The Acrobatic Immigrant Who Invented Pilates in a Prisoner of War Camp

Interned during WWI, circus entertainer Joseph Pilates used found materials and his fellow prisoners as his test lab, and imagined an exercise system that would captivate millions.

The Acrobatic Immigrant Who Invented Pilates in a Prisoner of War Camp

In the early afternoon of September 12, 1915, a British vessel set off from the western coast of England and freighted up the Irish Sea toward Scotland. It was a warm day, but most of the men aboard, confined to an airless chamber below deck, longed only to escape the sickening quarters. The passage was short: After traveling 70 miles, the SS Connaught docked at the Douglas breakwater on the Isle of Man. Immediately, the British guards overseeing the ship lowered a ramp and began shouting commands. Wearily, the men disembarked.

The scene was chaotic. “There was no law or order whatsoever,” a reporter for the Peel City Guardian wrote. Within minutes, men from the ship were confused with locals milling about the harbor, most of whom were Manx people native to the isle. Eventually, separated from the crowd, they marched along the South Quay and boarded a steam-powered train that weaved sluggishly into the heart of the isle. As the tin-gray sky turned starless black, the train stopped at St. John’s station. Another march followed, this time under the watch of the King’s Liverpool Regiment. For hours, they trudged through soil that sunk like clay, over streams, through cattle gates. In the distance, hundreds of bright lights flickered, a site rare in the customary blackness of wartime. “Almost like Paris,” one of the men thought.

The beauty soon faded, for the lights illumined not a city but a compound enclosed by barbed wire. Only when the sun rose the next morning did the scene become fully apparent. Inside the fences, in front of striking turf-clad hills, the men saw dozens of closely packed, sterile huts — the bunks of Knockaloe Internment Camp.

Like the thousands already confined, the new arrivals were mostly unsuspecting professionals who had emigrated from throughout Europe to England, in search of better wages and opportunities. With the Aliens Restriction Act of 1914, the British government formally authorized the internment of anyone suspected of espionage. Having a German name was reason enough, and by 1915, around 24,000 men were placed in Knockaloe.

But amid the anonymity of the camp, one of the men, Internee #14001 J. Pilatus, might have stood out that September day. Lithe and broad-chested, he moved with notable athleticism. His physique possessed artistic beauty, as if a Michelangelo sculpture had up and left Rome.

With the others, Internee #14001 J. Pilatus — his index card was incorrect; his real name was Joseph Pilates — was led to Camp 4, issued a bunk bed, and assigned a chore. For most of his fellow internees, this marked the start of a prison sentence, years of “nothing to do, nothing at all.” But for Pilates, confinement paradoxically offered a kind of liberation. As the German U-boats sliced toward Allied vessels and the Great War raged on, and as months gave way to years on Man, Pilates explored a question that he had pondered since childhood: Could he reimagine the capabilities of the human body through an anatomically based method of training, taking inspiration from scientific treatises, the carefree movement of children, and the dexterous ease of cats?

On the craggy isle, Pilates found a laboratory. “I had time to consolidate the method, and I had the opportunity to work with gentlemen who were coming in with different problems, different ailments,” he once said.

While the method became popular among a select group of professionals following the Great War, it was in the decade after World War II, an era of market reform and global cultural interconnectivity, that the practice really took off, with everyone from dancers in the Berkshires to New York socialites and Los Angeles stars adopting it. Pilates introduced one of the most consequential revolutions in exercise since yoga, overcoming toxic trends characteristic of the burgeoning 20th century fitness culture: He did not offer clients the bulging muscles of icons like Charles Atlas, nor did he indulge the commercialized obsession with idealized, beach-ready physiques. In fact, he did the opposite, seeking to provide everyone, from office workers to ballerinas, with a life of greater motion and bodily rhythm. His motto — “Mens sana in corpore sano,” or “A sane mind in a sound body” — came from the ancient Athenians. For new clients, however, he framed the purpose of the practice more simply: It was about relearning how to move like an animal.

