Joseph Pilates: The Man, The Myth, The Legend

static1.squarespaceYou may have noticed a new figure hanging on the wall in our San Francisco lobby. Studio, meet Joseph Pilates. Pilates, the method we all love and use for fitness, core strength, and rehabilitation, was created and developed by, you guessed it, Joseph Pilates.

The man, the myth, the legend, born in Germany in 1883, started life as a child plagued by rickets and rheumatic fever. From these beginnings he went on to create and develop one of the most widely-known and practiced fitness methods in the world. A skilled gymnast and active body builder, Pilates was posing for anatomical charts by the time he was 14.

Originally called Contrology, the road to Pilates as we know it today was long and varied. In 1912, Pilates moved to England and made his way as professional boxer, circus performer, and self-defense teacher.  The beginnings of his methods began when he was interned during World War I in an internment camp where Pilates worked with bedridden patients and other inmates to make them stronger than when they entered the camp. He began to develop mat exercises for uninjured patients and attached springs to hospital beds to create resistance for the injured patients. The springs and modest equipment enabled them to exercise and move un-injured parts of their bodies. These hospital beds were the humble beginnings of the equipment that we all know and love. Pilates claimed that his system was the reason that none of his trainees suffered from the 1918 flu epidemic, and it certainly raised morale and may have aided in faster recoveries from injuries.

After the war, Pilates returned to Germany but after seeing the social and political conditions and receiving pressure to train the German military, he decided to immigrate to the United States. Clara, his future partner and collaborator, was on the same ship to America.  Joseph and Clara went on to change the destiny of fitness together. When they finally landed in New York around 1925 the couple established a studio where they could teach the Pilates method of exercise. Contrology quickly became known among the dance and theatre community in New York City and the method was touted to create flexibility, stamina and strength. Well known artists, Martha Graham and George Balanchine become devotees of Pilate’s work, referring their students to his studio. Upon finding out that all of the ballerinas were training with Pilates, New York’s society women soon followed suit.

Pilates passed away in 1967.  His New York times Obituary reads like an ad for Contrology, “ a white-maned lion of a man, with steel-blue eyes and mahogony skin, Mr. Pilates kept as limber in his 80’s as a teenager.”He often spoke that his method was ahead of its time and he was certainly correct. It took years, but now in 2016, nearly 90 years since Joe and Clara founded their studio in NYC, most people have heard of Pilates, even if they’ve never done it or don’t know who the man behind the movement was. Pilates developed a remarkable system for changing and improving our bodies, and I for one am most grateful.

I must be right. Never an aspirin. Never injured a day in my life. The whole country, the whole world, should be doing my exercises. They’d be happier.” – Joseph Hubertus Pilates, in 1965, at age 82