Who Is Joseph Pilates, Creator of Pilates Exercises?

Joseph Pilates doing Star on the ReformerNamed after the man who created them, Pilates is a type of exercise that is normally done on a mat. With inspiration from yoga, Greek and Roman training, and physical therapy, Joseph Pilates created pieces of equipment and exercises to “correct muscular imbalances and improve posture, coordination, balance, strength, and flexibility, as well as to increase breathing capacity and organ function.” Originally, he called his exercises “Controlology” and had a particular sequence in which the exercises should be performed all the time.

His exercises cultivate the yogic idea of body/mind awareness. When you are doing Pilates, try to notice how your mind links to your body and helps you move.

Who is Joseph Pilates?

In Jillian Hessel’s biography of Pilates, she says, “Joseph Hubertus Pilates was born on December 9, 1883 in Mönchengladbach (near Düsseldorf), Germany. 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.”

Joseph Pilates’s Beginning of Controlology

Although he was sickly as a child, Joseph Pilates ridded himself of asthma and other ailments through the practice of his exercises. In fact, he became quite fit and active. In 1912, he moved to England and worked as a self-defense instructor for the detectives at Scotland Yard. When World War I broke out, he was moved to an internment camp with the other German nationals. In their biography of Joseph Pilates, the Balanced Body website says,

“During his internment, Joe refined his ideas and trained other internees in his system of exercise. He rigged springs to hospital beds, enabling bedridden patients to exercise against resistance, an innovation that led to his later equipment designs. An influenza epidemic struck England in 1918, killing thousands of people, but not a single one of Joe’s trainees died. This, he claimed, testified to the effectiveness of his system.”

When he was released after the war, he returned to Germany, which is where he began working with dancers.

Joseph Pilates’s Life in America

Pilates students doing TeaserIn 1926, he left Germany to go to America. On the boat ride over, he met his wife, Clara, who would be his partner and collaborator until his death. They emigrated to the United States and established a studio in New York, sharing an address with the New York City Ballet. Through the years, Pilates worked with dance greats such as George Balanchine, Martha Graham, and Jerome Robbins.

Joseph Pilates died on October 9, 1967 in New York City at the age of 84. “Controlology” was renamed and continued by his wife Clara and his students. Through the years, his students have trained other students, and so Pilates evolves. It is frequently subject to the interpretation and study of your particular instructor. For example, someone trained by one of the classical instructors is perhaps going to be more likely to do the exercises in the order in which Pilates meant them to be done. Someone STOTT trained, like myself, is going to be more inclined to have a theme of what should be accomplished and select the exercises accordingly.

Resources on Joseph Pilates

The two articles that I linked to earlier by Jillian Hessel and Balanced Body are great references about Joseph Pilates. They also explain the lineage of how Pilates evolved since Joseph Pilates’s death. If you are looking for another article on Joseph Pilates, I recommend the biography by the Pilates Method Alliance.

Things don’t normally go this way in a Pilates class now, but here’s some video from Joe’s time.

Have you had different Pilates instructors? In what ways are they different? In what ways are they similar? Comment below.

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Sarah Stockett is STOTT certified in Matwork, Reformer, Cadillac, Chair, & Barrels, Injuries & Special Populations, and CORE; a Yoga Alliance RYT-200; and has studied Active Isolated Stretching. When she is not trying to discover the best exercises to get rid of pain, she likes watching movies and travelling with her family.

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