Joseph Pilates was born in Germany in 1883 from Greek ancestory. A sickly child he decided to devote himself to improving his health through fitness, coming to beleive that lifestyle, posture and inefficient breathing were the source of bad health in "modern" times.
He devised a series of exercises and became a gymnast and body builder, eventually moving to England and working with various bodies, including Scotland Yard, training people in self defence.
During WW1 he was interned in a prisoner of war camp due with other German citizens and started to work on an integrated, comprehensive system of physical exercise, which he himself called "Contrology." He used this on the other prisoners, training then in fitness and exercise - and it is believed that the inmates survived the flu pandemic of 1918 thanks to their physical fitness.
After release he worked as a hospital orderly, using bed springs to offer light resistance exercises to patients, an idea which later evolved into the Pilates Cadillac or Trapeze Table. He also worked with others, like Rudolph Laban (a dancer, choreograper and theorist whose work laid the foundations for Laban Movement Analysis and other more specific developments in dance notation. He is considered to be one of the most important figures in the history of European contemporary dance. I trained at his school in London).
In 1926 he moved to New York and married Clara. Together they established a studio and worked on developing Contrology, encouraging the use of the mind to control the muscles. It focuses attention on core postural muscles that help keep the human body balanced and provide support for the spine. In particular, Pilates exercises teach awareness of breath and of alignment of the spine, and strengthen the deep torso and abdominal muscles.
Among his clients were dancers such as Martha Graham and George Balanchine, who appreciated how the exercise method created long, lean muscles without building bulk. Soon, some of his students ("disciples") began opening studios of their own.
He died in 1967. Most of his disciples have gone on to set up schools of their own. Moira Stott Merrithew, trained under Romana Kryzanowska. She had been the principle ballerina with the City Ballet of Toronto and a neck injury prompted her to adapt some of the principles she learned in New York to be more in tune with contemporary exercise science, founding Stott Pilates, the discipline I'm trained under.