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Who is Joseph Pilates ?

Pilates has become a household name to anyone who is interested in their health and fitness, yet; I realized after a conversation the other day, how little is still known about the origins and indeed about the incredible and inspirational man behind it, Joseph Pilates.


I discovered Pilates nearly thirty years ago, while looking to help myself with recurring back pain from an injury in the twenties. I have been teaching fitness for thirty years and Pilates for twenty years. While watching how Fitness has changed in that period, Pilates' philosophy is having a big resurgence. He knew we move as an interconnected being. Nothing is isolated. He truly was an incredible man that has helped and changed many thousands of peoples lives.



Grab yourself a drink get comfortable and enjoy the read...


Joe was born in Mönchengladbach (small town near Düsseldorf, Germany), on December 9th 1883. He was a sickly thin child with Rickets, Asthma and rheumatic fever. Doctors said his life expectancy would be short. He was bullied as a child and lost his left eye due to being beaten with a stone at the age of five.

History of Pilates
Joseph Pilates at 82 years old.

His father was a prize winning gymnast, his mother helped at the local gym and with a keen interest in naturapathy using her knowledge to help her son as best as she could.


Naturopathy, or Nature Cure, is underpinned by a fundamental principle – vis medicatrix naturae -the body's natural ability to heal itself.

Harmony was fostered with proper nutrition, water treatments, rest, sunshine and fasting. Medicine, religion and science were intimately related and man was seen as a whole – a physical, mental, emotional and spiritual being.


It is apparent of his parents influence on his life's work and his dedication to his own health.


''A family physician gave him a discarded anatomy book: "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." He studied both Eastern and Western forms of exercise including yoga, Zen, and ancient Greek and Roman regimens. By the time he was 14 he had developed his body to the point that he was modelling for anatomy charts!''


He grew up as a successful gymnast, skier, boxer and diver! By 1912 he had moved to England and joined the circus in Blackpool and performed as a Roman Gladiator act and went on to also help train England's Scotland Yard but as WW1 broke out he was interned along with other German nationals in a "camp" for enemy aliens in Lancaster. From there he was moved onto the Isle of Man.


''Amid the anonymity of the camp, one of the men, Internee #14001 J. Pilatus, might have stood out that day. ...''Lithe and broad-chested, he moved with notable athleticism. His physique possessed artistic beauty, as if a Michelangelo sculpture had up and left Rome.''

For Pilates, confinement paradoxically offered a kind of liberation. As the War raged on, months gave way to years, Pilates explored a question that he had pondered since childhood: Could he reimagine the capabilities of the human body through an anatomically based method of training, taking inspiration from scientific treatises, the carefree movement of children, and the dexterous ease of cats? ''



This was to be his leading focus for the rest of his life; studying movement for optimal health and vitality. This natural organic way of moving for strength, agility and using movement as medicine has seen a regrowth of interest for the last two decades in the mainstream fitness industry. It has become more well known as primal movement or sometimes functional fitness. It is exciting to see how far this has developed, I am sure Joseph Pilates would have been thrilled to see this entering into more widespread knowledge.


Ironically in the the most part of the 20th century fitness was doing the opposite of that approach. Gyms started to loose their 'gymnastics or gymnasium' origins and with it the range of equipment. Machines started to arrive, with a fixed range. Think of the biceps curl, or a hamstring curl machine. Most of this fixed equipment appeared after physiotherapists had been working on patients with Polio for so long. The machines were developed for isolation of muscle groups for therapy of Polio. The popularity of these machines in gyms still continues today, partly due to its ease of use and safety aspect. Its simplistic and basic. It dumbs down the incredible complexity and intelligence of the human form. It makes us move like a simple machine. The machine means the person works in a fixed 2D range, this is incredibly limiting in its functional application of day to day optimal movement and living.


During his time in the Isle of man he became something of a nurse/physiotherapist and worked with many internees suffering from illness and incarceration.

The origins of the Trapezium table (Trap Table)

He was told, "you can do anything you like with them, as long as they stay in bed". So Joseph took the springs from the beds and rigged them up to the bed posts as exercise apparatus for the bedridden!

