About Joseph Pilates

Joseph Pilates and the Beginning of Pilates

Joseph Hubertus Pilates was born in Germany in 1880 to a prize-winning gymnast father and a naturopath who believed in the principle of stimulating the body to heal without artificial drugs. Joe’s mother’s healing philosophy and father’s physical achievements greatly influenced Pilates’ developments on therapeutic exercise.


Small, sickly and afflicted with asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever as a child, Joe became determined to overcome his physical disadvantages when bigger kids bullied him. Young Joseph began to self-educate himself in anatomy, bodybuilding, wrestling, yoga, gymnastics and martial arts. He soon achieved an almost Adonis-like “anatomical ideal,” to the extent that at the age of 14 he was posing as a model for anatomy charts.

He was also an accomplished boxer, skier and diver. Joseph Pilates idolized the classical Greek man — balanced equally in body, mind, and spirit. He believed that modern lifestyles, inefficient breathing and poor posture were the primary cause of poor health. His solution became Pilates… a unique series of physical exercises designed to correct muscular imbalances and improve posture, coordination, balance, strength, flexibility and that increase breathing capacity and organ function.

Joe went to England in 1912, where he worked as a self-defense instructor for detectives at Scotland Yard. At the outbreak of World War I, Joe was interned as an enemy alien with other German nationals. During his internment, Joe refined his ideas and trained other internees in his system of exercise. He rigged springs to hospital beds, enabling bedridden patients to exercise against resistance, an innovation that led to his later equipment designs.

In 1926, Joe voyaged to the United States. During the voyage he met Clara, a kindergarten teacher suffering from arthritic pain.  Joe worked with her on the boat to heal her; this foundation led to their marriage. In New York, Joe and Clara opened a fitness studio, sharing an address with the New York City Ballet.  By the early 1960s, Joe and Clara could count among their clients many New York dancers.

George Balanchine studied “at Joe’s,” as he called it, and also invited Pilates to instruct his young ballerinas at the New York City Ballet. Pilates was becoming popular outside of New York as well. While Joe was still alive, his student Carola Trier opened her own studio. Trier had an extensive dance background and arrived in the United States after fleeing a Nazi holding camp in France.

A performing contortionist, she found Joe Pilates in 1940, when a non-stage injury pre-empted her performing career. Joe assisted Trier in opening her studio in the late 1950s. Joe continued to train clients at his studio until his death in 1967, at the age of 87.

The second generation of Pilates teachers

When Joe passed away in 1967, he left no will and had designated no line of succession for the Pilates work to carry on. Nevertheless, his work would remain. Clara continued to operate what was known as the Pilates Studio on Eighth Avenue in New York, where Romana Kryzanowska became the director around 1970.

Kryzanowska had studied with Joe and Clara in the early 1940s and then, after a 15-year hiatus spent in Peru, returned to renew her studies. Several students of Joe and Clara opened their own studios. Ron Fletcher was a Martha Graham dancer who studied and consulted with Joe from the 1940s on, in connection with a chronic knee ailment. Fletcher opened his studio in Los Angeles in 1970 and attracted many Hollywood stars.

Clara was particularly enamored with Ron and she gave her blessing to him to carry on the Pilates work and name. Like Carola Trier, Fletcher brought some innovations and advancements to the “Pilates” work. His evolving variations on Pilates were inspired both by his years as a Martha Graham dancer and by another mentor, Yeichi Imura.

Kathy Grant and Lolita San Miguel were also students of Joe and Clara who became teachers. Grant took over the direction at the Bendel’s studio in 1972, while San Miguel went on to teach Pilates at Ballet Concierto de Puerto Rico in San Juan, Puerto Rico. In 1967, just before Joe’s death, both Grant and San Miguel were awarded degrees by the State University of New York to teach Pilates.

These two are believed to be the only Pilates practitioners ever certified officially by Joe. Other students of Joe and Clara who opened their own studios include Eve Gentry, Bruce King, Mary Bowen and Robert Fitzgerald. Eve Gentry, a dancer who taught at the Pilates Studio in New York from 1938 through 1968, also taught Pilates in the early 1960s at New York University’s Theater Department. After leaving New York, she opened her own studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

A charter faculty member of the High School for the Performing Arts, Gentry was also a co-founder of the Dance Notation Bureau. In 1979, she was given the “Pioneer of Modern Dance Award” by Bennington College. Bruce King trained for many years with Joseph and Clara Pilates and was a member of the Merce Cunningham Company, Alwyn Nikolais Company, and his own Bruce King Dance Company. In the mid-1970s King opened his own studio at 160 W. 73rd Street in New York City.

Mary Bowen, a Jungian analyst who studied with Joe in the mid-1960s, began teaching Pilates in 1975 and founded “Your Own Gym” in Northampton, Massachusetts. Robert Fitzgerald opened his studio on West 56th Street in the 1960s, where he had a large clientele from the dance community. In the 1970s, Hollywood celebrities discovered Pilates via Ron Fletcher’s studio in Beverly Hills.

Where the stars go, the media follows. In the late 1980s, the media began to cover Pilates extensively. The public noticed and the Pilates business boomed. “I’m fifty years ahead of my time,” Joe once claimed. He was right. No longer the workout of the elite, Pilates has entered the fitness mainstream.