Joseph H. Pilates was born near Dusseldorf in Germany in 1880. As a child he suffered from chronic illness. Being determined to overcome these problems, he set out to understand the factors which disrupt the balance between body and mind; he researched and practised every kind of exercise he could: ranging from classical Roman and Greek exercise forms to body-building and gymnastics, along with the Eastern disciplines of Yoga, Tai Chi, martial arts and Zen meditation. He also studied anatomy and animal movements.
Prior to the First World War he worked in London, in Scotland Yard, where he trained detectives in self-defence. Because of his nationality, he spent the war years interned in the UK. He used his time to start developing, for his fellow inmates and patients, in order to maintain their health and fitness, special programmes of exercises using strings attached to beds. This was the beginning of what is today known today as the Pilates method.
With the deteriorating political climate in Germany after the First World War, he moved in 1923 to New York, where he opened his first studio. There he gained a strong following from actors, singers, performers and dancers such as Martha Graham and George Balanchine. Many found the Pilates method the best way, both to recover from injuries and to prevent their recurrence. Exercise therapy was not popular in the USA at that time, unlike in Europe, and J.Pilates’ work was an innovative example.
Joseph Pilates called his method “Contrology”, refering to the way the method encourages one to use one’s mind to control the muscles. He conceived it as both mental and physical conditioning, and he liked to quote Schiller: “It is the mind which builds the body.”
Long popular among dancers, gymnasts and performers, the Pilates method is now being discovered by a wider public. And as the importance of exercise is again being stressed in today’s society, medical gymnastics approaches such as Pilates have enormously gained popularity over recent years.