Joseph Hubertus Pilates was born in 1880 in Germany near Dusseldorf. He, like many others destined to excel in physical performance, was initially physically weak. Concerned with the possibility of contracting tuberculosis, he dedicated himself to weight training, so much so that at the age of 14 he was called to pose for the realization of the anatomical charts of the human body.
The study of anatomy and muscular development became an integral part of his adolescence, to which he added, during his stay in Germany, skiing, diving and various athletic disciplines. In 1912 he moved to England where he began his career as a self-defence instructor for the local police school, as well as cultivating an interest in boxing and acrobatics in a local circus.
When World War I broke out, J. H. Pilates was imprisoned for a year in Lancaster with other fellow countrymen. During this time he did not lose heart and arranged his own workout with his fellow prisoners, thus refining his principles on health and weight training. In 1918 an epidemic of influenza killed thousands of British people but none of those who underwent his physical training were victims.
He was later transferred to the Isle of Man, where he found a completely different situation to the one he had in Lancaster: wounded, crippled and paralyzed soldiers. He decided to build machines that could help in the rehabilitation of the men. He returned to Germany in the early 1920s where he continued to devise equipment for physical re-education, some of which are still in use today.
Besides his creative commitment, his profession led him to Hamburg to work for the local police as a physical trainer for recruits and the entire police force. During this time, he met Rudolph von Laban, the creator of Labanotation (one of the most renowned notation systems for recording and analyzing human movement), which incorporated part of J. H. Pilates’s work into his teachings. Later, other important dance professionals used the Pilates method as a reference for their basic workouts.
The Pilates method entered the world of dance and established a relationship that has lasted until now. This explains how the technique has often been erroneously associated only with the world of dance. In 1925, the teaching of the Pilates method became so important for the German government that J. H. Pilates was invited to personally follow the training plan of the new German army; Pilates decided that it was time to leave for the United States of America. During the trip he met a young nurse named Clara who later became his wife.
In New York, J. H. Pilates opened a studio and began to codify his technique; the first part was focused solely on Mat Work, that is, a series of calisthenics exercises on a mat. This programme was written in a book called Contrology, an original name he coined for his technique. However, the work did not consist only in the notation of the exercises but also in the improvement of special apparatus. At the time of his imprisonment in England, J. H. Pilates applied springs to patients’ beds for them to use to help regain and maintain muscle tone while still lying in bed. As a result of this idea the Universal Reformer was born, a machine that is still central to the Pilates method.
During his work other machines were invented as well as other exercises for Mat Work. Pilates died in 1967 around the 1960s; Romana Kryzanowska, one of his students and a method teacher for decades, took over his New York studio, while some of his early students, such as Ron Fletcher and Kathy Grant, opened up other studios.