What is Pilates or Who is Pilates?

Joseph Pilates is the originator of the Pilates Method. He was born in Dusseldorf in the late 1800s. He was a frail and sickly child who suffered from rickets, asthma and rheumatic fever. He was determined to overcome his fragility but instead of following an established fitness regime, he experimented with many different approaches and one can, in fact, recognise the different elements of these methods in his teaching. Yoga, gymnastics, skiing, self defence, dance, circus training and weight training all influenced him, and he chose aspects of each to develop his own body. By absorbing these methods and selecting the most effective features, Pilates was able to work out a system, which had the perfect balance of strength and flexibility.


Having proven their worth on his own body, he then began to teach these techniques to others. He was training detectives at Scotland Yard when the First World War broke out. Because of his nationality he was interned. With time on his hands, he helped out in the camp infirmary and further developed his techniques training his fellow internees with amazing success. Much of his knowledge of rehabilitation comes from this period.


After the war he returned to Germany, and it was here that he encountered the world of dance, mainly through contact with Rudolf von Laban, the originator of “Labanotation”, which is the most widely used form of dance notation.

In 1926, he decided to emigrate to the United States of America. On the boat he met his future wife Clara and, when they realised they shared the same views of fitness, they decided to set up a studio in New York. Although his original clients were boxers, his studio soon attracted top ballet dancers, actors and actresses, gymnasts and athletes, all anxious to learn from Pilates.


Joseph Pilates wrore two books on fitness:


“Return to Life through Contrology” (with William Miller)(1945 and 2003)


“Your Health” (1988)


The books reveal his unique approach to health and happiness as well as fitness. The exercises described in the books are very advanced and reflect the nature of his studio clientele.


Joseph and Clara worked tirelessly from the 1920’s right up until his death in 1967. After Joe died, Clara, who was in her eighties, struggled to manage the studio business from both a teaching and financial perspective and therefore decided to pass it on to Romana Kryzanowska, who continued teaching until 2004.


Joseph never set up an official programme, however many of his assistants went on to set up their own studios and senior names in the “Pilates Family Tree”.

Joseph taught each of the above teachers as individuals. They learnt different exercises with the result that many of his disciples went on to teach their “own versions” of his method.


It is interesting to remember that Joseph Pilates called his method “Contrology” and that it only became known as “Pilates” in the years after his death as teachers who had worked with him began to set up studios.


Joseph Pilates left behind a huge legacy of work. The “core” of his mat-based work was what is commonly known the Full Mat. You should bear in mind that Joseph taught many other mat exercises in addition to The Full Mat – plus, of course the many exercises developed for the studio equipment.


The definition of what was, or why, true Pilates is therefore somewhat blurred, and indeed, is still being debated today by the different schools of Pilates. It is not helped by the fact that Joseph Pilates rarely taught the same exercise in the same way two days running, partly because he geared his teaching to the needs of the individual and prescribed a complete set of exercises for each client. Clara also modified the exercises to suit the client.

The History of Joseph Pilates “His Legacy” : Taken from Body Control Pilates.
Pictures by “I.C.” Rapoport and other parties.