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In November of 1914, when Knockaloe Internment Camp opened, Pilates was living in the coastal town of Blackpool in North West England, having emigrated from Germany several years prior. His days were spent in boxing competitions; at night, he worked at the circus, contorting his body above the oohing and aahing crowd while he and his troupe performed their set list. It included “Acts of Poses and Feats of Strength” and “Gladiator Athletes,” though Pilates was also known to pose as a motionless statue. When the show finished, he would return to his guesthouse on Milbourne Street. There, as the rolling sounds of the Irish Sea drifted into his loft, he would stretch his muscles and sink into a deep sleep.

This peaceful cadence was soon interrupted. During the August circus tour, the government demanded that all Germans report to the police. Months earlier, a German U-boat had fired a torpedo that pierced the hull of the RMS Lusitania, sinking the vessel. British authorities quickly developed the unchecked suspicions characteristic of wartime, and they feared German immigrants could be spying on their naval movements. On August 5, Pilates registered with the police. Less than a month later, he was interned in Lancaster, then transferred to the Isle of Man.

When Pilates arrived, a community of sorts — a heimat — had developed, but the mood remained bleak. Many suffered from “barbed wire disease,” and there was little to keep up morale. “Nothing to break the monotony, nothing to look at but an occasional … cat streaking after a mouse or a bird,” Pilates later said. Hundreds were soon confined to the camp hospital, where a lone doctor tried in vain to treat influenza and other conditions.

Throughout his childhood, Pilates suffered from rickets and rheumatic fever. In response, he developed an acute awareness of, and longing for, physical well-being, which he expressed through observing the natural felicity of animal life — cats bounding for prey, birds arcing in intuitive patterns. In the camp, this habit reemerged. When feral cats flocked toward the camp for food scraps, Pilates noticed how their gestures retained elasticity, their eyes luminosity. “Watch a cat as it lazily opens its eyes, slowly looks around, and gradually prepares to rise after a nap,” Pilates would later write. Meanwhile, the internees, many of whom were tasked with unloading cargo and rations, grew spiritless. They reminded Pilates of the businessmen in Europe’s bustling cities: “Bodies slumped, eyes hollow … vitality extremely lowered, if not vanished,” he later wrote, in lines echoing T.S. Eliot’s characterizations of grim wartime depression.

Pilates found hope in the possibility of treating patients. “I met people who were invalids because of wartime illnesses and due to their imprisonment, and I began to devise machines to help them in their rehabilitation.” The body was an instrument; by understanding both its interconnectivity and its fault lines, one could better tune it.

He began with those who needed help most: internees in the hospital. “Being in hospital was truly much worse than being in one’s accustomed hut,” one patient observed. Worse, the same patient explained, the nurses were internees who “pretended to have some experience.” Pilates gained access on one condition: No patient could leave their bed.

Like a choreographer sketching a dance, Pilates began with the stage: metal coils, found lying around the camp, were attached to the headboards of a few hospital beds as sources of tension. Then, he invited a few internees to lift their legs upward, as if they were sitting on an imaginary floating chair, before leading them through a basic movement: extending their legs outward while bringing their arms, looped into the coils, down to their hips, moving against the spring’s tension. Each cycle was marked by the breath, with a careful calibration of inhalations and exhalations intended to renew, again and again, the fundamental act of life.

“Repeat!” he bellowed with gruff zeal. The patients, sedentary for months, gradually felt warmth move through their legs. For Pilates, this was corporeal poetry. “Blood circulation is the equivalent of an ‘internal shower,’” he later observed.

World War I internees at Knockaloe Camp on the Isle of Man exercise as a group, 1917. The huts they lived in can be seen in the background, surrounded by a wire fence. (Photo courtesy Bridgeman Images)

The practice, which Pilates called “contrology,” was rooted in the idea that, while the human body and mind are an interconnected ecosystem, the connection can be lost. To recover it, one must teach the body a new language of movements, reflexes and extensions. Over time, the body would become fluent, acquiring a natural rhythm and internal sense of openness. “This true rhythm and control is observed both in domestic pets and wild animals — without known exceptions,” Pilates said.

The house cat was a fitting analogy for another reason, as many in Knockaloe found a second life in the practice. In a letter from March 1919, an internee named Lehman wrote, “To our friend Mr. Pilates, always willing to teach … during four and half truly horrible years … relying on his training we ought to feel fit, physically and spiritually, to the end.” In the camp, the exercises had become a portal beyond the rigid confinement and constant reminders of mortality. But Pilates believed they had yet more life to give.

