Back to Basics: How and Why Did Joseph Pilates Create Contrology?

Schiller - “It is the mind itself which builds the body”

Ever wonder where the funky machinery, unique exercises, and weird name ‘Pilates’ came from? All originated from a man named Joseph Pilates. And there’s a reason Pilates isn’t your average workout: Joseph Pilates wasn’t your average guy.

Joseph was born in Germany in 1883. Growing up, he suffered from asthma, rickets, and rheumatic fever, and it’s rumored he was bullied. Some accounts report that he was actually blinded in his left eye from a particularly brutal encounter with a bully. Because he was small and physically weak from illness, he couldn’t fight back to defend himself. These adversities are exactly what inspired him to develop his body to be as strong and healthy as possible.

Joseph became interested in anatomy and explored every form of physical exercise he could access: yoga, martial arts, skiing, boxing, gymnastics...the list goes on. Photos of him show a truly fit man; by age 14 he was reportedly modeling for anatomy charts because of his exemplary physique!

Meanwhile, Joseph explored many eastern wellness practices including tai chi and meditation. He saw the power of a calm mind, and found that conditioning his body with physical activity allowed him to remain in better overall health and mental wellness. Wanting to share what he learned with others, he began developing his unique brand of physical activity, a form he would later name ‘Contrology.’ The form is know known as Pilates.

In 1912 Pilates moved to England for further training as a boxer, and ended up travelling England performing with a circus. At the outbreak of World War I, Pilates was interned as an “enemy alien” with other German nationals. During his internment, Joe refined his ideas and trained other internees in his system of exercise. He rigged springs to hospital beds, enabling bedridden patients to exercise against resistance. In 1918, an influenza outbreak killed thousands, but it’s rumored that not one of the patients Joseph worked with died. He attributes this to the effectiveness of his method.

Joseph found the rigging of springs to hospital beds so beneficial that he improved the design to create the Pilates Reformer. When he moved to New York in 1926, he had several Reformers made and opened the first Pilates studio with his wife, Clara. The space was in the same building as the New York City Ballet (by no accident).

With dancers as his bread and butter clientele, Pilates’ success reached new heights. Dancers sought him out to recover from injuries and prevent new ones as well as build strength and increase control. Word spread throughout the dance community; he worked with world-renowned dancers such as Martha Graham and George Balanchine. It wasn’t long before Joseph’s students began to closely study his method so they could teach Pilates as well.  To a certain extend Joseph Pilates was using his method as “Physical Therapy” before Physical Therapy was respected by the medical profession.

When Joseph died in 1967, he left no direction for how he wanted Pilates to continue. A small group of his students continued to study and teach around the US, each developing their own version of Pilates with unique twists on style, breathing, and equipment. These are now known as the Pilates “Elders,” or first generation Pilates instructors.

One member of this group, Ron Fletcher, went on to open a studio in Los Angeles where he attracted Hollywood clientele (and developed the Fletcher method). Popularity of Pilates among movie stars caused a spike of interest in the general population, but it wasn’t until the early 2000’s that Pilates took off in the way Joseph had imagined.

Now, with studios in every major city in the US and Reformers in gyms and physical therapy offices around the world, Pilates has become a household name, offering people a sustainable way to maintain mobility, strength, and balance for life.


Ali Weeks