The Unique History Of Pilates

Joseph pilates on ladder barrel doing backbend

The Unique Legacy Of Joseph Pilates

“I was forty years too soon. The world will catch up.”

-Joseph Pilates

Joseph Hubertus Pilates was born in Monchengladbach, Germany on December 9, 1883. His father, a metal worker and avid gymnast, introduced Joe to exercise and physical training.

Young statuesque joseph pilates
Young Statuesque Joseph Pilates

In 1913, Joseph, then working as a brewer’s assistant, moved to England. It is unclear how he made the journey as there are no records or ship manifests documenting his trip. The generally accepted story is that he worked as a circus performer and a boxer in England during this time, though there is little evidence to support this.

In 1915, during World War I, Joe was arrested as a civilian and imprisoned in Knockaloe Farm, an internment camp on a small island off the eastern coast of Great Britain called the Isle of Man. It is also possible that he was a combatant and captured as a prisoner of war, as some of the circumstances of his imprisonment seem to suggest and which would explain how he got to England without documentation. While these details of Pilates’ life remain a mystery, it is almost certainly during his five years of imprisonment that Joseph Pilates created his exercise system, which he called Contrology, a term Pilates created to describe the complete coordination of body, mind and spirit that could be developed through practicing his method.

Another widely dispersed narrative in the history of Pilates is that the technique was developed while Joseph Pilates helped fellow prisoners recover from a cholera outbreak in the camp and that Pilates used springs from the hospital beds to make exercise equipment for bed-ridden inmates. However, there is no record of a cholera outbreak on the Isle of Man during this time. John Howard Steel, a lawyer and client of Joseph Pilates’ in the 1960s, has written a book chronicling his friendship with Pilates and of how he and a small group of Joseph’s clients helped Pilates’ technique to carry on after he died. In his book, Caged Lion: Joseph Pilates and his Legacy , Steel writes of the missing documentation of the cholera outbreak and also brings to light that springs were not used on beds in the early 1900s and would certainly not have been used on prison cots. Steel also includes a diagram Joseph Pilates included in his patent application for the Reformer, which he submitted in 1926 after arriving in the United States. There is not a single spring in the drawing. Instead, the machine uses weights and a rope and pulley system to create resistance.

Joseph pilates standing reformer
Joseph Pilates Standing on a Reformer

In 1926, Joseph Pilates traveled to New York City where he opened his body conditioning gym on Eighth Avenue in 1927 and taught Contrology, his unique method of exercise that emphasized precise muscle control. Breath control was also a very important part of Joe’s method. He believed that the lungs could be cleansed through proper deep and controlled breathing. Indeed, the six principles of Joe’s method were: Control, Breath, Centering, Concentration, Precision and Flow. These principles are the foundational elements of the instruction in most Pilates schools and studios today.

Clara and joseph pilates
Joe and Clara Pilates

Contrology became popular with the dance community and Joseph Pilates became known as the go-to expert in fixing dancers’ injuries. Pilates taught his body conditioning technique at the gym until his death in 1967. His exercise program remained largely unchanged for 40 years. In the 1940s and 1950s, some of Pilates’ clients tried to set up an organization that would help to perpetuate his method of exercise after his death. These efforts failed because Pilates had not wanted to give the group access to the intricacies of his technique. Since Pilates had not made arrangements for the longevity of his program, it was in danger of falling into obscurity; only ever practiced by a handful of devotees.

The pilates elders
Joseph Pilates at Jacob’s Film Festival Where He Taught Dance

A group of Pilates’ clients made up of entrepreneurs, fashion designers, performing artists, producers, realtors, and lawyer, John Howard Steel, kept the gym open for the next two years after Joseph’s passing. In 1970, when the prospect of keeping Joe’s legacy alive seemed very bleak, they renamed his technique Pilates and decided to move the gym to a chic and more modern space to give it new life. Fortunately, while teaching at his gym, Joe had trained several people in his method.

