This is the story of a Physical Education genius. One who overcame all kinds of economic, political, social, cultural and personal misfortunes to create a revolutionary philosophy and praxis regarding how we should relate to ourselves. He called it "Contrology."
Sadly, to this day, this man doesn't occupy his rightful place in history.
Thanks to his boundless curiosity, determination and self-discipline, he ultimately achieved an unparalleled work of both Art and Science. Forty-five years after its creator passed away, that creation continues to be as revolutionary today as it was, no doubt, when Contrology was in its infancy in Germany.
Upon his arrival in the United States, Hubertus Joseph sought to build a legend and a myth around himself. This was the dream of many at that time and still is today. He arrived and settled down permanently at 939 Eighth Avenue in Manhattan and, at that same time, he started to fantasize and construct a mythology about himself and continued doing this until the end of his life. Here lies the great problem: how to uncover the truth about him and his character.
Ultimately, the truth turns out to be much more interesting than the myth, and it shows us an exceptional human being, both in his work and simply as a human being following his life path.
That human aspect is what concern us now. It helps us understand why Contrology is the fruit of those 84 years and, finally, it also reveals a person who lived a truly exceptional life.
Nowadays we continually try to honor his "genius" but, although he enjoyed a certain amount of recognition for his efforts and accomplishments during his lifetime, he didn't live to see the success he craved all his life. His greatest desire and personal frustration was precisely this: official recognition of the value of Contrology as an essential building block in the education of the human being from the beginning, in childhood, in the schools, at an early age.
This would allow the human race to reach a higher plane of evolution. To learn how to carry oneself and understand what it means to "stand upright." For us to learn this in childhood, so as to comprehend the mechanisms of the body and live our lives in accordance the concept of dignity.
And not only this. Contrology was just one path to his ultimate goal, which was no less ambitious than the physical, intellectual and spiritual betterment of the human race.
Though not entirely original, he was in reality a political theorist who identified his work with the ideals of ancient Greece. This goal, due in part to his strong character, was not to be achieved in life, despite his ceaseless efforts. However, I don't believe his personality was the only factor responsible for frustrating his ambitions; an uncomprehending society that was not ready, and is still not, to receive his teachings as universal truths was another obstacle. Hubertus Joseph once said "I am 50 years ahead of my time," and that brings to mind the words of the philosopher Josef Pieper, another German, who defined the concept of "modernity" at any given point in history as "not only what an era wants but also what it needs." I think that Joseph was in fact modern, extremely modern, but in his lifetime the powers that be in the world of physical fitness turned a blind eye.
The biography of Hubertus Joseph Pilates is indispensable for anyone who wants to learn Contrology in all its depth. For that matter, his biography, his personality, his character, his tastes, his preferences, his political ideas, etc., are inseparable from his work. How can we disassociate a work of art from its creator? Can we speak of a composition by Beethoven, Schubert or Stravinsky without referring to their biographies, the periods they lived in, the economic circumstances they enjoyed or endured? How can one dissociate an artist's work from his or her life? How can we believe that a person's work is isolated from its creator's psychology, beliefs and life philosophy?
Indeed, we can enjoy the music of Bach without knowing his biography, since ultimately the work transcends its creator. Likewise, we can enjoy a Contrology session without knowing anything about its creator. But this is precisely the space this biography seeks to fill. From now on we should consider the idea that if we know about Joe Pilates's life, his thoughts, fears, desires, etc., we can better understand this work we believe in and defend.
We can't really ignore Joe Pilates, the person, in all this. First because his "work" is too great and important for us and for humanity. Second, because a body of work like this one cannot be disassociated from the spirit and psychology of its creator.
Despite the fact that I am going to reveal three of the mysteries surrounding his life, my aim is not to present a series of biographical highlights. I'm interested in drawing conclusions.
My first conclusion, one that is fundamental and absolutely essential for me, is that we can and should research and discover who our teacher was and the real significance of his work in history. A difficult but new and necessary task because, up to now, information about both his life and his work, Contrology, has been based on myth rather than scientific and historical research.
We have reached a point in this discussion where we can no longer separate the person who creates from that which he created. To paraphrase the psychiatrist Jacques Lacan "what you do knows who you are," and in the case of Joseph Pilates this phrase is even more apt.
We can choose between two paths if we want understand him profoundly. And both of them draw on and complement each other. The first path is through his creation, Contrology, and for this we must start with, honor and appreciate the work of Romana Kryzanowska in bringing it to us. At the same time we must take the road of rigorous investigation of the legacy of Hubertus Joseph, both at the level of the equipment design and of his know-how. The findings will bring us closer to the person behind the work, the inventor.
Continuing along this line, we have Joseph's own definition of Contrology as a combination of art and science. He expresses this in different but rather similar ways.