More than three decades later, in June 1941, Ted Shawn, founder of the Jacob’s Pillow Dance studio in Becket, Massachusetts, led Pilates down a pebble path, past a tea garden, and into a converted barn. Inside, nimble dancers moved through their warm-ups. Behind them, a barn door was propped open, allowing a cool Berkshire breeze to waft in, and affording a dreamy, treehouse view of verdant forests and rolling hills. Pilates loved the climate, which reminded him of the summers he spent as a young boy near Düsseldorf.

Walking through Jacob’s Pillow, Pilates witnessed a culture singularly devoted to the art of the human body and its infinite expressions. As they toured the grounds, he remained focused on each of the dancers’ brilliant movements, most of whom were women, since the dancers in Shawn’s male company, who had helped build the Pillow, had been drafted for the Second World War.

Each morning, as the rising sun cast a soft glow over the Berkshire Hills, Pilates tossed on his white turtleneck and black trousers, and walked past the pillow-shaped rock that gave the festival its name and to a garden repurposed for the practice (the Jacob part of the Pillow’s name came from the fact that the road leading to it, now Route 20, had been coined by 18th century settlers as “Jacob’s Ladder,” a reference to Jacob’s dream in the Old Testament). There, the Pillow’s ballerinas, skeptically at first, lined up on matts for sessions of contrology. Soon, as their breathing patterns pulsed in in in out out out, their legs fluttered and arms flexed, the dancers felt the sensations the patients at Knockaloe had nearly 30 years earlier: a subtle extension of limits, a gradual return to a quiet rhythm that released tension and lessened the strain dancing brought their bodies.

As World War II raged on, Pilates uncovered a radically different world from that of Knockaloe, one where the body faced not constant menace but the ease of nature: the tapping woodpecker, the coo of a mourning dove, frogs lopping into a nearby pond. In his small cottage, he installed his bands and equipment, and there he began drafting a book, Return to Life Through Contrology. Still, his hope remained the same: to create for each of his patients a world like that of the early Greeks, where life itself and our movement through it were conjoined in an unthinking harmony.

The trip to Jacob’s Pillow had its origins decades earlier in 1925, when, just six years after being released from the internment camp, Pilates moved to New York City. On the voyage over, he met a woman named Clara. They decided to stick together in this unfamiliar new land, and soon they fell in love. Clara saw promise in Pilates’ practice, and with the help of her business acumen, the two established a studio on Eighth Avenue, between 55th and 56th streets.

Word spread throughout Manhattan. “He wants the whole human race to be beautiful and healthy — and barring acts of God, he can tell them how,” New York fashion editor Marie Beynon Ray observed as she went to his studio and trained with him. His intensity toward the method, perhaps owing to its origins, was unsparing, as was his condemnation of an American culture that he saw as fundamentally harmful to well-being. “Ach, always in America, aspirins and pills. … Sunken chests. … Here you take better care of your cars than your bodies.” At times dogmatic, some of his critiques were prescient and echo experts decades later like the National Athletic Trainers’ Association, which recently warned against sport specialization in youth. Pilates put it more bluntly: “Always throwing the ball,” he quipped of the tendency in sports culture for repetition at the expense of holistic training, and “always one-handed.”

By the early 1930s, Pilates was challenging the norms of physical culture in New York, advocating for holistic movement and upending ideas that athletic mastery — whether throwing a baseball or standing en pointe — could be achieved solely through those sports alone. He shaped a new vision of the body; abdominal muscles were not merely a source of core strength, he explained, but the basis of respiratory control, and while most trainers focused on major muscle groups, he sought to activate the equally important connective musculature to lengthen the entire body. At the same time, Pilates began teaching expecting mothers. Conventional medical knowledge long forbade exercise for pregnant women, but that started to shift as many women found the exercises helpful in regulating breath and regaining muscle tone.

