Joseph Humbertus Pilates was born with rickets, asthma, and rheumatic fever in the late 1800s. Growing up outside of Dusseldorf, Germany, Pilates became “obsessed with the frailties of the body and determined to overcome his own afflictions.” Through studying the muscle structure of the human body and involvement in gymnastics, skiing, and sky diving, Pilates developed his body and was modeling for anatomical drawings by the age of fourteen.
His studies continued, eventually leading him to combine Eastern and Western philosophies of exercise and physiology, from which he created the Pilates method, or Contrology, as it was originally known. The Pilates “Art of Contrology” emphasized the importance of muscle control or, more specifically “using the mind to master the muscles.”
From 1912 until the beginning of World War I, Pilates worked as a boxer, circus performer, and self defense instructor. Jailed as an enemy alien with other German nationals, Pilates developed a following during the war. Despite an influenza epidemic and harsh living conditions, Pilates and his devotees not only survived, but “benefited from his innovative approach to physical fitness.”
Working as an orderly while interned, Pilates devised a system by which non-ambulatory patients could perform strengthening exercises. This was accomplished through the utilization of bedsprings attached to walls above the patients’ beds. This precursor to modern day equipment permitted stabilized movement resulting in muscle strengthening and overall improved health and fitness, versus the side effects of immobility.
In 1926 Pilates immigrated to the United States after realizing his beliefs were in opposition to those of the new German army. On his journey to America, Pilates met his future wife, Clara, a nurse who shared his passion for developing and maintaining a healthy body. Once in the U.S. the couple opened a fitness studio, introducing the dance world to Pilates and his method. Among the choreographers who embraced the Pilates technique were Martha Graham and George Balanchine. The dance world’s enthusiasm for Pilates is evidenced in the fact that many of its current day instructors have a background in dance. “The movements, fluid in nature and designed to lengthen the muscles, have a balletic appearance to them.” Enthusiasm for the Pilates method has since spread to other areas including athletics, modeling, acting, and the general world of physical fitness.