To acquaint you with the life of Joseph Pilates, a great visionary, who combined the philosophy of "Naturopathic" with the Classical Greek Ideal of the Whole Man.

"I'm 50 years ahead of my time"! Joseph Pilates


A SummaryHis childhoodPilates an Anatomical model; Early Adulthood;
In the late 20’sDuring the war yearsTraining the Hamburg PoliceHe moved to America at age 40The first Pilates Studio; The Golden yearsThe Philosophy behind the ‘workout’; Modern Physiology confirms the wisdom; The death of Joseph PilatesPilates Obituary New York TimesThe Joseph Pilates Fitness CrazeThe Real Joseph Pilates Legacy:-



Pilates was enamoured of the classical Greek ideal of a man who is balanced equally in body, mind, and spirit. His experiences taught him to believe that the 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 life-enhancing 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.



Joe was born in Mönchengladbach (a small town near Düsseldorf, Germany), on December 9th 1883.

His mother, it is stated, "was a naturopath." Naturopaths believe in stimulating the body to heal itself, and it is likely that his mother's healing philosophy coloured his own approach to therapeutic exercises. Pilates was said to be a skinny, sickly child. He suffered from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever. The older bullies taunted him with "Pontius Pilate, killer of Christ." He was too sickly to fight back or get away, and it was this situation that caused him to begin his life journey to fitness and health, and a desire to help people in similar need.



A family physician gave him a discarded anatomy book: "I learned every page, every part of the body; I would move each part as I memorized it. As a child, I would lie in the woods for hours, hiding and watching the animals move, how the mother taught the young." He studied both Eastern and Western forms of exercise including yoga, Zen, and ancient Greek and Roman regimens. By the time he was 14 he had developed his body to the point that he was modelling for anatomy charts!

Pilates with his niece (daughter of Fred Pilates, who lived in St. Louis Missouri).



A boxer, gymnast, skier and diver.  Growing up in Germany, and working at the local brewery, he achieved some success as a boxer and gymnast in addition to being a skilled skier and diver.

In the late 20's he moved to England, performing a Roman Gladiator Act.  In 1912 he went to England for further training as a boxer. He found employment there as a circus performer. By 1914 he had become a star and was on tour - he and his brother (Frederick Pilates: read about Fred's daughter Mary) performed as Roman Gladiators

Joseph Pilates, age 59: demonstrating Classical Greek Perfection...


During the War Years his life was spent as a Hospital "Nurse-Physiotherapist".  In 1914 after WWI broke out he was interned along with other German nationals in a "camp" for enemy aliens in Lancaster. There he taught wrestling and self-defence, boasting that his students would emerge stronger than they were before their internment. It was here that he began refining and teaching his minimal equipment system of mat exercises that later became "Contrology."

He was subsequently transferred to another camp on The Isle of Man where his interests in health led him to help out in the sick bay. He became something of a nurse and worked with many internees suffering from illness and incarceration. His caring disposition led him to request that he help the patients in the infirmary with exercise. Bed rest was the norm in those days, so he was told, "you can do anything you like with them, as long as they stay in bed". So Joseph took the springs from the beds and rigged them up to the bed posts as exercise apparatus for the bedridden! Thus was born the Trapezium table ("Trap Table") later known as The Cadillac.  Joseph was both inventive and resourceful in solving the health and exercise needs of his friends and neighbours!

When the 1918 'flu epidemic swept the world, (it killed millions, and an internment camp is an ideal breeding ground for such epidemics to hit hard), none of Joe's followers succumbed! 

Joseph called this approach "Contrology", and explained it in his book "Return to Life through Controlology, your whole body is in it."

Pilates the Showman explaining another piece of apparatus...

Training the Hamburg Military Police:-  After the war Joe returned to Germany and began training the Hamburg Military Police in self-defence and physical training as well as taking on personal clients. It was at this time that he met Rudolf von Laban, a famous movement analyst, who is said to have incorporated some of Joe's theories and exercises into his own work. In 1923 Pilates was invited to train the New German Army but, because he was not happy with the political direction of Germany, he decided to leave. The urgings of his American based relatives - his uncle (an influential catholic priest), his brother Frederick, and his sister Helen - would have played a part in his decision to move. The last half of the "Life of Pilates Bio" was spent in America...

He moved to America at age 40, on the urging of boxing expert Nat Fleischer and, with the aid of Max Schmelling, Pilates did move to the U.S.  It was en route to America that Joe met Clara who was to become his second wife (I know of no information about a reported first wife.) She was a kindergarten teacher who was suffering from arthritic pain and Joe worked with her on the boat to heal her and give her a new lease of life.


The first Pilates Studio was surrounded by Dance Studios:-  Upon arriving in New York City Joe and Clara took over a boxing gym at 939 Eighth Ave, in the same building as several dance studios and rehearsal spaces. It was this proximity that made "Controlology" such an intrinsic part of the life, rehab and training of many dancers: They were sent to Joe to be "fixed".