These people are known as the Pilates Elders. The 11 Elders include his wife, Clara Pilates, who was ever-present at the Eighth Avenue gym, assisting clients and taking care of daily responsibilities; Mary Bowen, a Jungian psychoanalyst, still teaching Pilates in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York; and Ron Fletcher a choreographer for the Ice Capades, who brought Pilates to the West Coast with his famous studio on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills. 


Most of the Elders went on to teach Pilates at their own studios and train other people in the technique. Many of today’s well-known Pilates instructors can trace their knowledge and practice back to one of the Elders.

Romana Kryzanowska, a dancer and former student of Joe’s who became the head of the new studio on Fifth Avenue and West 56th Street in 1972, is considered one of the most influential Elders in the evolution of Joe’s method. As such, she has made a significant impact on the history of Pilates.

According to John Howard Steel, “The freedom that Romana was accorded resulted in a vital change: the ability of an instructor to alter or amend or supplement or ignore sacred choreography.” Her background as a ballet dancer shaped her teaching and as a result, Joe’s original exercises morphed into a revised version of Pilates.

This revision made way for different types of Pilates, such as Stott Pilates, created in 1988 by Moira Merrithew, a dancer and former student of Romana’s. Basi Pilates, established in 1989, was created by Rael Isacowitz, a dancer and teacher who counts Romana as a main influence in his practice. There are now also many schools of Pilates that offer certification in the technique. Polestar, which combines physical therapy and Pilates; The Physical Mind Institute (the first Pilates Certifying Organization) and Balanced Body, founded by Ken Edelman, are a few of the most popular. Edelman is also the designer of hundreds of updates to Joseph Pilates’ original equipment.

Group mat pilates class elders
Joseph Pilates Teaching a Mat Class

Besides having crafted much of the Pilates equipment that is in use today, Edelman was also a key player in the 1992 lawsuit over the use of the name Pilates, which stymied the technique’s burgeoning popularity and threatened to mar Joe’s legacy. Edelman was originally a waterbed maker and created custom furniture for celebrities like Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner. He began making Pilates Reformers for Pilates Elder Ron Fletcher in the late 1970s and by 1980, stopped making furniture to only make Reformers which were much in demand by that time. Edelman was on his way to being the top manufacturer of Pilates equipment when he was sued for using the Pilates name to describe his business.

Original pilates studio eighth avenue new york city
The Original Pilates Studio in NYC

The infamous suit was brought by Sean Gallagher, a physical therapist working at an NYC gym called Drago’s, who had recently acquired the legal rights to the Pilates name. Gallagher had learned about Pilates through Romana Kryzanowska when she began teaching at Drago’s after the closure of the 56th Street studio in 1989. He hired a lawyer to send letters to anyone using the name in their teaching of the technique threatening to sue them if they did not pay him a licensing fee to use the name. Since his business depended greatly on the use of the name Pilates and he was unable to reach a compromise with Gallagher, Edelman became the lead defendant in the lawsuit, which he won in 2000. The United States District Court in Manhattan ruled that the name Pilates could not be trademarked or owned because it is a generic name used to describe a system of exercise.  This decision was a defining moment in the history of Pilates. Coming at the start of the millennium and with a boost from the rise of the Internet, Pilates was on its way to becoming the household name that it is today. Scores of celebrities, many of whom are household names themselves (Jennifer Aniston, Beyoncé , David Beckham and Gwyneth Paltrow, to name a few), began practicing Pilates, which helped give visibility to the Pilates trend. Pilates became popular as a lifestyle.

Guided by Joe’s goal of mind, body and spirit connection, for many practitioners, Pilates was not simply a method of exercise, but a whole new way of being. Instructors like Mari Windsor, who got her Pilates instructor certification from Romana Kryzanowska, became famous through marketing Pilates videotapes and DVDs that taught people how to do the technique in their homes using only an exercise mat; no specialized equipment needed. This type of Pilates, called Mat Pilates, was also a part of Pilates’ original exercise routine and is now accessible to millions worldwide as is Pilates in all its forms, just like Joseph Pilates predicted it would be over 50 years ago.

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