Joseph Hubertus Pilates

Born near Dusseldorf, Germany in 1880, Joseph Humbertus Pilates lived to become a robust icon at age 87, but he wasn’t always so healthy. As a child, Pilates suffered asthma and rheumatoid fever. Even as a child he made a decision that would alter his life: to restore his own good health. He studied Oriental disciplines like yoga and martial arts and combined these with Western techniques to bring about physical movement, such as boxing and recreational sports. At the age fourteen he’d developed his body to such a degree that he was asked to pose for illustrations of the male anatomy. While still a young man, Pilates left Germany for England, where he became a boxer, circus performer and martial arts instructor. With the outbreak of WWI, he, along with other German compatriots, was arrested for being enemies of the state, and placed in a prison in Lancaster.

Pilates had his countrymen follow his exercise regime, which he called “Contrology.” His training proved so successful that he and his fellow Germans were able to survive the outbreak of influenza that took the lives of thousands of their contemporaries. He attributed his survival to the fact that his lungs were in excellent shape. From this, he derived The Pilates Principle of Diaphragmatic Respiration. Sent to the Isle of Man as a nurse to the war’s wounded, and with only the resources he had at hand, Pilates designed the equipment to rehabilitate those soldiers who couldn’t participate in regular floor exercises. Regardless of their injuries, Pilates managed to strengthen their muscles and helped them to attain physical fitness.

On the boat to America, where he’d decided to emigrate, he met his future wife Clara, a nurse who was sympathetic to his interests. Once they arrived in New York, they decided to open a studio dedicated to teaching physical fitness. The now famous photo of the Pilates Studio on New York’s 8th Avenue shows a rectangular room with at least 8 ‘reformers’ in line. Joseph can be seen standing between two women, his wife, and his niece, Mary, who would continue her uncle’s physical fitness classes in Florida in the sixties. Even as an octogenarian, Mary is willing to demonstrate “the only way” in which the exercises are to be performed—exactly the same way they were imparted in 1940.

Today, health professionals continue to study and implement the healing techniques of Joseph Pilates. His intelligent design of the equipment is the same as the one used to manufacture this equipment today. How many of today’s exercise machines would be required to perform the hundreds of different exercises of a Pilates routine, all of which can be done on one machine the size of a single bed? The Pilates method of physical and mental well being has been one of the most closely guarded secrets in the world of dance and the arts, ever since Martha Graham discovered his studio in 1920. Even today, dancers and circus performers use Pilates techniques to achieve the level of physical fitness required by their professions, as well as for the rehabilitation of injuries.