Pilates is a method of corrective exercise that strengthens and tones the entire body. The exercises emphasize the core muscles (primarily abdominals and inner thighs to support the back) while also conditioning and lengthening the whole body. The movements are flowing, precise and challenging, and require a “mind-body” connection. It’s this mind-body connection that makes pilates effective and define what pilates truly is- not just movements, but highly effective, mindful movements.
Joseph Hubertus Pilates’ Early Life
Joseph H. Pilates was born in Mönchengladbach, a small town near Düsseldorf, Germany in 1883. Few facts are known about his young life, though what we do know is very interesting and influential on what he would go on to teach, invent, and passionately promote for the rest of his life: health and well being for the mind, body, and spirit.
At five years of age, Joseph lost the sight of his left eye, apparently due to bullies weilding stones at him. Also at a young age, he suffered from rickets and asthma. However, Joseph’s parents owned and ran a gymnasium, as well as a beer brewingcompany. Joseph and his brother began practicing boxing and self defence in the family run gym. He went from a sickly child to becoming so fit he actually posed as a model for anatomy charts. He took personal responsibility for his own health and overcame weakness.
As a young adult in during World War I, Joseph Pilates was living in England and making a living as a professional boxer, personal trainer, and even as a human statue in the circus. In 1914, the British authorities eventually brought him to an internment camp, along with other German citizens, for the remainder of the war. Although wartimes were bleak, it was during his time at the camp that he began to develop specific ideas for his new exercise method. He spent his time observing animals at the camp, such as cats, and how they stretched and moved about to stay limber. He saw how men at the camp could lose strength easily if they laid in bed all day. He began to teach floor exercises (what would later become known as “the Mat Work”) to these men in an effort to keep their strength up. The exercises included abdominal work, leg and arm work, spinal extention, and balancing exercises. It is said that these men survived the 1918 flu pandemic due to their good physical shape.
He soon became known as the camp as a nurse as he continued to help the bed ridden regain strength through exercise. If they couldn’t get down on the floor and exercise, he would have them exercise in bed. Legend has it that he developed his first ideas for what would later become his famous exercise apparatus while teaching these bedridden men in the camp. Supposedly, he saw that the men were having difficulty exercising in bed, so he took the springs off of the beds and attached them to the bed posts to give them something to pull on to assist them through the exercises. Not only were the springs helpful for the men, but also helpful for Joe and his work- the men could use the springs and didn’t need Joe himself to help them along through the exercises. To Joseph, the springs on the bedposts were a time and energy saver for him- and a brilliant idea.
After WWI, he returned to Germany and continued training people with the exercises he developed in the camp. In time, he was pressured to train members of the German army and he instead decided, at age 42, to emigrate to America, where he planned to further his career in physical fitness and to take his exercise equipment from great idea to patented invention.
It was on the ship to America that Joe met his future life partner, Clara. Clara was a school teacher suffering from arthritis in her hands. It is said that Joe gave her a few exercises to help her hands and she soon became pain free. Sold on his technique, Clara joined him in New York City where they patented his pieces of exercise equipment, starting with what Joseph called, “The Universal Reformer”. They opened up a gym together at 939 8th Avenue. The focus of the gym was boxing and “Contrology”-the name Joe gave to his exercise technique. He continued to teach the mat work he had developed in the camp, and created additional, similar exercises on the Universal Reformer and the other apparatus he built and invented.
Within the same building were dance and art studios, which made for an eclectic group of people throughout the whole building who became devoted disciples of Joe and Clara. They found that doing Pilates improved their form, increased their stamina, and helped them recover from injuries. Clients of the gym consisted of mainly dancers, artists, singers, and choreographers- many of them famous. Injured dancers in the neighboring studios would go see Joe to help “fix” them. Famous clients of Joe included Martha Graham, George Balanchine, Joan Collins, and Liza Manelli, to name just a few.
The Contrology Gymnasium in New York City
Joseph Pilates’ gymnasium was like none other. The equipment throughout the room was invented and built solely by himself, and many pieces doubled as exercise equipment and functional furniture. It is said that Clara actually did much of the teaching of exercise in the gym while Joseph spent his time inventing and building equipment in the back room. Over the years, he built and designed hundreds of pieces of equipment and different types of furniture, though only about a dozen of these are still widely used in pilates studios today.