"Contrology is the science and art of coordinated mind-body-spirit development through natural movements under strict control of the will" and "the science and art of coordinated mind-body-spirit development through mild but rigorously disciplined physical movements."
And we all believe this to be the case. But this definition itself should be investigated as well. In first place, we should question the word "science." He wasn't a scientist as we traditionally understand it, and he also didn't pursue any official program of study in any academic discipline. But we must appreciate, and this is one of his great talents, that he acted and proceeded like a scientist in the invention and development of Contrology.
This road is too dense and complicated to analyze at this event today, and so the results will be presented in another research project in the future.
And so we move on now to the other path towards learning about Hubertus Joseph and his Contrology, which is through the reconstruction of the man's life, the alternate path which will enable us to understand and make rigorous sense of his accomplishment. This is the spirit that initially moved me to write this first biography of Joe Pilates, which in the end is a work in progress.
Using the scientific method, a scholar puts aside subjectivity and seeks more objective results. But here we have the word "art" embedded in the definition of Contrology. Joe goes a step further when he lets the five parts of the mind that he spoke of interact with the objective part, ultimately enriching it. Art mingled with Science. This is what makes Contrology extraordinary and unique.
In the word "art," as defined by Hubertus Joseph, application of these five parts of the mind are, or should be, obligatory as much for the teacher as for the person performing the exercises.
And this word, "art" also encapsulates the entire humanistic philosophy of its inventor. Otherwise, how could we hope to understand a work this revolutionary if not by understanding that it comes from someone equally extraordinary?
Philosophy is the manner of thinking, looking at, describing, acting and understanding oneself and the world. Therefore it is vital to get to know this individual who was so far ahead of his time, not only with respect to Contrology, but also as a morally very modern and ethically highly sophisticated man. Joe reaches back to the Renaissance, taking his inspiration from classical Greece.
Why is this important? Why is it useful to explore his ethical values to understand his Contrology? Well, simply because they are perfectly reflected in his creation, because they transmit to us his spirit and a way of working with and understanding the human body that is infused and impregnated with age-old ethical values, in our case passed down by Joseph Pilates through Romana and her daughter Sari. And this is essential because for Joseph, Contrology was a philosophical system,, a system of personality, not just a physical discipline.
Morals are a set of social norms passed down from generation to generation. They evolve over time and vary greatly depending on the era and the society. Reading the facts about his life, one sees that Hubertus Joseph also inherited a certain moral framework, which he broke with and replaced with a more contemporary and creative morality.
On the other hand Ethics, and this is where we are going to focus since this is more revealing, are a set of norms that a person has clarified and adopted for personal conduct. Ethics emerge as such internally in a person, as the result of reflection and conscious choice. And this is where I wanted to go with the second path, to understanding that Hubertus Joseph and Contrology are one and the same.
Joe, besides breaking with a morality inherited from a particular era and place, cultivated and created a very interesting personal ethic. We do not have to imitate it, but we do need to understand and learn from it if we want to practice and teach his method.
I am going to continue down this path of ethical inquiry to get a glimpse of aspects of him as a person. And to do this, I will speak once more of the connection between Hubertus Joseph and Contrology with ancient Greece, a connection that was somewhat conscious on his part but, in my view, not arrived at in a scholarly way. Of course I don't wish to, nor can I, ignore the first source Joseph drew on: the German exercise tradition. However, the Greek classics are where he and a whole generation of German pedagogues, artists and therapists found their most cherished inspiration.
Therefore I am going to explain four virtues of Hubertus Joseph that also are four virtues of Contrology. These four virtues are the ones that in ancient Greece made up the concept of "excellence" that all citizens should strive for.
But what is a "virtue"? A virtue is something considered to be a desirable quality, as opposed to a vice. Virtue is identified with acting according to reason, not letting oneself get carried away with passions, that which allows us to make the right decisions and, therefore, take the most appropriate actions. Virtue requires rational choice and constant exercise; in other words, it becomes a habit. Consequently, virtue is knowledge and it doesn't appear spontaneously but rather is learned, provided that is properly taught.
The political excellence ("citizenship") of the Greeks consisted of cultivating three specific virtues: Justice, Fortitude and Temperance. To these virtues Plato would later add a fourth: Prudence. These virtues configured a solid, useful and perfect citizen. Let's take a look at how these virtues migrate through Hubertus Joseph and are recognizable in Contrology itself.
Let's start with Temperance:
The Greeks also called it "moderation" and "balance," and it is synonymous with abstinence and self-restraint. Temperance speaks to us of self-control. Is the attitude of a reasonable man who, without renouncing the pleasures of life, is unwilling to let them drive him to extremes that erode his self-esteem.