On any given afternoon in his studio, you could find an eclectic crowd, from Broadway actors and ballet dancers to lawyers and housewives, all breathing rhythmically as Joseph or Clara led them through various exercises: the pulling of ropes atop structures that resembled patient beds at Knockaloe, measured twisting of the body, extensions of the arms and legs, and circular motions from the hips. For some, the practice was integral to their careers; for many, it simply offered a curious respite from the world, a place to feel their bodies engaged in measured, reciprocal movements at a time when the strains of the Great Depression, and later the terrors of the Second World War, fell over New York and the whole country. Indeed, there was comfort in the opportunity to tend to one’s body as an anatomical creation with underlying principles, and dubious clients were often convinced by Joseph’s playful analogies. “Take a horse,” he’d often say to patients. “If a man wants to race him, he keeps him in top form. He makes the horse move. Why not keep humans in top form, too?”

Joseph Pilates demonstrates a technique on his “bednasium” in his New York City studio on October 4, 1961. (Photo by I.C. Rapoport/Getty Images)

Still, many rejected contrology, and Pilates’ whimsical stunts — he was known to run around Columbus Circle in the winter with little clothing, ostensibly to demonstrate his health — seemed like madness to some. Even Ted Shawn, once his colleague, became disillusioned. At the concluding festival in the summer of 1943, Shawn found Pilates so disagreeable that he asked him not to return. “Joe insisted that all this business of dance was meaningless and that the whole of Jacob’s Pillow should be given over to him to direct a health farm,” Shawn indignantly reported.

Shawn’s frustration was shared, and Pilates’ rhetorical flourishes could cross into cruelty. In an emblematic moment, one afternoon a professional ballerina asked why Pilates had to insist that she straighten her legs “like an elephant.” Was there not a more amicable analogy?

Overhearing the remark, Pilates smiled and replied, “An elephant could walk into this room, and you wouldn’t hear it. An elephant walks delicately.” The tension gave way to levity, and in Pilates’ eyes shone a fervid jubilance. Indeed, one can imagine him having the sense that he had not only created new perimeters of freedom for the human body but also retained something of that original magic he once observed in the enchanted German forests. “As I child, I would lie in the woods for hours, hiding in the leaves, watching the animals move. No human mother takes care like an animal,” he said.

Throughout the 1950s and into the early ’60s, with a glass of scotch and cigar in hand, and while looking out through one eye (the other, owing to a boxing accident, was glass), Pilates taught classes to renowned choreographers, including George Balanchine and Martha Graham. “Going to Joe’s” was how Graham and others colloquially referred to the studio.

At the time, a septuagenarian instructor was decidedly counterculture in a fitness world that had become the site of competing, and often harmful, agendas. One of these was commercial advertising, which capitalized on the new interest in fitness through promising quick fixes, often through spurious vibrating slimming belts that purported to “jiggle” away excess fat. Fitness culture was also complicated, at least implicitly, by the lingering effects of an ideology that promoted Aryan superiority in the name of national triumphalism, for while Nazi Germany had fallen, many of its insidious creeds of a male and white-centric physical perfection continued to take other, often coded forms. Pilates was perhaps most consequential throughout the 20th century, and indeed through today, because he not only rebuked this in theory but also offered an exercise regimen that did so in practice. His method retained its original intent of engendering mobility universally, including for those who struggled with pain. Recuperation never ceased to remind Pilates of the most precious movement there was: from the miasma of illness toward a body that could rejoin with pleasures of warmth and rhythm.

“Think, think,” Pilates extolled clients before they began a movement, urging them to create an image before their physical attempt. This was indeed a way to merge human consciousness with physicality, to create a zone where the boundary dissolved.

As Pilates reached his 80s, he could no longer complete all of his exercises. Still, he taught. And as his students looked up at him, whether incredulous or focused, he experienced a sensation not unlike that of arcing, decades ago, above crowds in Blackpool. The gazes of the audience, he always remembered, were affixed upward, his motion mirrored in their expressions. In those moments, the crowd seemed convinced that they, too, would someday know how it feels to fly.

American opera singer Roberta Peters (second from right) works out on strength training equipment as her trainer, Joseph Pilates, stands on a table beside her. Also in the room are PIlates’ wife Clara (right) and her own, unidentified trainee, February 1951. (Photo by Michael Rougier/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)