As it often happens with true genius, Pilates’ approach to working out was years ahead of its time, and it has only begun to achieve widespread popularity in the past decade. As contemporary fitness searched for the more balanced approach to exercise and achieving physical and emotional fitness, it found it in what Joseph Pilates originally taught back in the 1940s, 50s and 60s.
“Contrology is the attainment and maintenance of a uniformly developed body with a sound mind, fully capable of naturally performing our many daily tasks with spontaneous zest and pleasure.”
Joseph H. Pilates
Joseph Hubertus Pilates
Joseph H. Pilates was born on December 9, 1883 in Mönchengladbach Germany to parents of Greek and German ancestry. His father was a prize-winning gymnast of Greek origin and his mother a naturopath of German origin. A sickly child who suffered from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever, he dedicated his entire life to becoming physically stronger. Joe began studying body building and gymnastics and by the age of 14 was fit enough to pose for anatomical charts. He came to believe that our modern lifestyle, bad posture, and inefficient breathing were the roots of poor health, and he ultimately devised a series of exercises and training techniques and engineered all the equipment, specifications and tuning required to teach them properly.
In 1912 he moved to England, and prior to World War I toured the country as a circus performer and professional boxer and taught self-defense to the Scotland Yard police force. However, at the outbreak of World War I he and other German citizens were placed under forced internment as enemy aliens in a camp in Lancaster, on the Isle of Man. It was here that the beginnings of the True Pilates Method began to take shape. While interned, he taught fellow camp members the concepts and exercises developed over 20 years of self-study and apprenticeship in boxing, Zen, and ancient Greek and Roman physical regimens. It was at this time that he began devising the system of original exercises known today as “matwork,” or exercises done on the floor.
Joseph Pilates was later transferred to another internment camp, where he became a nurse/caretaker to the many internees struck with wartime disease and physical injury. Here he began devising equipment to rehabilitate his “patients,” taking springs from the beds and rigging them to create spring resistance and “movement apparatus” for the bedridden.
After the War, Pilates emigrated to the United States. On the ship to America he met his future wife Clara. The couple founded a studio in New York City and directly taught and supervised their students well into the 1960’s. Pilates’ method, which he and Clara originally called “Contrology,” refers to the way his system encourages the use of the mind to control the muscles. This method focuses on the core postural muscles, or “Powerhouse,” that help keep the body balanced and are essential to providing support for the spine. In particular, Pilates exercises teach awareness of breath and alignment of the spine and strengthen the deep torso muscles, which are important to help alleviate and prevent back pain. Together, Joe and Clara soon established a devout following in the local dance and performing arts community. Well known dancers such as George Balanchine and Martha Graham became devotees and regularly sent their students to Joe for training and rehabilitation.
Pilates practiced what he preached and lived a long, healthy life. He wrote several books including Return to Life through Contrology and Your Health. He died in 1967. His obituary, appearing in the New York Times, reads like an advertisement for his methods. He is described as a “white-maned lion with steel blue eyes and mahagony skin” (one eye was glass from a boxing mishap) and “as limber in his 80’s as a teenager.”
Joseph and Clara operated their exercise studio for over 40 years. He had dedicated his life’s work to restoring the health and vitality of others. Clara, regarded by many as the more superb teacher, continued to teach and run the studio until her death 10 years later, in 1977. At that time Romana Kryzanowska, who had entered Pilates’ world as a young dancer in New York, took over the business. Pilates regarded her as his disciple. He said she had absorbed and could express the essence of his work as if it were coming from him. Romana continued Joe’s legacy in New York and Texas and generously shared her knowledge with the world through her students, books, videos, conferences and presentations – until her death on August 30, 2013, at 90 years old.
The unique training regimen Joe and Clara devised has now proven itself for more than 80 years as an effective and safe method of exercise, when taught and applied by a qualified instructor who understands how to develop and tailor a “Contrology” workout specifically to your body and capabilities.