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  • Melissa Connolly

The Man behind "The Method"

Updated: Jan 19, 2019

Joseph Pilates history...

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.

Small and sickly as a child, he was afflicted with asthma, rickets, and rheumatic fever, and was continually taunted. He quickly became determined to overcome his physical disadvantages and began to self-educate himself in anatomy, bodybuilding, wrestling, yoga, gymnastics, and martial arts. He soon achieved a physically well shaped body to the extent that at the age of 14 he was posing as a model for anatomy charts and had a career as a circus entertainer to perform a "living Greek statue" act. He was the classical Greek ideal of a man who is balanced equally in body, mind, and spirit, and he came to believe that our modern lifestyle, bad posture, and inefficient breathing were the roots of poor health.

Before World War I he was touring England as a circus performer and professional boxer, and teaching self-defense to the Scotland Yard police force. But when war broke out, he found himself interned in England as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man.

Pilates insisted that everyone in his cell block participate in daily exercise routines to help maintain both their physical and mental well-being. However, some of the injured German soldiers were too weak to get out of bed. Pilates took springs from the beds and attached them to the headboards and footboards of the iron bed frames, turning them into equipment that provided a type of resistance exercise for his bedridden "patients." These beds were the forerunners of the spring-based exercise machines, such as the Cadillac and the Universal Reformer, for which the Pilates method is known today.

Around 1925 he decided to emigrate to the United States. He met his future wife and dedicated teaching partner, Clara, on the boat to New York City. Together they opened the first Studio on Eighth Avenue at 56th Street in Manhattan, in the same building as a number of dance studios. For the rest of his life, he continued to develop his exercise system and to create new pieces of equipment. He called his method Contrology but the name was referred by his students as "Pilates"

and has stuck with his name as the method.

Many famous choreographers such as George Balanchine, Martha Graham, Hanya Holm, Ruth St. Dennis and Jerome Robbins and their dancers were clients of Pilates. He helped them heal from dance injuries. His method has been kept alive from his students opening studios and passing their knowledge of the Pilates Method.

Joseph Pilates died in 1967 at the age of 84.

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