp visited every summer by Joseph and Clara) that “Contrology” became less of a boxer’s or gymnast’s strength workout and, with the incorporation of transitions and flow, moved toward a style more evocative of the qualities of modern dance. These associations helped the method become known as a rehabilitative regimen for dancers and elite athletes.
In 1934 Pilates published a small booklet about his method. “Your Health” set out to change the lives of ordinary people by warning them of the damages caused by a sedentary lifestyle. At the end of the book, readers get a strong sense of Pilates’ frustration with the lack of acknowledgement of his work.
Eleven years later, in 1945, Joseph co-authored with W.J. Miller another book, “Return to Life Through Contrology”. In this work, Joseph explains his philosophy of life and gives detailed descriptions of exercises to practice at home.
Joseph Pilates continued to develop his exercise syllabus and improve his apparatus over the following years. He designed many pieces of large and small equipment, including the Universal Reformer, Cadillac, Wunda and Electric chairs, The Power Circle, and a whole family of Barrels. He coined the term “Powerhouse”, referring to the center of the body where all movement originates. He was an innovator 50 years ahead of his time.
By Pilates' death in 1967 a number of studios based on his method had been established, some with his approval and some without. He was extremely protective of his work and remained sole master of his own studio until shortly before his death.
Pilates himself trained only two of his students as teachers, Bob Seed, a hockey player, and Carola Trier, a contortionist. He “certified” another two as teachers of Contrology; Kathy Grant and Lolita San Miguel, both of whom had trained under Trier.
Those who worked with Joseph Pilates directly, whether as teachers, assistants or clients, and then went on to teach the method to others are considered first generation Pilates teachers. These first teachers either remained true to Pilates’ original teachings or interpreted his intentions to suit their own needs. Either way, they kept the method alive, developing it and keeping it up-to-date with new discoveries in science and bio-mechanics.
Among this generation of teachers are:
- Romana Kryzanowska, who worked as his assistant from the late 1950’s onward. She and her family still oversee training in the original studio.
- Ron Fletcher, with Clara Pilates’ blessing, opened his own studio in Los Angeles in 1970 and started a teacher training programme. He attracted many Hollywood stars to the method.
- Eve Gentry is best known for pre-Pilates, including the “neutral pelvis”, and breath work with gentler exercises developed around the original principles.
- Kathy Grant took over the directorship of Bendel’s studio in New York in 1972.
- Lolita San Miguel founded the Ballet Concerto de Puerto Rico and introduced Pilates into the dancers’ programme.
- Bruce King trained for many years with Joseph and Clara, opening his own studio in New York in the mid-1970’s.
- Mary Bowen, a Jungian analyst, studied with Joseph in the mid-1960’s. She began teaching Pilates in 1975 and founded “Your Own Gym” in Northampton, Massachusetts.
- Mary Pilates is the only living relative (as at October 2010) who taught at the New York studio. She is the daughter of Joseph’s brother, Frederick Pilates, a carpenter by trade who fabricated most of Joseph’s original designs. She began working for Joseph and Clara in 1940 and is pictured in one of the most famous photographs of the studio.
- Jay Grimes studied with Joseph in the mid-1960’s and worked with Clara after Joseph’s death. He continued his association with the original studio by teaching and studying with Romana Kryzanowska.
Educated by first and second generation teachers, there are now third, fourth and fifth generation instructors all over the world, carrying on the work while interpreting and developing it in line with new and deeper knowledge of the body.
Eve Gentry was particularly significant in bringing awareness to the importance of spine positioning in exercise. She focused on a more neutral pelvis, which was positioned without tucking, “floating” the articulations with release rather than using compression and a flat back as found in the original work. She used stabilization of the abdominal muscles to support the lower back. Many modern teachers have adopted this concept and some have gone so far as to rewrite the orders of Pilates and develop new syllabuses within the original work.
Traditional Pilates has attracted dancers, gymnasts and athletes over the years and has often succeeded in allowing them to return to their careers after injury. Its success, however, has been accompanied by skepticism about unhealthy bodies and where they fit into the traditional world of Pilates. Joseph Pilates’ original system, too, has been criticized in recent years. Many think the exercises involve too large a range of motion, that they do not work the body holistically, or that they put too much focus on specific muscle groups. These concerns are valid and they must be considered when working with the general public, but a teacher with the correct education and basic anatomical knowledge can make the traditional system safe and effective for all.
Therefore, the concern should be about whether the teacher’s ability, reasoning skills and knowledge are sufficient to make the system adaptable to almost all needs, rather than whether the method itself still works. Pilates himself treated each person individually, adapting and correcting to the needs of that individual. With correct use of variations, modifications, apparatus and a good head for reasoning, traditional Pilates can hold its own in our contemporary world.