To know and see Joe teaching Contrology in those days would be an amazing experience. Known to wear only tiny black or white shorts, he would smoke cigars and drink beer while teaching his technique. Clara would wear a nurses dress and heavy white clogs
While teaching, Joseph was known as a man who could be harsh and to the point- very matter-of-fact in telling his clients what to do and how to do an exercise. There is a well known photograph of Joe standing on top of the stomach and rib cage of opera singer, Roberta Peters, while she was in the middle of an exercise, to teach her how to use her abdominals to protect and support her back properly. He was a stickler for form, saying, “A few well-designed movements, properly performed in a balanced sequence, are worth hours of doing sloppy calisthenics or forced contortion.” Clara, on the other hand, was known as the kinder teacher, who would focus more on the flow of the movements. Today, the pilates method is truly a combination of both of their approaches to teaching. Although, I must admit I’ve never seen a teacher stand on a student to correct them!
When a new client would knock on the downstairs door of the building to come in, Joe would have them come all the way up the stairs, where he would greet them with one of his inventions- a small device he called “The Breathesizer”. He would have them blow into it and give them the assessment that they were obviously terribly out of shape and needed to come in a get fit with Contrology.
Once they were in the gym, he or Clara would give them a personalized workout, which they were expected to memorize and do on their own each time they visited the gym. If they weren’t able to memorize it, they could follow all with the photos of the exercises that Joseph had hanging all over the gym. Almost every inch of wall was covered with small, black and white photos of Joe demonstrating exercises on all his equipment, in a particular order and in perfect form.
The bulk of the Contrology workout was done on the Universal Reformer. This was a wooden bed frame (complete with claw feet) with a “mat” attached to weighted springs so it could slide back and forth within the frame. To see one of Joe’s original reformers now is not only a rare treat but would also raise some eyebrows. His original reformers are slightly different than what we use today, with the main difference being that the mat was actually a wooden board, with no mat on it at all. He was very serious about correcting poor posture and spinal health, which meant no comfortable, soft mats.
Names of exercises on the reformer range from dull and to the point, “Arm Circles”, “Overhead”, and “Pelvic Lift”, to intriguing and fun, “Corkscrew”, “Elephant”, and “Snake”. Exercises on the other apparatus had similarly interesting names such as “Squirrel”, “Going Up the Mountain”, “Boomerang”, “Swandive”, and “Grasshopper”.
Once his clients were done on the reformer, they would move on to a few more pieces of equipment, one of them being the Trapeze Table. This was the apparatus influenced by Joe’s original idea, so long ago, of attaching springs to the bedposts of the interned men at the Isle of Man. It was a raised bed with a metal framework on one end, with springs, straps, and bars attached to it. The springs and bars aided the clients with resistance and assistance to all the exercises. Each of these springs and bars had a specific use and name, such as leg springs, arm springs, roll back bar, push through bar, and trapeze bar. Students would do exercises that focused on spinal flexibility and full body alignment, as well as gymnastic-type moves.
Clients would also work out on The Barrels, which were primarily used for spinal flexibility and extension. The story behind Joe’s process of inventing the barrels is fascinating. He took an empty beer barrel and cut it in half, then covered it with a mat-like material. This created a “hump”, for clients to arch their backs over or do a series of exercises on. Which exercises they could do depended on the height and placement of the barrel. After inventing The Barrel, he was left with the metal rings from around the beer barrels, and not wanting to leave anything to waste, he invented The Magic Circle. The Magic Circle is a small piece of equipment that we use very often in pilates classes today. Its a small metal circle with two soft pads on it (though when Joe invented his original Circles, those pads were just blocks of wood) used to teach people how to engage their inner most muscles to get the most out of the work out.
When clients were done working out, Joseph Pilates would say, “After an hour, get in the shower!”. He insisted that all clients take a shower after exercising and- like most other things in his life- he felt very passionate about how exactly it should be done. He was even known to get into the shower with people to teach them proper washing and scrubbing techniques! Before a student walked out the door, they would take an apple with them.
Joseph Pilates’ vision was that everyone in the world would someday do his corrective exercises, every day. One way he tried to spread his method was by selling Universal Reformers as well as another piece of equipment, The Wunda Chair, to people to use in their homes. He created a booklet that he would sell along with the equipment, full of step-by-step photos of all the exercises to be done on the equipment. The photos showed the exact order and form for each and every exercise, and clients were told not to move onto the next exercise until the one before it was mastered.
