The History of the Pilates Method: Joseph Pilates

Joseph H. Pilates was born in Mönchengladbach, Germany he was a sickly child who struggled with rheumatic fever, rickets, and asthma, which motivated him to become an athlete, and received training in gymnastics, wrestling, skiing, fencing, yoga, boxing, and Zen. Through daily activity he developed routines to keep his ailments at bay. At the early age of 14 Joe Pilates had a sufficiently developed body and began posing as a fitness model.

During World War I Joe, then living in England, was considered an enemy alien, and was sent to an internment camp in the Isle of Man, it was here that Joe truly developed his method. Joe worked as a nurse in the hospital and under his care he began to impart the routines he developed on the other detainees. During the war, a horrible influenza epidemic struck killing more people than the war yet none of Joe’s detainees were affected. This validation was proof enough of the effectiveness of his method and by the end of the war he had the basis of the method that we now know as the Pilates Method today.

After the War, Joe returned to Germany where he trained the Police of Hamburg in his method, the method this Police force still uses today. Due to the evolving political trends Joe immigrated to America in 1926 where he met his wife Clara Pilates who aided in developing his method. Joe and Clara opened a gymnasium in Madison Square Garden training professional boxers. He shared a building with the founder of the School of American Ballet, and New York City Ballet, George Balanchine. When Balanchine discovered the benefits of his method he sent his dancers to Joe for fitness and rehabilitation. Contrology, Pilates, became a popular system of exercise for those seeking a strong, healthy, and beautiful body.

Chief Orthopedic Surgeon at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan, Dr Henry Jordan, recognized the brilliance of his method and send many of his patients to Joe and Clara the often avoiding having to perform surgery. Other doctors were so amazed by his development they offered him the opportunity to integrate his methods into the hospitals but when they realized he had no title or formal medical training they cancelled the offer.

Joe knew he was fifty years ahead of his time and could perform all his exercises until he died just before his 84th birthday.