Joseph Pilates in His Early Years

Ethel Gonzales

Who was Joseph Hubertus Pilates? While millions of people do Pilates exercises everyday, most do not even know that Pilates was a person, let alone an extremely interesting and colorful personality who was at the leading edge of exercise science. It is interesting not only to hear about his life story, but also to explore his story in the context of the important social and political events of his time, as they all impacted his life and work. Of course, most of what we know came from Joseph Pilates himself, so the veracity of some of his claims is questionable.

Joe Pilates was born in 1880 in Moenchengladbach, a town near Dusseldorf, Germany to a gymnast father and a naturopathic physician mother. Moenchengladbach, located in West-Central Germany, was a center of industry and production, specifically cotton textiles. Pilates was a frail and sickly child who suffered from rickets, rheumatic fever, and asthma. Other children constantly made fun of both his name (they called him “Christ killer”) and his frailty, and Joe was too weak and skinny to ever fight back. He resolved to get stronger in his breathing and his movements so that he could defend himself.

One day Joe’s doctor gave him an anatomy book, and the seeds of Contrology were sewn. Of this book Pilates said, “I learned every page, every part of the body I would move each part as I memorized it. As a child, I would lie in the woods for hours, hiding and watching the animals move, how the mother taught the young.” While attending school and studying history, philosophy, and engineering, Pilates also studied Eastern and Western forms of exercise. The young Joe sent for more books and haunted the University libraries in Dusseldorf. The more he learned the more questions he had. He tried yoga, Buddhist meditation, and ancient Greek and Roman gymnastic exercises, and kept meticulous written records of what the exercises did for him and how he progressed. Pilates held fast to the ancient Roman credo “Mens sana in corpore sano (A sound mind in a sound body).” By the time he turned 14 he was not only strong enough to be considered an accomplished skin diver, gymnast, boxer, and skier, he also modeled for anatomy charts.

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