Pilates History

Pilates: One man’s vision, generations of commitment and a healthier life for all.

Joseph Pilates was born in a small town outside of Dusseldorf, Germany in the late 1800’s. As a small child Joseph struggled with a variety of illnesses including rickets, asthma and rheumatic fever. Determined to heal himself, he turned to physical fitness. From studying various forms of exercise to observing the movement patterns of animals, at a young age, Joseph was intrigued by the connection between the mind, body and spirit.

In 1912, Joseph left Germany for England. When the WWI broke out in 1914, Joseph was placed in an interment camp for enemy aliens. As WWI continued, Joseph started using his knowledge of movement and exercise to rehab others. He would pull springs from beds and create exercise equipment to help others return to life. His gift didn’t stop there. After the war Pilates returned to Germany where he trained the Hamburg Military Police in self-defense and, on the side, continued his journey to better understand movement and exercise theories.

In 1926, Joseph and his wife, Clara, moved to New York City, where he opened his first studio on Eighth Avenue. Through word of mouth, the business grew quickly. Clients came in all shapes, sizes and walks of life, including dancers, socialites, actors, doctors, students and your everyday Wall Street businessman. Throughout the years, Pilates remained dedicated to his client, his studio and his method of exercise, which he then called “Contrology”. From selling his equipment at Macy’s to advocating for larger adoption of his exercise method through the US educational systems, his passion was endless.

“Self-confidence, poise, consciousness of possessing the power to accomplish our desires with renewed lively interest in life are the natural results of the practice of Contrology (Pilates).”

~ Joseph H. Pilates

In 1966 a fire broke out in the Eight Avenue studio and Joseph fell through the floorboards, hanging from a beam until firefighters came to the rescue. His death in October 1967 is sometimes attributed to the amount of smoke that he inhaled as a result of the fire.

Following Joseph’s death, Clara and first generation teachers continued on the legend that Joseph created, sharing his gift to a broader audience around the country. Joseph always said he work was “50 years ahead of his time” and, now decades later, Pilates has become a widely sought out form of exercise to increase strength, flexibility and and overall quality of life. While Pilates has taken on many forms in the modern day, classical Pilates studios, like Bird On A Perch stay true to Joseph’s original vision and are dedicated to carrying on his work for many years to come.