The man behind the name
Pilates is named after its founder, Joseph Pilates, who was born in Germany in 1883. His father was a gymnast and his mother a naturopath. He was considered a sickly child, suffering from asthma and rickets. He was determined to make himself strong and healthy, successfully taking up body building, to the point where he was getting employment in his teens as an anatomical model.
By 1914 he was living in England, working as a professional boxer and circus performer. He was even employed by Scotland Yard, teaching self defense to Detectives.
With the outbreak of World War 1 he was interned in a prisoner of war camp with other German nationals. While interned he continued his exercise regime. In time he began to train his fellow countrymen in the camp, developing his skills over his 4 year internment, ultimately coming to call his methods of exercise Contrology. His method encouraged the use of the mind to control the muscles. He even began to adapt hospital beds, using the springs of the beds to develop what he termed exercise apparatus, which would eventually become the Pilates equipment we now know as the Reformer, Cadillac and Stability Chair, among others.
After the war, he returned for a time to Germany but in 1923 he emigrated to New York, settling there with his new wife Clara. Together they set up a ‘body conditioning gym’ on 8th Avenue. The same building also housed the New York State Ballet and inevitably Joseph and Clara and their innovative methods came to the attention of and were embraced by the ballet fraternity with the likes of George Balanchine and Martha Graham becoming devotees – they found the Contrology method the best way both to recover from injury and to prevent its reoccurrence.
Joseph and Clara worked in New York for decades, training the elite of the dance and art world. He also trained other instructors, who became known as Pilates Elders, in his methods. After Joseph Pilates’ death in 1967, it was these Elders who worked to preserve his methods while also bringing Pilates to a wider audience. In recent decades Pilates has been embraced by many the world over, from professional athletes to casual exercise enthusiasts.
“Pilates is complete coordination of body, mind and spirit.”