A History of Joseph
||Joe was born in Mönchengladbach,
a small town near Dusseldorf, Germany, in 1880.
He was a small and sickly child who suffered from
asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever. His name had
been spelled "Pilatu" and was of Greek
derivation but was changed to Pilates. This caused
him much grief because, as a child, older boys taunted
him calling him "Pontius Pilate, killer of
Christ". He was so skinny that he couldn't
fight back and it was these conditions that caused
him to begin the journey to fitness and health.
His father was a prizewinning gymnast and his mother
a naturopath. A family physician gave him a discarded
anatomy book and as he put it "I learned every
page, every part of the body; I would move each
part as I memorized it. As a child, I would lie
in the woods for hours, hiding and watching the
animals move, how the mother taught the young."
he said. He studied both Eastern and Western forms
of exercise including yoga, Zen, and ancient Greek
and Roman regimens. By the time he was 14 he had
worked so hard he had developed his body to the
point that he was modeling for anatomy charts.
Growing up in Germany,
he achieved some success as a boxer and a gymnast
in addition to being a skilled skier and diver.
There are 2 versions of how he traveled to England.
One version has it that in 1912 he decided to
go there to work as a boxer and another, that
by 1914 he had become a star circus performer
and toured England with his troupe. In this version
he and his brother were performing a Greek statue
act! In 1914 after WWI broke out he was interned
along with other German nationals in a "camp"
for enemy aliens in Lancaster. There he taught
wrestling and self-defense, boasting that his
students would emerge stronger than they were
before being interned.
It was here that he began devising his system of original
exercises that later became "Contrology". He
was transferred to another camp on The Isle of Man where
he became something of a nurse and worked with many internees
who suffered from wartime diseases and incarceration.
He then began devising equipment
to rehabilitate them, taking the springs from the beds
and rigging exercise apparatus for the bedridden! In 1918,
a terrible epidemic of influenza swept the world, killing
millions of people, tens of thousands in England. None
of Joe's followers succumbed even though the camps were
the hardest hit!
After the war Joe returned to Germany and began training
the Hamburg Military Police in self defense and physical
training as well as taking on personal clients. He said,
"I invented all these machines. Began back in Germany,
was there until 1925 used to exercise rheumatic patients.
I thought, why use My strength? So I made a machine
to do it for me. Look, you see it resists your movements
in just the right way so those inner muscles really
have to work against it. That way you can concentrate
on movement. You must always do it slowly and smoothly.
Then your whole body is in it." It was at this
time that he met Rudolf von Laban, a famous movement
analyst, who is said to have incorporated some of Joe's
theories and exercises into his own work. Mary Wigman,
a famous German dancer and choreographer was a student
of Joe's and used his exercises in her dance class warm-up.
In 1925 he was invited to train the New German Army
but because he was not happy with the political direction
of Germany he decided to leave. On the urging of boxing
expert, Nat Fleischer and with the aid of Max Schmelling
he decided to come to the U.S. It was en route to America
that Joe met his future wife, Clara. She was a kindergarten
teacher who was suffering from arthritic pain and Joe
worked with her on the boat to heal her. Upon arriving
in New York City they opened a gym at 939 Eight Ave,
in the same building as several dance studios and rehearsal
spaces. It was this proximity that made "Contrology"
such an intrinsic part of many dancers' training and
rehab work and many were sent to Joe to be "fixed".
George Balanchine, the famous choreographer, studied
with Joe and sent many of his dancers to Pilates for
strengthening and "balancing" as well as rehabilitation,
as did another famous dancer/choreographer, Martha Graham.
From 1939 to 1951 Joe and Clara went every summer to
Jacob's Pillow, a well known dance camp in the Berkshire
Mountains. He was a friend and teacher to such renowned
dancer/choreographers as Ted Shawn, Ruth St. Denis,
Martha Graham and Jerome Robbins and many required their
dancers to go to Joe. Hanya Holm even incorporated Joe's
exercises into her students' lessons. However, Joe counted
many socialites as well as plumbers and doctors, to
list a few, as his clients as well.
Joe felt his work was "50 years ahead
of (his) time". Joe's definition of physical
fitness was: "the attainment and maintenance
of a uniformly developed body with a sound mind
fully capable of naturally, easily and satisfactorily
performing our many and varied daily tasks with
spontaneously zest and pleasure". Joe believed
in "natural movements" with the emphasis
on doing and being. He has stated, " Everything
should be smooth, like a cat. The exercises
are done lying, sitting, kneeling, etc., to
avoid excess strain on the heart and lungs."
Romana Kryzanowska, the heir to Joe's work and
Amy and Rachel's teacher is quoted as saying
" The key to working with the apparatus
is they make you do the work yourself. The fewer
springs, the harder the exercise. The springs
provide or create endurance, not excess strength.
The method is based on the movement of animals,
everything about the method is based on moving
naturally." Carola Trier, a longtime student
of Joe's and teacher of his work said "
The method emphasizes restoring the body to
true balance, ease and economy of movement and
a channeled flow of energy."
Although Joe Pilates was a health guru, he
believed in fitness supporting your life's rich
goals. He was renowned for liking cigars, whiskey,
and women and was to be seen running on Manhattan
streets, in the dead of winter, in a bikini!
In January 1966 there was a fire in their building.
Joe returned to his studio to try and save anything
possible and fell through the burnt out floorboards,
hanging by his hands from a beam for quite some
time until rescued by the firefighters. It is
assumed that this incident directly led to his
death in October 1967, at the age of 87. 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 this time
Romana took over the business and has dedicated
her life to teaching Joe's work as he himself