Joseph Pilates was born in Monchengladbach Germany in 1883. As a child, Joe had asthma and other ailments. He turned to exercise and athletics to battle these ailments and was always studying various exercise regimens to expand his knowledge base. He became enamored by the classical Greek ideal of a man balanced in body, mind, and spirit, and he began to develop his own exercise system based on this concept.
Growing into adulthood, Joe was no longer the sickly child he had once been as he became an avid skier, diver, gymnast, and boxer.
In 1912 Joe went to England, where he worked as a self-defense instructor for detectives at Scotland Yard. At the outbreak of World War I, Joe was interned as an “enemy alien” with other German nationals. During his internment, Joe refined his ideas and trained other internees in his system of exercise. He rigged springs to hospital beds, enabling bedridden patients to exercise against resistance, an innovation that led to his later equipment designs. An influenza epidemic struck England in 1918, killing thousands of people, but not a single one of Joe’s trainees died. This, he claimed, testified to the effectiveness of his system.
After his release, Joe returned to Germany. His exercise method gained favor in the dance community, primarily through Rudolf von Laban, who created the form of dance notation most widely used today. Hanya Holm adopted many of Joe’s exercises for her modern dance curriculum, and they are still part of the “Holm Technique.” When German officials asked Joe to teach his fitness system to the army, he decided to leave Germany for good.
Pilates comes to the U.S.
In 1926, Joe emigrated to the United States. During the voyage he met Clara Zeuner, whom he later married (many people don’t know that Clara was Joe’s third wife). Joe and Clara opened a fitness studio in New York, sharing an address with the New York City Ballet.
By the early 1960s, Joe and Clara could count among their clients many New York dancers. George Balanchine studied “at Joe’s,” as he called it, and also invited Pilates to instruct his young ballerinas at the New York City Ballet.
Nowadays the Pilates Method is offered in most fitness facilities and is largely used by many Elite Athletes to enhance performance and build strength. It is also used for rehabilitation in sports medicine facilities.