The History of Pilates


Pilates is a relatively recent trend, but its roots originate over 100 years ago. The Pilates Method, originally called “Contrology,” was developed by Joseph Pilates and crafted throughout his life.

Joseph Pilates was born in 1880 outside of a small town near Dussledorf, Germany. He was born into a life of illness, suffering from asthma, rickets, and rheumatic fever throughout his youth.  These ailments played into his obsessive exploration of the human bodies potential for natural health through exercise and movement.

Pilates spent his time studying anatomy texts, animal movement, and his own body, determined to understand the body’s optimal functioning state. By the age of 14 he had not only cured himself of his diseases, but had achieved such physical perfection that he was posing for anatomical charts.

Joseph Pilates in his younger years

Joseph Pilates in his younger years


Joseph Pilates physical pursuits led him to become an avid athlete; participating in diving, skiing, gymnastics, and boxing. He moved to England to pursue professional boxing right before WWI broke out. Being a native German, he was put into an internment camp on The Isle of Man once the war started. While there he began leading other internees through his exercise routine to pass the time and eventually started working with the doctors at the camp to help rehabilitate disabled and injured camp members. He modified hospital beds with pulleys, straps, and springs to aid him in assisting his patients through movements; these systems were the beginning of the Pilates equipment we know today.

After the war Joe came back to Germany and settled in Hamburg where he started training the local police officers. His success made him a bit of a celebrity in Germany and drew the attention of Hitler and his army. When he was invited to start training the German army he decided it was time to take his work elsewhere and immigrated to America. On the boat ride over to New York he met his future wife, Clara. They started a movement studio together in 1926 on 8th Avenue in NYC. The building was shared with other New York dance organizations such as the NYC Ballet and he quickly became involved in the dance scene. During that time sports medicine was fairly non-existent and Pilates “Contrology” was one of the only non-surgical treatments available for injuries. Dancers would come to Joe for help not only in cross training for dance but also rehabilitating injuries.

Pilates continued to teach and promote his methods into the late 1960s, teaching socialites such as Katherine Hepburn and famous dancers such as Martha Graham. During this time he wrote “Return to Life,” his manifesto of his work describing his method and prescribing specific movements for optimal health. In 1966 a fire broke out in the studio, and when Pilates went to check out the damage he fell through some burnt floor boards — but even at 86 years old he managed to catch his fall and pull himself back to safety. He boasted impeccable health until his death at age 87, as a result of smoke inhalation complications from the fire. Clara continued to teach until her retirement in 1971, passing the studio along to their trusted friend and student Romana Kryzanowska.

In 1980 the Pilates method went to court because some of Joe’s students wanted the name to be trademarked. Our legal system came to a decision in October of 2000, ruling that “Pilates was an exercise technique (like Yoga) and cannot be restricted by a single entity.” The result was an influx of the Pilates name into the public community and the freedom to teach and practice the method. This has been great for the promotion and exposure of Pilates, but has also lead to some less than authentic instruction of the techniques. The true method lived on in some of Joe and Clara’s longtime students, including Romana, Caroloa Trier, Eve Gentry, Kathy Grant, and Ron Fletcher.

Joseph created something truly influential, a way of moving that can enhance our very quality of life. It’s exciting to see Pilates ideas live on and thrive in our modern world, continually spreading to influence more and more lives. In 2010 CNBC declared Pilates as the fastest growing fitness program with about 8.6 million participants.

I hope to continue to help these ideas spread, educating individuals on authentic classical methods through quality instruction at Streamline.

Rachel Krahenbuhl