Pilates had been asthmatic as a child, motivating him to improve his strength and physique. His study of yoga and the martial arts, and his work with physicians led to the development of his conditioning system. More than 70 years later, his techniques became the cornerstone of the Pilates Method of Body Conditioning.
Many of those who practice "Pilates" have only a vague idea of its long history. In 1926, Joseph and Clara Pilates, German immigrants, arrived in New York City. Joe was a gymnast and pugilist who had creative, indeed brilliant, ideas about physical fitness and rehabilitation following physical injury. In a British internment camp in World War I, Pilates rigged a hospital bed so that patients could begin their recovery while still flat on their backs. That idea evolved into the Cadillac, one of the main components of what was to become a whole method of exercise, which Joe called "Contrology." That name never stuck, but Joe's surname did.
Shortly after the Pilates' arrived in New York, Joe set up an exercise studio. While not much is known about the earliest years of the Pilates' practice, by the 1940s Joe had achieved notoriety in the dance community. "At some time or other," reported Dance magazine in its February, 1956 issue, "virtually every dancer in New York, and certainly everyone who has studied at Jacob's Pillow between 1939 and 1951, has meekly submitted to the spirited instruction of Joe Pilates."
By the early 1960s, the Pilates' could count among their clients many New York dancers. George Balanchine worked out "at Joe's," as he called it, and also invited Pilates to instruct his young ballerinas at the New York City Ballet. In fact, "Pilates" was becoming popular outside of New York as well. As the New York Herald Tribune noted in 1964, "in dance classes around the United States, hundreds of young students limber up daily with an exercise they know as a pilates, without knowing that the word has a capital P, and a living, right-breathing namesake." While Joe was still alive, only two of his students, Carola Trier and Bob Seed, are known to have opened their own studios. Trier, who had an extensive dance background, found her way to the United States after she fled a Nazi holding camp in France by becoming a contortionist in a show. She found Joe Pilates in 1940, when a non-stage injury pre-empted her performing career. Joe Pilates assisted Trier in opening her own studio in the late 1950s and their families remained close friends.
Bob Seed was another story. A former hockey player turned "Pilates" enthusiast, Seed opened a Studio across town from Joe and tried to take away some of Joe’s clients by opening very early in the morning. According to John Steel, one day Joe visited Seed with a gun and warned Seed to get out of town. Seed went. When Joe passed away, he left no will and had designated no line of succession for the "Pilates" work to carry on. Nevertheless, his work was to remain. Clara continued to operate what was already 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 fifteen year hiatus due to a move to Peru, re-commenced her studies.
Other students of Joe and Clara went on to open 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, where he 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 Nimura. Kathy Grant and Lolita San Miguel were also students of Joe and Clara who went on to become 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 Rica 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 to be certified officially by Joe.
Other students of Joe and Clara who opened their own studios include: The late Eve Gentry, a dancer who taught at the Pilates Studio in New York from 1938 through 1968, also taught "Pilates" in the early 60s at New York University in the Theater Department. After she left New York, she opened her own studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Gentry was a charter faculty member of the High School for the Performing Arts, as well as a co-founder of the Dance Notation Bureau. In 1979, she was given the "Pioneer of Modern Dance Award” by Bennington College.
The late Bruce King, who trained for many years with Joseph and Clara Pilates, and was a member of the Merce Cunningham Company, the Alwyn Nikolais Company, and his own Bruce King Dance Company, opened his own studio in the mid-1970s at 160 W. 73rd Street in New York City.