The story behind The Wunda Chair is quite amazing. The Wunda Chair (or, simply “The Chair”) was actually the first piece of exercise equipment ever invented for the purpose of exercising in a home. It was small and compact, and Joe called it, “a Reformer for a New York City apartment”. Dozens of exercises can be done on the Chair, and most amazingly, with a couple very quick and slight adjustments, the Chair could be converted into an actual ergonomic chair that one could sit in when not exercising!
Other than the apparatus listed above, Joe invented hundreds of things, between additional exercise equipment (like the Ped-o-pul, Guilletine, Cadillac, Foot Corrector, and Spine Corrector), as well as furniture. Today, we recognize over 600 exercises of Joseph Pilates.
The genius of how the Pilates Method works lies in the balance between resistance and assistance in every exercise. When using the apparatus, the springs work by offering weighted resistance to the movements, as well as assistance by guiding the body through the exercises in balance and alignment. As soon as a body is out of alignment or not working with coordination, the springs slack, or begin to wobble. With practice, students learn to work with the springs to create balanced movement. With the matwork, the body must create resistance against gravity and imagine the feel of the springs when there aren’t any at all. This is why Joe described his method as, “Corrective, resistance balance” exercises.
Other Inventions and Endeavors
One of his most well known pieces of furniture that he built and invented was “The Bednasium”. The Bednasium was a v-shaped bed that Joseph Pilates believed would help with all the aches and pains associated with sleep for some people. He heavily promoted the Bednasium through self-marketing, writing articles and books, and even soliciting bed and mattress companies to stop building beds flat and to start building all beds in the V shape. When bed manufacturers wouldn’t make his beds, he was outraged. His niece, Mary Pilates (who is still alive and teaching pilates today) has said that she remembers sleeping in the Bednasium and that it was quite comfortable.
Joe spent much of his time passionately marketing his method. There were articles about his method and gym in the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Life Magazine, and Readers Digest, to name a few. He was a true showman, and is even quoted in Life Magazine as stating he was a direct decendant of Potious Pilate. He also wrote two books, “Return to Life Through Contrology”, and “Your Health”, where he vigorously discusses not only how his method could help everyone physically, mentally, and spiritually, but also how children should be raised, how people should sit and sleep, and how to eat healthfully. He also wrote a third book, which is still unpublished. Perhaps we will someday find out what else Joe had to say! Despite the popularity of his method and the genius behind his inventions, towards the end of his life he was a depressed man. He had intended for Contrology to be an exercise system for men, specifically boxers. He was sad that his method was taken over by dancers and women! Ironically, it was those dancers and women who continued to spread his method throughout the world after his death and made pilates what it is today.
Over the years, some of Joe’s students went on to teach the Pilates exercises on their own, opening their own studios and teaching the exercises that were taught to them by Joe with Joe’s blessings. There is a story about one of his students, dancer Bob Seed, who tried to open a Contrology gym a few blocks away from Joe’s and steal some clients with him. Apparently Joe wasn’t going to let that happen, so he showed up at Bob’s door with a shotgun and told him to get out of town.
In 1967, Joseph Pilates passed away from emphasema at the age of 86. His obituary read, “a white-maned lion with steel blue eyes (one was glass from a boxing mishap), and mahagony skin, and as limber in his 80’s as a teenager”.
After his death, Clara continued to run the gym, although she was going blind. Eventually, she asked one of their best students, Romana Kryzanowska, to carry on his work as he taught it. Romana famously ran Joe’s “Pilates Studio” and certified hundreds of pilates teachers, until 2013 when she passed away at age 90. Other students of Joe’s went on to teach and spread the pilates method around the world.
Today, there are thousands of pilates teachers worldwide and millions of people benefitting from the method every day. The term “Pilates” has become a type of exercise that almost everyone has heard of. There are now different types of pilates, or different “schools of thought”, variations on the technique, and different companies manufacturing different versions of his apparatus.
Joseph Pilates was a genius and a true visionary. These days, anyone looking to try pilates serves themselves best by seeking out a classical pilates teacher who teaches as close to his original method as possible, with equipment built to his exact specifications. He had a reason for every exercise move, every set up for each exercise, and the order in which to do the exercises. Personally, as a pilates teacher myself for the past 14 years, I’ve seen countless people of all types benefit in extreme ways by following the teachings of Joseph Pilates, including myself.