Joseph Pilates – a Biography
Joseph Hubertus Pilates, born 9th December 1883 in Mönchengladbach, Germany, was described by the New York Times in his obituary as being a “a white-maned lion with steel blue eyes and mahogany skin, and as limber in his 80's as a teenager”.
He is said to have been sickly as a young child, suffering from rickets, asthma and rheumatic fever and was bullied for being "Pontius Pilate, killer of Christ". It was during one of these attacks he is reputed to have lost his left eye, although other sources describe it as a result of a boxing accident.
Pilates worked as an assistant in the brewery in Mönchengladbach as a teenager and at the same time studied anatomy and Eastern exercises such as Zen and Yoga. He was a successful boxer, gymnast, skier and diver and by the age of 14 he is said to have developed his body to such a level that it was used for anatomical modelling.
When World War I broke out in 1914 he was interned in a camp for enemy aliens in Lancaster and taught wrestling and self-defence to the other interns. During this time, he also began refining and teaching his mat exercises, using minimal equipment using an approach that later became “Contrology”. When he was moved to a camp on the Isle of Man, he helped with the treatment of the sick, who were not allowed to be taken from their beds, devising methods of using the bed equipment to provide exercises for the patients’ rehabilitation. This eventually led to the development of the “Trap Table” (trapezium table).
On his return to Germany after the end of the war, Pilates began training the Hamburg Military Police and in 1923 was invited to train the New German Army. However, he was dissatisfied with the politics and chose to emigrate to the USA. During the journey, he met his future wife Clara and is said to have helped her overcome arthritic pain. In New York, they took over a boxing gym with dance studios and developed “Contrology” into the rehabilitation and training regime of many eminent dancers and socialites of the time.
Although he was a health guru, Pilates was a flamboyant character, brusque and rough with his clients yet, renowned for liking cigars, whiskey and women and insisted on wearing his exercise briefs whenever he felt inclined, including on the streets of New York. He was in excellent physical condition until his death in October 1967.
It wasn’t until the 1980's and the development of exercise science as a discipline that Pilates’ approach become more widely adopted, having until then been restricted to dancers and elite athletes, and it wasn’t until the late 1990's that it was adapted for general exercise regimes.
Bibliography: Marguerite Ogle, A brief Biography of Joseph Pilates
Bruce Thomson, Joseph Pilates Biography
Brooke Siler, The Pilates Body