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The Origin of Pilates

Pilates has grown increasingly popular over time and is widely known in the health and fitness community. However, it comes from humble beginnings; a passionate person who wanted to explore moving intelligently through breathwork, awareness, and muscle engagement.

Joseph Pilates

The movement method is named after its creator, Joseph H. Pilates, who was born in Mönchengladbach, Germany in 1883. As a child, he struggled with poor health including ailments such as asthma, rickets, and rheumatic fever. Influenced by his father who was an avid gymnast, he sought to achieve a healthier life for himself by observing and learning about various exercise mechanisms. His tenacity led to him becoming a gymnast, skier, and self-defense instructor. 

In 1913, he traveled to England to work as a circus performer. When World War I erupted, he was interned there as an “alien enemy” along with the other German men. During this time his curiosity persisted as he trained his fellow internees his movement practices and built upon his ideas. 

Joseph worked with bedridden soldiers and added springs to their hospital beds to better support their lack of mobility. This would later inspire his apparatus invention, also known as the Reformer, and other Pilates devices that assist alignment, enhance movement, and create versatility.

“Here we have Joseph Pilates training a student on Pilates equipment (Source).

When Joseph was released from England, he returned to Germany where he spent time working as a boxer and trainer. This was also when he began his long-time respected relationship with the dance community by working with Rudolf von Laban, a dance pioneer.

With the potential of another war approaching, Joseph moved to the U.S. in 1926.  He met his wife, Clara Zeuner, and together they opened a studio in New York City to share his expertise and teach his “Contrology” method. Having spent years obtaining knowledge and experience, his finely tuned exercise system quickly gained popularity in the New York dance circle. It’s focus on core strength, balance, posture, and injury recovery appealed to the highly dedicated dancers. 

Many dance legends visited and recommended Joseph’s studio such as George Balanchine, Martha Graham, Ruth St. Denis, Jerome Robbins, and Ted Shawn. The support from these respected pillars of the dance community reflected the effectiveness of the practice.

Sharing His Legacy

Joseph began documenting and preserving his method through writing books such as “Your Health: A Corrective System of Exercising That Revolutionizes the Entire Field of Physical Education” (1934) and “Return to Life through Contrology” (1945). He dove into his ideologies, continued to develop Pilates equipment, and teach his committed pupils his movement philosophy. 

The Elders

Two of Joseph’s students, Carola Trier and Bob Seed, opened their own studios while he was still living. While one of his protogés, Romana Kryzanowska, was an assistant teacher at his studio, learning how to guide and adjust students.

Joseph continued to teach his method until he passed away at the age of 83 in 1967. Clara Pilates, their dedicated students, and his writings carried on his legacy. Some of the other original students such as Ron Fletcher, Kathy Grant, Lolita San Miguel, Eve Gentry, Bruce King, Robert Fitzgerald, and Mary Bowen also went on to teach. This first generation, also known as The Elders, influenced and expanded the Pilates reach, sharing Joseph’s vision.


In the 1970’s, Ron Fletcher opened his studio in Beverly Hills. This drew the attention of Hollywood celebrities. By the 1980’s the mainstream media caught on, the method became a new sought-after workout, and over time Pilates became more accessible. 

“Here we have two women perform Pilates exercises as a trainer guides them.”

The fitness world embraced the movement and the medical field became less skeptical, researching and sharing the benefits of the exercise. Soon a variety of athletes, fitness enthusiasts, and rehabilitative movers were taking advantage of the adaptive workout.

Pilates is still one of the most popular, ever-growing workouts today. While new ideas, equipment, and philosophies have emerged, Joseph Pilates has remained the backbone of this ingenious workout. His innovation and cutting-edge movement has left a mark on the fitness community forever.