Joseph Pilates was an extraordinary character. Growing up in Dusseldorf in the 1880s, he suffered severe attacks of asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever which left him with a stunted bone structure and twisted limbs. Rather than accept the limitations of his body, he decided to overcome them, and he worked systematically and tirelessly to create a system of exercises that would correct his disabilities. These formed the basis of his renowned matwork exercises, which he called ‘The Art of Contrology’.
During World War I, he had a chance to develop his system further while he was working with fellow ‘enemy aliens’ interred in a camp on the Isle of Man. He helped them to regain mobility while lying in bed by supporting their damaged limbs with bedsprings attached to the bedframe, so they could move safely and keep their muscles toned. These early mechanisms were the prototype of the machines you find in Pilates studios today. In 1926, Pilates moved to New York and celebrity clients like dancer Martha Graham and choreographer George Balanchine became regulars at his studio. Before his death in 1967, he had trained several other instructors to teach his method, ensuring that it would continue to develop and gain popularity in the succeeding decades.
The boy with the twisted body trained himself to be a boxer, circus acrobat, gymnast, diver, skier and self-defence instructor, but the most important legacy he left to the world was a revolutionary approach to exercise that allows anyone to achieve the very best body they can. No matter what your starting point, Pilates puts the power to create improvements in your own hands.