Joseph is said to have said that when the 1918 flu epidemic swept the world, none of his followers on the Isle of Man succumbed!

Pilates' powerful and revolutionary approach to life enhancing therapeutic exercise, he called "Contrology", and explained it in his book "Return to Life through Controlology".


After WW1 Joe returned to Germany and began training the Hamburg Military Police in self-defence and physical training as well as taking on personal clients. In 1923 Pilates was invited to train the New German Army but because he was not happy with the political direction of Germany he decided to leave. Between WW1 and 2 he travelled to USA twice, the second time he met his companion for life, Anna Clara Zuener arriving in New York, April 27th 1926.


Upon arriving Joseph "took over a boxing gym at 939 Eighth Ave" alongside several dance studios and rehearsal spaces. In the Pilates biography, 1926 until 1966 were the golden years.

The 'Pilates Elders' (the handful of people who trained directly in the first NY Studio) talk of Clara being the nurturing force behind the man; Clara established the tradition of evolving and adapting the Pilates method to suit the individual needs of clients.


It is reported that not much was spoken in the original studio, Whether this was due to Joe not speaking much English is unsure, however; this is very much a way of deeply embodying a movement practice. Joe and Clara relied heavily on hands-on corrections to teach the method. "They wouldn't talk, they would sculpt you" is how Pilates Elder Mary Bowen describes being in the studio. At the ENERGYBODi Studio we prefer to be hands on. I myself with decades of being a bodyworker, osteopath and originally as an artist can really relate to they description of 'sculpting you'. There is greater awareness, respect and caution nowadays and consent to touch is always a priority with our participants so we will always ask. Our hands on approach is one we are proud of to continue this tradition.



Joseph Pilates introduced one of the most consequential revolutions in exercise since yoga, overcoming toxic trends characteristic of the burgeoning 20th century fitness culture,

He did not offer clients the bulging muscles of icons, nor did he indulge the commercialized obsession with idealized, beach-ready physiques.


In fact, he did the opposite, seeking to provide everyone, from office workers to ballerinas, with a life of greater motion and bodily rhythm.

His motto —

Mens sana in corpore sano,” or

“A sane mind in a sound body”

came from the ancient Athenians.



We can not isolate our health to one part. It is not effective, or possible to isolate a muscle in an exercise, nor isolate the mind from our body or isolate our wellbeing from our enviroment around us. Yes we can focus in on it, but not separate it.


I remember a story a gifted percussionist told me of a time he had badly injured a tendon in his little finger. It was winter and snow on the ground and a friends car had broke down. They were all pushing the car and asked him to help. He was explaining that he couldn't help due to his little finger. Even by leaning into the car with his shoulder his whole body would have engaged to take the strain, including his little finger. I don't remember if he told me the response of the other guys in the group, but I do remember being really struck at the understanding of our wholeness, how one thing will always have a effect on something else.


When we stop breaking things down into sections and body parts, mind from body, body from our environment, our surroundings, from others; is when we truly begin to live in the interconnectedness, to restore health to ourselves and our planet.


Remember every little movement, every thought, every gesture creates a change.

Create change with awareness.

Your sense of self and your emotions change in accordance to

your movement and posture.

Your health, mentally and emotionally as well as physically,

grows out of moving.

Your cognition is highly influenced by your posture.

New ways of moving creates new ways of

thinking, feeling and perceiving the world.


We welcome you to join us at

























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Great post. I've have really appreciated how at ENERGYBODi you focus on the whole body. I've been coming regularly for 6years+ and long term problems with hip and ankle have been vastly improved. I know this because when I stop coming for a while they come back! Keep up the good work, it is life-improving. 😊

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theomm.mike
theomm.mike
Jan 03, 2022

Great story, which makes live sessions with Energgybodi even more important.

Germany has a long history of gymnastics and the german climbing association DAV had a gymnastics (Turner) section before 1900 and this contributed to very high standards of rock climbing. The Sektion Turner was large enough even to fund setting up some alpine huts, which were located close to pure rock climbing areas rather than the usual location within a days reach of an alpine summit. British climbers didn’t start training for climbing until the 1980s and then standards in uk rocketed.

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