A Brief History of Pilates

By Fay V. Porter, LMT

Pilates is a physical fitness system designed in the early 20th century by German-born Joseph Hubertus Pilates (December 9, 1883- October 9, 1967).  His father was a famous prize-winning gymnast, and his mother was a naturopath. Joseph was sickly as a child and struggled with a variety of health issues as well as bullying from older neighborhood children.  He believed that effective exercise was the best way to strengthen his immune system and to achieve full wellness by strengthening both the body and mind. Pilates believed that true health could only be achieved through being both mentally and physically fit. He studied both Eastern and Western exercise systems, including yoga, which he then incorporated and adapted into his personal exercise practices. He also studied anatomy and physiology extensively, and would move his body as he studied to assess which movements would activate which muscles. By the age of 14 he had overcome his initial health difficulties and had developed his body to the point that he was modeling for anatomy charts in Germany. As he aged, he became an accomplished boxer, diver, skier, and gymnast.

In 1912, Joseph went to Britain for further training in boxing and to join the boxing circuit there. As World War I broke out in 1914, Joseph along with many other Germans was sent to an internment camp in Lancaster.  There he taught wrestling and self-defense, and developed what would later become the foundation of his Mat work, which he called “Contrology,” which was developed to learn how to combine both body strength with intentional control of the body through movement patterns. Pilates was later moved to an internment camp on the Isle of Man where he volunteered in the sick bay and became something of a nurse / Physical Therapist.  He would work extensively with those in the camp who had been injured during the war and developed the foundation of many of his famous apparatuses during this time, including the Universal Reformer (now just referred to as the reformer), and the Cadillac Tower.  These apparatuses were built out of the iron beds and the bed springs in the sick bay to develop movement patterns and exercises for those who were injured to be able to regain their posture, strength, and to correct muscular imbalances and improve coordination, balance, and flexibility, as well as to increase breathing capacity and organ function.  He was so successful in helping to build the health of his “patients” that none of the people in the camp under his care grew sick with the Spanish Influenza when the epidemic hit in 1918.

After the war, Joseph returned to Germany and began teaching privately.  In 1923 the Kaiser asked him to begin teaching the German Secret Police.  Joseph disagreed with the political climate in Germany at that time and decided to immigrate to the United States.  After visiting, Joseph moved to New York in 1926, and met his lifelong partner Clara on the boat ride across from Germany.  Together they started the Contrology studio on 56th Street in Manhattan in the same building as a number of dance studios.  The dancers in the local studios were prone to frequent injuries, and became the majority of his clientele. Many dance instructors in New York began requiring their dancers to attend Pilates fitness sessions, and started incorporating his exercises into their warm ups.  Through this time period, Joseph and Clara continued to develop additional apparatuses and file patents for his inventions.  These included the Magic Circle, the Barrel, the Cadillac Tower, the Universal Reformer, and the Wunda Chair, to name a few.

Joseph stayed active and healthy, and was passionately involved with teaching until his death in 1967 at the age of 83.  Some of his early students went on to open their own studios after his passing, and partially as a result of their own interpretations two major schools of philosophy developed: Classical and Contemporary Pilates.