Contrology is a method that provides pleasure and well-being, but it does so in a restrained and moderate way. Everything is organized around this virtue: few repetitions of the movement sequences; the emphasis on "less is more" and quality before quantity; the idea of gradual and rational progress according to the physical abilities and overall condition of the person who practices it; the balanced use of all parts of the body without favoring some over others; and so forth. This creates a method based on Temperance, often erroneously depicted as "gentle," "light" or "mild" by those who use the name of the inventor without understanding the essence of Contrology.
The methodology employed by Contrology imposes an order of execution, a precise choreography, a certain duration, a precise rhythm, etc., without neglecting the role of intensity as the student progresses. And it is the job of the teacher and the student to temper this progress with moderation. To achieve it, both will have to make use of this virtue: the teacher by understanding the benefits of gradual improvement and the student by appreciating that "moderation" is the shortest and safest path, the one that avoids any excess that might disrupt progress. Who doesn't remember the famous Joseph phrase that goes: "moderation is the key to good health"?
Which brings to mind the words carved into the Temple of Delphi: "Nothing in excess."
This is a virtue that Hubertus Joseph in life had to work hard to cultivate. He was a man with a very intense character who, through self-discipline, curbed precisely the same excesses he would turn around and boast about to the newspapers. He was proud of his image as a hard-drinker, and no doubt he was one, but all the interviews indicate that he drank in moderation and, in fact, always beer. This doesn't mean that he didn't occasionally go over the limit. He also boasted of being a heavy smoker and there are people, a few, who confirm this. He did smoke, but never inside his studio, and this was at a time when it was normal to smoke in any environment. He enjoyed cigars and he also smoked cigarettes, but he generally did so during moments of relaxation or at parties.
A man of very liberal ideas in many ways, he was also very conservative in others. Known for his strong character, he never went unnoticed, but almost no one remembers him as having any excesses. He was the product of the education and culture dominant from the late 19th to the beginning of the 20th century in Germany. In public he was absolutely proper, and evidence of this can be found in the golden rule of the studio, where no one ever stepped outside the bounds of propriety and there was no socializing. He was also remembered for his extreme punctuality and his scant or nonexistent patience with people he found insufficiently interesting.
Without a doubt, in my view, this virtue was a war horse for him throughout his life: him against and for himself. He expressed this in a great phrase: "It is difficult to control others but it is much harder to control oneself."
Let's continue with Justice.
A beautiful virtue that means that goods, rights and obligations are to be distributed to each individual according to his or her merit or lack of it. Consequently, each should receive as much as he or her has contributed or the equivalent. Is there anything more in line with the thinking behind Contrology? You give this much, you get this much. Though our method is even more generous than this in that it always gives back more than you put in.
Hubertus Joseph lived this virtue fully, and for this reason he suggested, recommended and plead for justice for himself and his Contrology, so that it could occupy its rightful place in the education of human beings and its place in history - justice for him because he was the inventor of the method and justice for Contrology, because he was convinced that it was just and good and therefore both needed and deserved recognition. This was only fair and lack of this recognition made him more and more judgmental and bitter when it came to institutions at the state and national level in the United States.
Several times in his life, such as on his first trip to Great Britain, in his divorce from his second wife, his refusal to have and maintain a traditional family, his American adventure, etc., we see that he had to make momentous and extremely difficult decisions which might, from a distance, seem to have been reckless or selfish. But a deeper reading of them will reveal that these were the very decisions that took him along the path that made him the person we know today. He applied justice to himself in order to become the person he wanted to be, and he achieved this purely with his genius. Had he not, he might have led a less complicated life but one that for him, no doubt, would have been more frustrating and unhappy.
Contrology doesn't make distinctions based on age, religious or ethical beliefs, race or gender. It gives everyone the opportunity to practice and gives each his or her due.
Someone who practices the method must assume certain obligations and, at the same time, has the right to improve any part of him or herself. Contrology gives you that opportunity and it repays each person's investment, every time, because it is based on free will, constructiveness and a positive attitude.
According to Roman law, Justice is the constant and perpetual willingness to grant each and every person his or her rights, and these rights are to live honestly, not harm anyone else and for each person to receive what he or she deserves.
Here we see again how Hubertus Joseph and Contrology practiced this virtue well ahead of the society of his day. Today is hard to imagine it, but when Hubertus arrived from Germany to establish himself permanently in the United States and opened his Studio in 1927, he broke with the rules and the customs of American society.
From the beginning the studio was co-ed - it was also open to women and they trained alongside men. This was very unusual for the time. The most famous gyms of the time, like those of Sigmund Klein, Joe Bonomo, Professor Attila, Georges Bothner, Charles Atlas, Bob Hoffman, and many others, were exclusively for men.
