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Joseph H. Pilates was born in 1883 in Germany. His father's family originally spelled its surname in the Greek manner as "Pilatu" but changed to "Pilates" upon immigration to Germany. Joseph was a sickly child and suffered from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever and because of that he dedicated his entire life to improving his physical strength. He began to study body building, yoga, "kung fu" and gymnastics. Pilates came to believe that the modern lifestyle, bad posture, and inefficient breathing were the causes of most people’s poor health. He ultimately devised a series of exercises and training techniques and engineered all the equipment, specifications, and tuning required for teaching his methods properly. In 1925, Pilates immigrated to America. On the ship, he met his future wife Clara. The couple founded a studio in New York and directly taught and supervised their students well into the 1960s. His method, which he and Clara originally called "Contrology," related to encouraging the use of the mind to control 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. Joseph and Clara Pilates soon established a devout following in the local dance and the performing-arts community of New York. Well-known dancers such as George Balanchine who arrived in the United States in 1933, and Martha Graham, who had come to New York in 1923, became devotees and regularly sent their students to the Pilates for training and rehabilitation. Joseph Pilates wrote several books, including Return to Life Through Contrology and Your Health. Joe and Clara had a number of disciples who continued to teach variations of his method or, in some cases, focused exclusively on preserving the method, and the instructor-training techniques.

Joseph Pilates died in 1967 at the age of 83 in New York.

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