origins of pilates

Joseph Hubertus Pilates was genetically Greek, born and raised in Germany. As a child he was sickly, and at a very young age showed his mettle by fortifying himself with physical fitness. During the First World War he found himself interned as a P.O.W in a hospital, working as an orderly. There he shared, and further developed his method on the rehabilitating soldiers. Springs from hospital beds, bandages, and whatever else Pilates could find were used as resistance to strengthen the muscles of bedridden men.

In the 1920’s he boarded a boat for the United States, where he met the woman who later became his wife, his workmate, and the person who made sure that his work carried on after he died, Clara. Clara had been a kindergarten teacher in Germany, and shared Pilates’ passion for fitness and health. Soon after arriving Joe and Clara opened the first studio in New York City in the same building as Martha Graham and George Balanchine. Their method was popular among Dancers, whose punished bodies responded well to his corrective exercises. He dubbed the Method Contrology, and he was busy.

Pilates began making equipment based on his research, trials, and probably instincts, giving us the Equipment we use today. Universal Reformers, Cadillac named because he referred to it as the Cadillac of all Exercise Equipment, but affectionately known as the trap table or “Rack”, the Wunda Chair, the Electric Chair, the little barrel, the Ladder Barrel and the Ped-o-pul.

Pilates developed a few other pieces of furniture and tried to sell them, one of them was a V-bed, shaped so that the spine and limbs were well supported at rest. Not a winner.

A lot is said about Joseph Pilates, often with great authority… there are stories of guns being pulled, Pilates hanging from the rafters of a burning building, running in his swim trunks through the streets of New York in the wee hours of the morning….there is even a magazine now dedicated to the method. Whatever the story, the thing to remember is that Joseph and Clara Pilates were teaching mind body fitness on resistance equipment in the 1920's with unflagging dedication and spirit. It didn't matter if you were a dancer, a housewife, the son of a lawyer or a hockey player, they helped alot of people, and they still do.