Joseph Pilates was a physical trainer, notable for having invented and promoted the Pilates method of physical fitness.
Joseph Pilates was born in Germany in 1880. His father, a native of Greece, had been a prize-winning gymnast, while his German-born mother was a naturopath who believed in the principle of stimulating the body to heal itself without artificial drugs. No doubt his mother’s healing philosophy and father’s physical achievements greatly influenced Pilates’ later ideas on therapeutic exercise.
Small and sickly as a child, he became self-educated in anatomy, bodybuilding, wrestling, yoga, gymnastics, and martial arts. Pilates was enamored of the classical Greek ideal of a man who is balanced equally in body, mind, and spirit. He came to believe that our modern lifestyle, bad posture, and inefficient breathing were the roots of poor health. His answer to these problems was to design a unique series of vigorous physical exercises that help to correct muscular imbalances and improve posture, coordination, balance, strength, and flexibility, as well as to increase breathing capacity and organ function.
Pilates was touring England as a circus performer during World War I when he was interned as an enemy alien. He encouraged all his fellow prisoners to follow his exercise routines. However, some of the injured German soldiers were too weak to leave their beds. Not content to leave his comrades lying idle, Pilates took springs from the beds and attached them to the headboards and footboards of the iron bed frames, turning them into equipment that provided a type of resistance exercise for his bedridden “patients.”
These were the earliest models of the spring based exercise apparatuses, such as the Cadillac and the Universal Reformer, for which the Pilates method is known today. Pilates legend has it that during the flu epidemic in 1918, not one of Pilates’s “patients” died. He credited his technique with the prisoners’ strength and fitness-remarkable under an internment camp’s living conditions.
“Man should bear in mind and ponder over the Greek admonition:
Not Too Much, Not Too Little.”
Pilates returned to Germany after the war, and his achievements with the German soldiers did not go unnoticed. In 1926, the German Kaiser invited him to begin training the German secret police.
At this point, Pilates decided to immigrate to the United States. He met his future wife and dedicated teaching partner, Clara, on the boat to New York City. Together they opened the first Body Contrology (Pilates’s name for this form of exercise) Studio on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan. The earliest American students of Body Contrology were professional dancers because they repeatedly injured themselves.
Soon the choreographer George Balanchine and other movement visionaries became believers in body Contrology. From there the exercise, but not the name, caught on-everyone seemed to prefer to call it Pilates. Today, many famous athletes, dancers, models, and actors, as well as business professional, housewives, and retirees have joined the ranks of Pilates practitioners.