Joseph Hubertus Pilates was born in Mönchengladbach, near Düsseldorf, on December 8, 1880. He was afflicted with rickets, asthma, and rheumatic fever as a child. As a result, he began to devote himself to physical training at a young age. He enjoyed gymnastics, bodybuilding, and skiing, as well as Far Eastern techniques like yoga and Zen meditation.
Joseph Pilates visited England in 1912. He made a living as a boxer, a circus performer, and a self-defense instructor for Scotland Yard officers. As a German, he was interned at the beginning of the First World War.
He began to develop his holistic physical training concept, which he dubbed “Contrology,” and taught it to his fellow inmates during this time. Because of their strong physical condition, these internees are said to have survived the 1918 influenza pandemic.
Joseph Pilates moved back to Germany after the war. He went on to work with Rudolf von Laban, a movement visionary and modern dance pioneer, among others. Pilates was asked to teach members of the German Army in 1925 after he had trained Hamburg police officers. He decided to emigrate to New York in 1926, dissatisfied with the political and social conditions in Germany.
Along the way, Pilates met Clara, a young nurse. She married him and helped him develop and teach his method. He quickly made a name for himself in New York. Among his clients were members of New York’s high society such as Vivien Leigh, Katharine Hepburn, and Sir Lawrence Oliver. Pilates worked with people from a wide range of professions, including actors, musicians, doctors, circus performers, and office workers.
Pilates also gained popularity in the dance world. He trained dance legends such as George Balanchine, Ted Shawn, Ruth St. Dennis, Martha Graham, and Hanya Holm. His dancer clients included Carola Trier, Eve Gentry, Romana Kryzanowska, Ron Fletcher, Kathleen Grant, Bruce King, and Lolita San Miguel, among others.
Joseph Pilates worked in a highly individual and creative way. Thus, he often put together specific exercise programs for his clients. He practiced his method until old age and wrote books about it. Joseph Pilates died in New York at the age of 84.