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Joseph Pilates teaching at the Tea Garden of Jacob’s Pillow

Pilates History - my fave bits

exercises healthy living history pilates

Let’s Talk About Joe because he's The Man behind the Method!

I'm writing this in March which is when the world-wide Pilates community celebrates the original 34 mat exercises that Joseph H. Pilates developed and laid out in his manifesto from 1945, Return To Life.

Each day of the month is a showcase for one exercise (or as needed two - 31 days/34 exercises), bringing attention to the man who started preaching about full-bodied health almost 100 years ago - it’s called March MATness!

With that in mind I’d love to share a brief history of Mr. Pilates although with a couple of caveats:

1. Pilates was a master marketer so there is a lot of mythology surrounding him and I’m not claiming all of these points as 100% fact🙄

2. This is by no means a complete telling of his life but some of my favourite highlights🤗



-Was born in Monchengladbach, Germany in 1883.

-Was a sickly kid with asthma, rickets, and rheumatic fever, he rehabbed himself and evidently by the age of 14 was posing for anatomical posters💪

-Apprenticed under a medical Dr. as a teenager as well as studied animal movements eventually incorporating some of his observations (and exercise names) into his work - seal, crab, elephant, & frog. (swan is named after a swan dive, not the animal, btw)🦀 🐘 🐸 🦢

-Became a teacher of “physical culture” which advocated health by encouraging exercise, athletic excellence, and mental discipline.

-Went to England in 1913 as a circus performer (some say he and his brother had a strong man act) and because he was there when the First World War broke out was interned with other “enemy aliens” in a camp on the Isle of Man.

-Was one of several physical culture instructors who taught daily exercises to the 24,000 detainees and Pilates perpetuated the assertion that no one in his group got sick from the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic.

-Returned to Germany in 1919, refined his ideas and called his work corrective exercise later naming it Contrology.

-Was then recruited to teach the German military police but saw the writing on the wall regarding the Nazis and emigrated to the USA in 1926.

-Met his future wife Clara on the voyage over - she was a kindergarten teacher who later helped him run his studio. 

-Opened a studio in the same building that housed New York City Ballet. He taught many dancers who were sent to “Uncle Joe” for injury rehab.

-Taught at Jacobs Pillow, a summer dance festival, for some of the years between 1941 and the mid 50’s. The years weren’t continuous because he and Ted Shawn who ran Jacob’s Pillow fell out a couple of times . When he was there he ran group classes, offered ‘corrective movement’ sessions, and refined his 34 Matwork exercises. The cover photo for the blog is from there and check out this  fabulous interview, courtesy of Pilatesology, is with Norton Owen, the archivist at the Pillow. 

-Held numerous patents for equipment that besides the best known, The Universal Reformer, includes: The Trapeze Table (aka the Cadillac), Wunda Chair (one of my faves) Ladder Barrel, Magic Circle (made from the steel rings from the wooden barrels that his beer was delivered in), Foot Corrector, Ped-O-Pull (made for an opera singer that he thought didn’t breathe well), Head Harness, Toe and Finger Correctors, Spine Corrector (another one I love) and Guillotine. There was even a patent for a folding bed!

-Always wanted the medical community to recognise his work and felt like they had too narrow of a position on ‘normal health’ and didn’t give his work the respect it deserved.

-Was a bit of a hard ass! I.C. Rapoport, was a photojournalist who chronicles his first meeting with Pilates HERE.

-Died in 1967 at the age of 83.

-Stated he was “50 years ahead of his time”🙌🙌🙌


I am continually inspired by the man behind the method and I’ll leave this discussion with a couple of his quotes from Return To Life that I think are still pertinent:



Thanks for reading 

Be well,


cover/social photo: Jacob’s Pillow archives, patent photo public domain?🤞 I could find no attribution.


The information contained above is provided for information purposes only. The contents of this blog are not intended to amount to advice and Rebecca Forde disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on any of the contents of this post

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