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Joseph Pilates was born near Dusseldorf, Germany in 1880. His father was a gymnast and his mother a naturopath. As a child, Joseph suffered from asthma, rickets, and rheumatic fever. Because of this, he was determined to dedicate his life to becoming physically stronger. He would spend hours studying anatomy books. He was also a self-taught athlete who excelled at skiing, diving, gymnastics, and boxing.

In 1912 Pilates traveled to England where he made a living as a boxer and self-defense trainer for detectives at Scotland Yard. When war broke out two years later, he was considered an 'enemy alien' and was interned with other German's at a camp. At the camp he trained his fellow internees in the physical fitness exercises he had developed and began assisting the camp's hospital in helping the bedridden patients regain strength and muscle control. To assist these patients in their exercises Joseph adapted hospital beds with pulleys, straps, and bed springs, thus creating what may have been the first exercises utilizing variable resistance - a unique concept at least 50 years ahead of its time. These adapted beds were the forerunners of the Pilates equipment we use today. He was widely credited when none of the internees succumbed to an influenza pandemic that swept the world in 1918.

After the war he returned to Hamburg, Germany where he continued to develop his fitness theories and exercises while training the Hamburg Military Police. During this period several important movement innovators, such as Rudolf Van Laban and Mary Wigman, had the good fortune to work with Pilates. By 1925 he had achieved a certain fame in his native Germany, and when the government asked him to train the new German army he decided to emigrate to America where he could pursue his own path with his work. On the ship to America Pilates met his future with Clara, the nurse. Upon arrival, the couple founded a studio in New York City.

Pilates' studio shared a building with several New York dance organizations and it wasn't long before Pilates' fame spread throughout the dance and theatre community. George Balanchine, Martha Graham, Hanya Holm, Jerome Robbins, and the dancers who worked with luminaries all studied with Pilates, as did Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Sir Lawrence Olivier.

Joseph Pilates practiced what he preached, a method he called "Contrology," and lived a long, healthy life. He died in 1967 at the age of 87 from complications due to smoke inhalation suffered during a fire in his studio. Clara continued to teach the Pilates Method at the studio until her retirement in 1971. Pilates had trained a number of teachers to carry on his work. These first generation instructors to as "Master Teachers". Among these are Eve Gentry, Kathy Grant, Carola Trier, Ron Fletcher, Alan Herdman, and Romana Kryzanowska.

Joseph Pilates continually developed his theories, exercises, and equipment over the course of his lifetime and consequently he taught many different variations to different students at different times. This evolutionary process helped to contribute to the many schools of the Pilates Method that exists today.

Today the Pilates Method is used worldwide by dance companies, theatre groups, actors, top ranked athletes in a multitude of sports, spas, health clubs, physical therapists, and the general fitness enthusiast.