Biography of Joseph Pilates, Exercise Pioneer

Joseph Pilates

I C Rapoport / Archive Photos / Getty Images

German-born Joseph Pilates was living in England and working as a circus performer and boxer when he was placed in forced internment in England at the outbreak of World War I. While in the internment camp, he began to develop the floor exercises that evolved into what we now know as Pilates mat work.

As time went by, Joseph Pilates began rehabilitating detainees who were suffering from diseases and injuries. It was invention born of necessity that inspired him to utilize items that were available to him, like bed springs and beer keg rings, to create resistance exercise equipment for his patients. These were the unlikely beginnings of the equipment we use today, like the reformer and the magic circle.

Interest in Fitness

Joseph Pilates developed his work from a strong personal experience in fitness. Unhealthy as a child, he studied many kinds of self-improvement systems. He drew from Eastern practices and Zen Buddhism. He was inspired by the ancient Greek ideal of man perfected in the development of body, mind, and spirit. On his way to developing the Pilates Method, Joseph Pilates studied anatomy and developed himself as a bodybuilder, wrestler, gymnast, boxer, skier, and diver.

Journey to NYC

After WWI, Joseph Pilates briefly returned to Germany, where his reputation as a physical trainer and healer preceded him. In Germany, he worked briefly for the Hamburg military police in self-defense and physical training. In 1925, he was asked to train the German army. Instead, he packed his bags and took a boat to New York City.

On the boat to America, Joseph met Clara, a nurse, who would become his wife. He went on to establish his studio in New York, and Clara worked with him as he evolved the Pilates method of exercise, invented the Pilates exercise equipment, and trained students.

Teaching His Technique

Joseph Pilates taught in New York from 1926 to 1966. During that time, he trained a number of students who not only applied his work to their own lives but became teachers of the Pilates method themselves. This first generation of teachers who trained directly with Joseph Pilates is often referred to as the Pilates Elders.

Some committed themselves to pass along Joseph Pilates's work exactly as he taught it. This approach is called “classical style” Pilates. Other students went on to integrate what they learned with their own philosophies and research in anatomy and exercise sciences.

Pilates and Dancers

Joseph Pilates' New York studio put him in close proximity to a number of dance studios, which led to his discovery by the dance community. Many dancers and well-known persons of New York depended on the Pilates method of training for the strength and grace it developed in the practitioner, as well as for its rehabilitative effects. Dancers and elite athletes kept Joseph Pilates' work alive until exercise science caught up with the Pilates exercise principles in the 1980s, leading the surge of interest in Pilates that we have today.


Joseph Pilates passed away in 1967. He maintained a fit physique throughout his life, and many photos show that he was in a remarkable physical condition in his older years. He is also said to have had a flamboyant personality. He smoked cigars, liked to party, and wore his exercise briefs wherever he wanted (even on the streets of New York). It is said that he was an intimidating, though deeply committed, instructor.

Clara Pilates continued to teach and run the studio for another 10 years after Joseph Pilates' death. Today, Joseph Pilates' legacy is carried on by the Pilates Elders, and by a large group of contemporary teachers.


Joseph Pilates called his work Contrology. He defined Contrology as “the comprehensive integration of body, mind, and spirit.” He authored two books:

  • "Return to Life through Contrology" (1945) with William J. Miller. This short book has 93 pages, with most being illustrations for 34 mat exercises. But in it, he conveys the breadth and power of the Pilates method philosophy and technique for whole-body health.
  • "Your Health: A Corrective System of Exercising That Revolutionizes the Entire Field of Physical Education" (1934).

By Marguerite Ogle MS, RYT
Marguerite Ogle is a freelance writer and experienced natural wellness and life coach, who has been teaching Pilates for more than 35 years.