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Joseph Pilates

Joseph Pilates was born in Monchengladbach, Germany in 1880. He was a small and sickly child who suffered from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever. A family physician gave him a discarded anatomy book and as Joe put it, "I learned every page, every part of the body; I would move each part as I memorized it". He studied both the Eastern and Western forms of exercise including yoga.
By the time he was 14 he had developed his body to the point that he was modeling for anatomy charts. He went on to achieve some success as a boxer and a gymnast in addition to being a skilled skier and diver.

In 1912, he went to England for further training as a boxer and found employment there as a circus performer. By 1914, he had become a star and toured England with his troupe. He and his brother were performing a Greek statue act! But later that year, WWI broke out and he was interned along with other German nationals in a camp for enemy aliens in Lancaster. There he taught fellow camp members the concepts and exercises developed over 20 years of self-study and apprenticeship in yoga, Zen, and ancient Greek and Roman physical regimens. It was at this time that he began devising the system of original exercises known today as "matwork", or exercises done on the floor. He called this regimen "Contrology."

A few years later, he was transferred to another camp on the Isle of Man, where he became a nurse/caretaker to the many internees struck with wartime disease and physical injury. Here, he began devising equipment to rehabilitate his "patients," taking springs from the beds and rigging them to create spring resistance and movement for the bedridden.
In 1918, a terrible epidemic of influenza swept the world, killing millions of people - tens of thousands in England. Allegedly, none of Joe's followers succumbed even though the camps were the hardest hit.

After the war, Joe returned to Germany and began training the Hamburg Military Police in self-defense and physical training as well as taking on private clients.
It was at this time that he met Rudolf Von Laban, a famous movement analyst, who is said to have incorporated some of Joe's theories and exercises into his own work. Mary Wigman, a famous German dancer and choreographer was a student of Joe's and used his exercises in her dance class warm-up.
By 1925, unhappy with the political climate in Germany he decided to leave and go to America. It was on this trip that Joe met Clara who was to become his wife and partner.

Upon arriving in New York City in 1926, they opened a gym at 939 Eight Ave. in the same building as several dance studios and rehearsal spaces. This proximity enabled "Contrology" to become an intrinsic part of many dancers training and rehab work. George Balanchine, the famous Ballet choreographer, studied with Joe and sent many of his dancers to Joes to be "fixed" for strengthening and balancing as well as rehabilitation.

From 1939 to 1951, Joe and Clara attended Jacob's Pillow every summer; a well-known dance camp in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. He was a friend and a teacher to such renowned dancer choreographers as Ted Shawn, Ruth St. Denis, Martha Graham and Jerome Robbins and many others who required their dancers to go to Joe. Both Hanya Holm and Martha Graham incorporated Joe's exercises into their student's lessons.

Although Joe Pilates was ahead of his time as a health guru, he strongly believed in fitness supporting life's riches. Joe was renowned for liking cigars, whiskey, and women... and was to be seen running on Manhattan streets (or anywhere for that matter) in the dead of winter in his signature Speedo!

In January 1966, there was a fire in their building. In an effort to try and save anything possible, the 86 year old Joe fell through the burnt out floorboards, hanging by his hands from a beam for quite some time until rescued by firefighters. It was assumed that this incident directly led to his death in 1967. Afterwards, Clara, regarded by many as the more patient teacher, continued to teach and run the studio until her death 10 years later in 1977.

While Joe was the outspoken force behind his method, his wife Clara, a trained nurse, quietly incorporated his concepts and exercises in ways that benefited more seriously ill or injured clients. Her approachable style and special techniques spawned a dedicated lineage of teachers whose work flows through and uniquely colors the landscape of the Pilates method today. It is perhaps because of Clara that Pilates is clearly recognized as a positive form of movement-based exercise that truly can be tailored to any level of not just fitness, but also of health.