Tomorrow would be the 130th birthday of Joseph Hubertus Pilates (1883–1967), whose namesake fitness method, originally called Contrology, is now practiced in thousands of studios around the world.
Vintage Life Magazine articles may document the pioneer in poses, contraptions, and outfits that would make us nervous (or LOL) today, but Pilates was always serious about his practice and the stellar health-promoting benefits that came with it.
Of course, the lineage of Pilates teachers who cite him as an anatomy and movement genius clearly lives on, and his concepts of alignment in daily life and core stability, for instance, have infiltrated the fitness world at large.
To celebrate the often half-dressed, German-born visionary, who lived to the flexible age of 83, we took a closer look at how Joseph Pilates reformed the way we move. (See what we did there?) —Sarah Sarway
Pilates didn’t create the method just for women who wanted longer legs, flat abs, and pretty arms in sleeveless dresses. The inception of Contrology came with a need to improve the health ailments he had as child, like asthma, rickets, and rheumatic fever. He studied up on human anatomy and spent hours pumping iron, wrestling (which cost him an eye!), and zenning it up on the yoga mat. The result was not just a healthy immune system, but a bod that got him hired as an anatomy chart and Greek god statue model as a young man.
The Reformer and magic circle we use in Pilates class today are the offspring of hospital odds and ends. While serving as a nurse-physiotherapist in a German internment camp during WWI, Pilates felt injured soldiers would heal faster if they weren’t stuck in bed. With a serious lack of luxe fitness centers, Pilates got creative by attaching mattress springs to bed-posts and even repurposing old beer-keg hoops for the first magic circle, so says fitness legend. It’s also said that his funny-looking contraptions worked, as not one of his patients got sick during the 1918 Influenza. (This photo was taken years later in the ’50s.)
Over the years Pilates taught such luminaries as George Balanchine and Martha Graham, as well as opera singer Roberta Peters, pictured here, in 1951. Peters’s Pilates-perfected core was so strong she could affably balance her teacher on it for Life Magazine photographer, Michael Rougier.
Another one of Pilates’s hard-working students, Romana Kryzanowska, went on to teach the practice to others. She became known as one of “the Elders,” or original practitioners, who continued to spread Pilates’s original practice to the world.
Decades after his death, an estimated 12 million people practice Pilates each year. And while Pilates instructors today have grown accustomed to wearing workout tanks and leggings during classes, many still practice what they consider to be his original method, such as Jennifer DeLuca, Brett Howard, and Mari Winsor. While their studios may base their instruction on his original methods, others have used his signature moves as a jumping off point for modern Pilates variations, like Kinected in New York and Karen Schwalbe-Jones at Harmony in Los Angeles.