Updated: Apr 21, 2022
Joseph H. Pilates was born on December 9, 1883 in Germany. His father was a prize-winning Greek Gymnast and his mother was a German Naturopath. As a young child he was quite sickly suffering from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever. The combination of his mothers healing philosophy and his fathers physical achievements played a large part in his ideas toward therapeutic exercise. Perhaps even his illnesses as a child motivated him to re-educate his body through body building, wrestling, yoga, gymnastics, skiing, boxing and martial arts. He was even a circus performer at one time.
By his twenties, Joseph Pilates studied and drew inspiration from Eastern practices and Zen Buddhism and also became fascinated by the ancient Greeks version of the perfect man in development and balance of body, mind and spirit. From this he designed a series of vigorous physical exercises to correct muscular imbalance which would improve posture, co-ordination, balance, strength and flexibility. Along with a focus on increasing breathing capacity this led to the principles of his method.
He began his teachings in England pre-WWI. His work as a circus performer and professional boxer were interrupted by an invitation from Scotland Yard to teach self defense to policemen. Upon returning to Germany he further developed and enhanced his reputation as a physical trainer and healer. In 1925, he was asked to train the German Army but instead he packed his bags and moved to Manhattan, NY. This is where he set up a fitness studio with his wife Clara, whom he met on the boat over to the US. "Contrology" was the name he gave his method, which reflected his belief in the importance of the minds control over the body.
"It is the mind itself which builds the body. The Method teaches you to be in control of your body and not at its mercy"
His method of "Contrology" was originally mostly practiced by dancers but thanks to his self confidence and America's growing interest in physical fitness Joseph Pilates teachings began to catch a wider market and today statistics show over 11 million Americans who practice it regularly. He taught in NY from 1926 to 1966.
So what exactly is Pilates? According to Joseph Pilates, this is what it is NOT:
"Contrology is not a system of haphazard exercises designed to produce only bulging muscles, It is an exercise and breathing regime that develops the body uniformly, corrects posture, restores vitality, invigorates the mind and elevates the spirit."
For Joseph Pilates the health of mind and body are inextricably linked. The Pilates method is a program of specific and controlled exercises that stimulate the mind and body, with the mind controlling the muscles - not the other way around.
"Ideally our muscles should obey our will, it is the mind itself which shapes the body"
The focus of Pilates is on how you do the exercises and not how many or how fast you do them. Pilates is not aerobic, it demands concentration and focus on posture (good form), core muscles and breathing. It is all about working smarter, not harder, where precision is everything.
"A few well-designed movements, properly performed in a balanced sequence, are worth hours of sloppy calisthenics or forced contortion"
Joseph Pilates believed the spine was the key to physical fitness. Neutral spine alignment is essential, and Pilates develops the deep muscles of the back and abdomen to support your spine in order to promote better posture. In turn this allows your core to work at its most optimal level.
"A man is as young as his spinal column. If your spine is stiff at 30 you are old. If it is flexible at 60, you are young"
Along with exercises to strengthen the core, Pilates teaches focus on breath. The method teaches various breathing techniques to enhance relaxation, lower blood pressure and activate specific muscles that help improve posture. He truly believed breath with the work was vital.
"Breathing is the first act of life and the last. Our very life depends on it"
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Joseph Pilates philosophy is that it was developed as a direct response to life in the first half of the 20th century - a golden age of physical activity. Compare this to an increasingly sedentary 21st century lifestyle dominated by computers, phones, and TV's, where it is needed the most.
Joseph Pilates died on October 9, 1967 at the age of 84. Throughout his life, he remained physically fit and in remarkable condition. His legacy lives on through numerous Pilates studios and classes around the world.