Joseph Pilates: The Man Behind The Mat

You know Pilates exercises and how they benefit your body, but do you know about the man who created them? In honor of Joseph Pilates’ birthday this month, we’d like to offer a glimpse into Pilates’ captivating life, the history and development of his program, and why he hoped we would live like animals.


Joseph Hubertus Pilates was born on Dec. 9, 1883 in Mönchengladbach, Germany. His father Heinrich was a Greek-born metal worker and prize-winning gymnast, and his German mother Helena was a naturopath who believed in the body’s natural healing capabilities. Joseph suffered multiple health issues during his childhood including rheumatic fever, rickets, and asthma, which fueled his drive to continuously improve his physical strength and later excel in athletic endeavours such as gymnastics, diving, bodybuilding, and skiing.


After his first wife’s death, Pilates moved to England in 1912 to work as a professional boxer, circus performer, and self-defense instructor (you know, as one does). Unfortunately, his eclectic career stalled after Great Britain entered World War I in 1914 and escalating tensions led to the internment of German and Austro-Hungarians. Pilates found himself at the Knockaloe Camp on the Isle of Man, where his exercise program came to life.


Robert Wernick best describes the birth of Contrology in his Feb. 12, 1962 Sports Illustrated article:


“Here, as weeks lengthened into months and years, he watched his fellow-prisoners sink into apathy and despair, with nothing to do but stare at the bare crumbling walls of their prison, nothing to break the daily monotony but the inadequate meals (for the German submarine blockade was slowly starving England) and an occasional walk around the bare courtyard with nothing to look at but an occasional starveling cat streaking after a mouse or a bird.


It was the cats, which did it. For though they were nothing but skin and bones – even the most animal-loving prisoners could hardly spare them anything from their own pitiful rations when their own children were begging to be fed – they were lithe and springy and terribly efficient as they aimed for their prey. Why were the cats in such good shape, so bright-eyed, while the humans were growing every day paler, weaker, apathetic creatures ready to give up if they caught a cold or fell down and sprained an ankle? The answer came to Joe when he began carefully observing the cats and analyzing their motions for hours at a time. He saw them, when they had nothing else to do, stretching their legs out, stretching, stretching, keeping their muscles limber, alive. He began working out an orderly series of exercises to stretch the human muscles, all the human muscles. He began demonstrating these exercises to the dejected figures around him, and since they had nothing else to do, they began to do the exercises too. Awkwardly and timorously at first, but under his firm supervision they became more and more confident, more and more bouncy, like cats. They ended the war in better shape than when it started, and when the great influenza epidemic came sweeping over all the countries that had fought in the war, not one of them came down with it.”


In April 1926 Pilates set sail for the United States aboard the Westphalia where he met his third partner Clara (it’s unclear if they ever married). Together they created a studio near the New York City Ballet and attracted a following including dancers, actors, authors, and society’s elite. Pilates also penned a number of books including “Your Health” in 1934 and “Return to Life Through Contrology” in 1945. Unfortunately, despite his otherwise healthy lifestyle, Pilates’ affinity for cigars resulted in his death from emphysema on Oct. 9, 1967. Clara continued teaching the Pilates method (as it became known after Joseph’s death) until her passing in 1977.


Joseph Pilates lived a truly fascinating life, and Wernick’s article provides a lively glimpse into his character. We hope you enjoyed this deep-dive into Pilates’ story and encourage you to use your Pilates practice to live your best cat-like life.