Born in Düsseldorf in 1883, Joseph Hubertus Pilates was a small and sickly child – he was afflicted with asthma, rickets, and rheumatic fever, and was continually bullied by the bigger children. He quickly became determined to overcome his physical disadvantages, and despite being young, Joseph began to self-educate himself in anatomy, bodybuilding, wrestling, yoga, gymnastics, and martial arts. He soon achieved an almost Adonis-like ‘anatomical ideal,’ to such an extent that at the age of 14 he was posing as a model for anatomy charts. He was also an accomplished boxer, skier, and diver.
His physique was such that, in his public career as a circus entertainer, Pilates used to perform a ‘living Greek statue’ act. He was enamoured of the classical Greek ideal of a man who is balanced equally in body, mind, and spirit, and he came to believe that our modern lifestyle, bad posture, and inefficient breathing were the roots of poor health.
Before World War I he was touring England as a circus performer and professional boxer, and even teaching self-defence to the Scotland Yard police force. But when war broke out, he found himself interned in England as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man.
The health conditions in the internment camps were poor, but Pilates insisted that everyone in his cell block participate in daily exercise routines to help maintain both their physical and mental well-being. However, some of the injured German soldiers were too weak to get out of bed. Not content to leave his comrades lying idle, Pilates took springs from the beds and attached them to the headboards and footboards of the iron bed frames, turning them into equipment that provided a type of resistance exercise for his bedridden ‘patients.’
Pilates legend has it that during the great flu epidemic of 1918, not a single one of the soldiers under his care died. He credited his technique (which he called ‘Contrology’) for the prisoners’ strength and fitness – remarkable under the less than optimum living conditions of internment camps, which were hit especially hard by this deadly flu.
After the War, he emigrated to the USA where he opened an exercise studio and continued to devise and scientifically prove his method.
He believed that Nature has simple laws of life, in terms of coordinated physical and mental health. If these laws are respected and followed, then premature death through heart disease, cancer and other diseases related to unhealthy living can be prevented.