The man behind the method
Descriptions of Joseph Hubertus Pilates (1883–1967) in the 1960s create a vivid picture: white mane of hair, bright blue eyes (one was glass), mahogany skin, barrel chest, dressed in small white swimming trunks and canvas sneakers—an outfit he supposedly wore on the streets and in the studio. Eccentric? Maybe. But a master at understanding the human body? Absolutely. Pilates was and is a towering figure in the history of physical fitness and dance for his development of a method that enhances and strengthens the body’s natural functions.
Pilates had a distinct vision of helping all people become healthier. He theorized that the American lifestyle had changed following the industrial revolution, yet nothing had taken the place of hard farming labor in terms of exercise. He advocated a fitness method that balanced strength and flexibility with an emphasis on breathing and the body’s “core,” and often quoted the German poet/philosopher Friedrich von Schiller: “It is the mind itself which builds the body.”
While other exercise programs did exist at this time, Pilates’ concept was a novel idea in the early 20th century, and it particularly supported modern dance technique as it was developing in the United States. Notable dancers like Ted Shawn, Martha Graham and Jacques D’Amboise sought Pilates not only for conditioning but also for healing. (Physical therapy as we know it did not emerge until the 1950s.) Those dancers who did not study with Pilates in New York may have encountered him at Jacob’s Pillow from 1939 to 1951. Today, numerous dancers make a side living as Pilates instructors.
Of Greek ancestry, Pilates was born in Mönchengladbach, Germany, on December 9, 1883. Throughout his childhood, he observed natural movements in children and animals. “As a child, I would lie in the woods for hours, hiding in the leaves, watching the animals move,” he once said. Building on this interest in physicality, he became a diver, skier and gymnast and developed an exercise training system for himself. In 1912, Pilates went to England as a circus performer, but when World War I began in 1914, he was placed in an internment camp for German nationals—first in Lancaster, then on the Isle of Man.
Although food was scarce in England due to the German blockade, Pilates watched in awe as the starving cats still stretched and leaped about. Inspired, he began exercising fellow captives in the hopes to keep them physically fit, even without much food. Pilates used his own body strength to create resistance exercises for the bed-ridden patients, but soon constructed resistance equipment out of bedsprings—a forerunner to his “Universal Reformer” still used today. Pilates liked to say that when the flu epidemic of 1918 swept through England, not a single inmate succumbed to the illness, which he considered a result of his techniques.
Pilates returned to Germany after the war and began teaching exercise and self-defense to the Hamburg Military Police. While there, he met German dance pioneer Rudolf von Laban, who incorporated some of Pilates’ exercises into his methods that, along with the teachings of Mary Wigman, would be spread to the United States by Hanya Holm. Holm would later work directly with Pilates in developing her modern dance floor exercises, including her warm-up that uses parts of the body to provide resistance.
In 1926, Pilates relocated to the U.S. In transit, he met Clara Zeuner (1883–1977), who would later become his lifelong partner. She recalled that on the ship, “We talked so much about health and the need to keep the body healthy, we decided to open a physical fitness studio,” which they ran together for more than 30 years on the second floor of 939 8th Avenue in New York City. Pilates instructor Mary Bowen described in Pilates Style Magazine that the studio was “plain, barren of any eros or femininity, a place to work your body. There was no chitchat; it was all about the work.”
Pilates called his teachings “Contrology,” which he developed over a span of many years and delineated in his books Pilates Return to Life through Contrology and Your Health. Contrology features six principles—concentration, control, centering, flowing movement, precision and breathing—that are mastered through 34 mat exercises, including the famous 100s abdominals. He also developed machines such as the “Wunda Chair” and the “Cadillac” to further work the limbs and core.
The fitness craze that propelled Pilates’ technique into health clubs and living rooms across the nation did not reach full swing until more than a decade after his death on October 9, 1967. “I’m 50 years ahead of my time,” he foretold. “Truth will prevail and I know that my teachings will reach the masses and finally be adopted as universal.” Although Pilates did not live to see his method become a household name, his legacy stands firm, which speaks volumes to the genius of the man behind the method. DT
Freelance writer and author Elizabeth McPherson, PhD, is an assistant professor and the dance education coordinator at Montclair State University in New Jersey.
The Joseph H. Pilates Archive Collection, edited by Sean Gallagher and Romana Kryzanowska, BainBridgeBooks, 2000
The Pilates Method of Body Conditioning: Introduction to the Core Exercises, by Sean Gallagher, Romana Kryzanowska, Steven Speleotis, BainBridgeBooks, 1999
The Pilates Method of Physical and Mental Conditioning, by Philip Friedman and Gail Eisen, Doubleday & Company,
A Pilates Primer: The Millennium Edition, by Joseph H. Pilates and William J. Miller, Presentation Dynamics, 1998. This is a republishing of two books by Joseph Pilates: Pilates’ Return to Life through Contrology (1945) and Your Health (1934)
“Gym Owner Has Youthful Glow at 83,” by Mary Burt Baldwin, The New York Times, April 12, 1963
“Joseph H. Pilates, Body Builder, 86,” The New York Times, October 10, 1967
“To Keep in Shape: Act Like an Animal,” by Robert Wernick, Sports Illustrated, February 12, 1962
“They all go to Joe’s,” by Doris Hering, Dance Magazine, February 1956
“The Ultimate Mind-Body Connection: First-Generation Instructor Mary Bowen blends Jungian Analysis with Pilates and Goes Where No One Has Gone Before,” by Mary Bowen, PilatesStyle.com, September/October 2009
Photos from top: by Eric Sanford, courtesy of Jacob’s Pillow; by John Lindquist, courtesy of Harvard Theatre Collection