From the evidence I have uncovered, from the late thirties, he accepted African American clients, and they trained in the same room as everyone else. We are talking here about something significant in a country that had to wait another 30 years to see the end of racial segregation. The same thing happened with all types of people, he accepted clients without regard to religion, sexual orientation, class or economic background. From millionaires to people who couldn't afford the sessions. Everyone in the same room.
Now it's time to talk about Prudence:
When I define this virtue, I get the impression that I am really talking about Contrology: it is the care, moderation, precaution, foresight or common sense that one uses to prevent mishaps, harm and difficulties when doing something.
Let's remember the name of the method: Contrology, literally the "science of control." He could just as well have named it "Prudentology," the "science of prudence." But he went a step further when he made control just one of the six fundamental principles of Contrology. I have nothing more to say on this point as it needs no further explanation.
And as far as Hubertus Joseph is concerned?
Prudence was another war horse in his life. Socially he acted with great prudence, but his strong personality and his clear and direct nature led him to make more than a few enemies.
In his life with his third wife, Clara, this virtue seemed well established: they were both very liberal and accepted the independence of the other; they respected and admired each other. He was obsessed with protecting his work for posterity. But despite the patents and his efforts to protect his originality throughout his lifetime, events after his death were to undo all of this prudence that characterized our teacher with respect to his Contrology.
Finally, we come to Fortitude:
This is without a doubt the strongest virtue in every aspect of Hubertus Joseph. We could sum up his entire biography with just this one virtue. Fortitude is a virtue rooted in character, not in calculation or preparation.
The Greeks called it courage and they believed that it was enhanced by physical education (physical courage) and the exercise of control (moral courage) over one's will to power.
In short, this virtue speaks to our capacity to endure struggles, adversity and pain. And it is synonymous with steadfastness, endurance, vitality, vigor, energy, toughness and integrity.
Is there any need to explain the link between fortitude and Contrology? Aren't these qualities of vitality, vigor and integrity an intrinsic part of the method? And aren't they equally applicable to the person who practices Contrology? Are these not the words used by its adherents to describe their impressions after they have been practicing Contrology for a while?
The biography of Hubertus Joseph shows many aspects of his life and personality where the word fortitude, with all its possible interpretations, aligns perfectly with his life. To begin with, we have a child from a large family who has few resources but boundless determination to expand his knowledge. When he was barely a teenager he had to leave home to earn a living and map out his future. This is hard to imagine in our society today under normal circumstances.
With only one eye, having lost the other when he was five, he decides to dedicate his life to cultivating his physique without regard to his disability. On the contrary. Determined and with uncommon strength, after the premature death of his fist wife, he makes the radical decision to abandon the trade to which he had dedicated fourteen years of his life as a brewer and make a new life. He leaves for Great Britain to start over without even speaking the language.
He is immediately arrested by the police because of the war and the historic discrimination against people of German origin. He spends five years in different detention camps. It was only later that he took advantage of this misfortune to learn and survive.
Extradited to a defeated and devastated Germany, he meets his second wife, starts a new family and decides to dedicate himself fully to what he will, in a few years time, call Contrology.
Then he abandons everything to move by himself to Hamburg to concentrate and prepare his leap to fame, later moving to New York.
And so on and so forth. I could continue to tell stories about the events that shaped Joseph Hubertus Pilates, as he legally renamed himself in 1929, that show boldness, resolution and unflagging determination based on inner strength, both ethically and spiritually.
He knew who he was, what he wanted, what he was dealing with and what his mission in life was, without a doubt. He went after it, without compromising, never bowing to adversity.
We find him still going after it in 1964 at 81 years of age, opening the second Pilates Foundation, and in 1965, trying to change the location of his original studio and opening a second one while arguing with the very friends who helped him create the Foundation.
Only later, at 83 years of age, a year before his death, do we see him waver, practically withdrawing from his own Studio and feeling very disenchanted. But he never gave up.
The final goal of virtue is to reach happiness and, from all indications, Hubertus Joseph likely did not. His subordinated his happiness to the success of Contrology. Buddhists say that happiness is a decision waiting to be made, and he didn't make that particular decision because his method was so intrinsic to him and his life that he couldn't separate the two. His radical conviction, his pride in his work, in himself and his vision of the future didn't allow him stop seeking the success he no doubt so richly deserved while alive. And this simply did not happen. Quoting Josef Pieper again: "to be just is simply to have a debt and repay it," which makes me think that this was exactly the mission of Hubertus Joseph Pilates as he defined himself: like Prometheus, he was born to contribute something to humanity, Contrology, and that is how he experienced it, as a duty. And that duty was handed down to us. We are responsible for giving Joe Pilates and Contrology in their rightful place in history.