In the Pilates biography, 1926 until 1966 were the golden years - From 1939 to 1951 Joe and Clara went every summer to Jacob's Pillow, a well-known dance camp in the Berkshire Mountains. He was a friend and teacher to many renowned dancer/choreographers, and many required their dancers to go to Joseph. One - Hanya Holm - even incorporated Joe's exercises into her students' lessons. Joseph counted many socialites, plumbers and doctors, (just to list a few), as his clients as well.


Joseph had a rough but kindly manner with his clients. Even the New York city slicker of those days could tolerate his exercise approach (unlike today, people back then still knew how to walk the sidewalk and climb the stairs). Exercise sessions with Joe were not meant to tire, but rather to invigorate. He would say at the end of the session, "One hour! Hit ze shower!".If he felt the client was in need of a lesson in personal hygiene or skin care, he was not averse to joining them in the shower, so as to demonstrate how to use the hard bristled scrubbing brush!

Pilates in his late seventies. Able to squat and still full of Life...


Modern exercise physiology confirms the wisdom of the Joseph Pilates approach - you cannot efficiently build muscle bulk/flexibility, while at the same time performing a hard aerobic workout - it doesn't work; just leads to unnecessary extra stress loading. Such sessions should always be performed separately.
Joseph Pilates was something of a health guru. Nevertheless, he was renowned for liking cigars, whiskey (or was that vodka?), and women. He was the life of many parties, and was to be seen running on Manhattan streets, in the dead of winter, in his habitual "bikini bottom" training attire!  He believed in fitness supporting life's rich goals.


The following is a quote by Pilates "Elder" Mary Bowen :-

"The Fire" - People often ask me "Did Joe Pilates die in a fire?" One woman in London where I was giving a workshop at the Pilates Foundation of UK last May said she had read that it was so in The New York Times. To set the record straight - no, Joe did not die in a fire. He died two years later, in 1967, of advanced emphysema from smoking cigars for too many years (which he took up out of disappointment that he wasn't taken more seriously by the powers that be, especially physicians, during his lifetime). His personal friend, Evelyn de la Tour, shared that with me. There was a fire in 1965 in the storage room at the back of his floor. The studio and his and Clara's apartment were in the front of the building and were undamaged. Bruce King had an apartment near the storage room. He had to move out due to severe smoke damage. The day after the fire Joe went to inspect the extent of loss to his possessions in the storage room and one of his feet fell through a hole in the floor scraping his leg. That was the extent of his injury from the fire.  The fire was in January 1966. Joseph's actual death was in October 1967”.


Joseph's New York Times obituary records that he died at Lenox Hill Hospital. He would have been (born December 9th 1883) 83 years old at his death. The obituary reads like an advertisement for Contrology - very fitting indeed! He is described thus:

‘a white-manned lion with steel blue eyes (one was glass from a boxing mishap),
and mahogany skin, and as limber in his 80's as a teenager’

Pilates out Skiing, complete with one of the Cuban Cigars that eventually took his life.



Clara Pilates, regarded by many as the more superb teacher, continued to teach and run the studio until the end of her life 10 years later, in 1977. Initially, Hollywood celebrities discovered Pilates via Ron Fletcher's studio in Beverly Hills. The Pilates fitness craze presumably blossomed from there. Joseph called his style of fitness "Controlology", but the public call it simply "Pilates." Where the stars go, the media follow, and when the media follow, fashion follows!  It was the late 1980s, and the Pilates fitness boom started. "I'm fifty years ahead of my time," Joe claimed - and he was right. No longer the workout of the elite, Pilates has truly returned to life and entered the mainstream of fitness, and has even established itself as a physiotherapeutic modality in its own right: Today, perhaps ten million people world-wide regularly practice "Pilates", and the numbers are growing! Its a great tribute to the Pilates Life and Biographical Life Story!


Joe Pilates' greatest legacy remains his 34 Contrology Exercises. Many modern Pilates schools teach them differently. Very often, the exercises lose something in the translation. For example: the editor (Bruce Thomson) has considerable problems with tight muscles and trigger points. Many supposedly sound physiotherapeutic interpretations of Joe's work do not fully cater for the problem of tight muscles. But the Joe Pilates 34 exercises do. They do this by working the muscles over their longer range, and by "finding the stretch". Modern interpreters say that Joe's exercises are too difficult in their original form. But Joe had an answer for this:

"Uncle Joe said when you did the hundred, you started with your legs 2 inches off the floor. If you could only do 10 repetitions, that's all you did that day....until you could do 11."

Quote: Mary Pilates, Joseph's niece. Source: Personal Communication, from (Fran Perel: Parkland Pilates, Coral Springs South Florida).

Pilates, age 82. This picture epitomises the Pilates life and bio!



In order to learn more of Joseph Pilates' philosophy and biography, you need to read his books. They are still in print, and make good reading:-

  • Your Health: A Corrective System of Exercising That Revolutionizes the Entire Field of Physical Education (1934) by Joseph H. Pilates and Judd Robbins (Editor)
  • Pilates' Return to Life through Controlology. (1945) Joseph H. Pilates, William J. Miller, Judd Robbins (Editor) (contains a set of 34 classic Pilates mat Exercises).


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