Joseph Hubertus Pilates

Joseph Hubertus Pilates was born in Germany around 1880. He reportedly had rheumatic fever and rickets as a child, caused by a weak respiratory system, and so to improve his own health he began exploring ways to strengthen his body and his mind. Joseph Pilates was inspired by the classical concept of the ideal man who combined a well-trained body with an equivalently trained intellect, so in his journey he participated in boxing, fencing, wrestling and gymnastics, as well as exploring yoga and Zen meditation.

When World War I broke out, Joseph was in England touring with a boxer and subsequently was held as a resident alien in an internment camp near Lancaster for the duration of the war. While in the camp, he took it upon himself to lead his fellow detainees in a daily exercise program. When the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919 broke out, the inmates who followed his exercise regime got better faster and were able to fight off secondary infections that killed so many interns in similar circumstances.

After Joseph was released from the camps and returned to Germany, he was approached by the “brown shirts” (who were to become the Nazi party) to train their police force. Wisely, Joseph left Germany on a boat to America. He met his soon-to-be-wife Clara on the passage. Clara was a nurse who would later work beside him in the studio.


Upon arrival in New York in 1926, Joseph and Clara rented a small studio in the same building as the New York City Ballet and started teaching what Joe called “Contrology”; the mind-fitness regime we now know as “Pilates”. They worked with clients from all walks of life but he made an especially strong impression on the dance community. Ted Shawn, Ruth St. Denis, George Balanchine and many others sent their injured dancers to Joe’s for rehabilitation.

Joseph’s dream was to introduce “Contrology” into every aspect of life; from schools to military training, and had he not been so far ahead of his time, it may have happened. He did not receive much recognition for his work during his lifetime.

Joseph PilateHe often designed and made equipment to fit a particular client. Many of Joseph’s original machines are still working today, handed down to studios of various “elders” (first generation Pilates teachers).

Joseph Pilates’ studio was destroyed by fire in 1967, and he died soon after that from complications of smoke inhalation. His wife Clara carried on the work until her death in 1977.