Joseph Hubertus Pilates was born on December 9, 1883, in Mönchengladbach (near Düsseldorf), Germany. His father, a native of Greece, had been a prize-winning gymnast, while his German-born mother was a naturopath who believed in the principle of stimulating the body to heal itself without artificial drugs. No doubt his mother's healing philosophy and father's physical achievements greatly influenced Pilates' later ideas on therapeutic exercise.
Small and sickly as a child, he was afflicted with asthma, rickets, and rheumatic fever, and was continually taunted by the bigger children. He quickly became determined to overcome his physical disadvantages. Thereupon young Joseph began to self-educate himself in anatomy, bodybuilding, wrestling, yoga, gymnastics, and martial arts. He soon achieved an almost Adonis-like "anatomical ideal," to the extent that at the age of 14 he was posing as a model for anatomy charts. He was also an accomplished boxer, skier, and diver.
His answer to these problems was to design a unique series of vigorous physical exercises that help to correct muscular imbalances and improve posture, coordination, balance, strength, and flexibility, as well as to increase breathing capacity and organ function. He also invented a variety of machines, based on spring-resistance, that could be used to perform these exercises.
There is a famous story about Pilates' inspiration for his unique apparatus. Before World War I. He was touring England as a circus performer and professional boxer, and even teaching self-defence to the Scotland Yard police force. But when war broke out, he found himself interned in England as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man.
The health conditions in the internment camps were not great, but Pilates insisted that everyone in his cell block participate in daily exercise routines to help maintain both their physical and mental well-being. However, some of the injured German soldiers were too weak to get out of bed.
Not content to leave his comrades lying idle, Pilates took springs from the beds and attached them to the headboards and footboards of the iron bed frames, turning them into equipment that provided a type of resistance exercise for his bedridden "patients."These mechanized beds were the forerunners of the spring-based exercise machines, such as the Cadillac and the Universal Reformer, for which the Pilates method is known today.
Pilates legend has it that during the great flu epidemic of 1918, not a single one of the soldiers under his care died. He credited his technique (which he called "Contrology") for the prisoners' strength and fitness — remarkable under the less than optimum living conditions of internment camps, which were hit especially hard by this deadly flu.
After the war Pilates returned to Germany, where he worked for a few years training police officers and collaborating with dancers and other experts in physical exercise.
However, around 1925 he decided to emigrate to the United States. He met his future wife and dedicated teaching partner, Clara, on the boat to New York City. Together they opened the first Body Contrology Studio on Eighth Avenue at 56th Street in Manhattan, in the same building as a number of dance studios.
For the rest of his life, he continued to develop his exercise system and to create new pieces of equipment for it. In this task, he was evidently not only inventive but also resourceful. It is said that his first Barrel was constructed from a beer keg, and he used the metal hoops from the keg to make his first Magic Circle.