Joseph Hubertus Pilates was born in Monchengladbach Germany in 1883. His Greek father, Heinrich Friedrich Pilates, was a metal worker and a prize winning gymnast, and his German mother was a housewife and naturopath who believed the body was able heal itself without artificial drugs.
As a child, Joe had asthma and other ailments. He turned to exercise and athletics to battle these ailments and was always studying various exercise regimens to expand his knowledge base.
He was fascinated by the classical Greek ideal of a man balanced in body, mind, and spirit, and he began to develop his own exercise system based on this concept.
Pilates was originally a gymnast, diver, and bodybuilder. He had an unsteady lifestyle, but settled down in Viersen for two years with his first wife Maria, with whom he had a daughter named Helene, called Leni and born 30 November 1905 in Gelsenkirchen. After his wife’s death he moved to England in 1912, he earned a living as a professional boxer, circus-performer, and self-defense trainer at police schools and Scotland Yard.
On 14 April 1926 Pilates migrated to the United States on board of the ship Westphalia, arriving 27 April in New York. On the same ship was also his future third wife Anna Clara Zeuner. It is not clear whether they ever were legally married. The couple founded a studio in New York City, in the same building as the New York City Ballet, and directly taught and supervised their students well into the 1960s. His method, which he and Clara originally called “Contrology,” related to encouraging the use of the mind to control muscles. It focuses attention on core postural muscles that help keep the human body balanced and provide support for the spine. In particular, Pilates exercises teach awareness of breath and of alignment of the spine, and strengthen the deep torso and abdominal muscles.
Joseph and Clara Pilates soon established a devout following in the local dance and the performing-arts community of New York. His exercise regimen built flexibility, strength and stamina. Soon after it became known that ballerinas were attending the Pilates gym on 8th Avenue, society women followed.
Joseph Pilates wrote several books, including Return to Life through Contrology (1945) and Your Health (1934), and he was also a prolific inventor, with over 26 patents cited. Joe and Clara had a number of disciples who continued to teach variations of his method or, in some cases, focused exclusively on preserving the method, and the instructor-training techniques, they had learned during their studies with Joe and Clara.
Joseph Pilates died on 9 December 1967 at the age of 83 in New York, from lung emphysema (he was a strong cigar smoker). His wife Clara died in 1977.