Caged Lion Tells the Story of Joseph Pilates and His Exercise Program

November 1, 2020

Part biography, part history, and part memoir, Caged Lion: Joseph Pilates and His Legacy by John Howard Steel (Last Leaf Press; May 2020) presents Joseph Pilates’ life story and his exercise program known the world over as Pilates. Though not Greek himself, Joseph Hubertus Pilates was inspired by ancient Greek ideals concerning balance in body, mind, and spirit, to develop his exercise program which he originally called “Contrology.”

The story is an inspiring one as Pilates immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1926 at the age of 43 with no assets or credentials and not only invented an exercise regimen — which today is practiced by more than ten million people — but in the process, reinvented himself. The ideas and program that might have seemed revolutionary in the early days have helped countless people around the world on their journey towards achieving wellness.

John Howard Steel brings Joseph Pilates and his eponymous exercise regime to life from his unique perspective as a student, friend, and confidant. Joe’s influence profoundly changed Steel’s life; in turn, Steel was crucial for the survival of the Pilates Method and Joe’s legacy. Steel’s vivid account traces the expansion of Pilates from a small group of dedicated adherents, through two periods of near extinction, to the global sensation it is today.

Steel describes Joseph Pilates’ years as a prisoner during World War I, his motivation to develop his system of exercises, his inspirational teaching technique, and the unique attraction of the Pilates Method. Pilates was born in Mönchengladbach, Germany on December 9, 1883. He was sickly as a child and his father, Heinrich Friedrich Pilates, introduced him to gymnastics, body-building, and martial arts. In 1913, he traveled to England, finding work as a circus acrobat. When World War I broke out in the summer of 1914, Pilates and his circus troupe were taken into custody as enemy aliens and interned for the duration of the war on the Isle of Man, off the west coast of England. He was one of many who led the camp’s daily exercise routines for the more than 24,000 inmates. It was during this period that Pilates developed his ideas on fitness and gained experience as a teacher.

Pilates first published his ideas in 1934 in his book Your Health. His second book, Return to Life through Contrology, was published in 1945 to further explain his ideas and his program.

Steel practiced law for sixty years and Pilates for nearly as long. As one of the few people still alive who studied with and knew Joseph Pilates both in and out of his studio, Steel is in a unique position to tell this story and has been interviewed in numerous publications and regularly lectures to teachers and studio owners on the history of Pilates. He lives in Santa Barbara, with his wife, Bunny. Caged Lion is his first book. Steel spoke to The National Herald about the book and his upcoming projects.

TNH: How long did the book take from idea to publication?

John Howard Steel: Thirteen years. I was practicing law full time and it took me a few passes to find a voice with which I felt comfortable. Getting the lawyer out of my writing was a challenge.

TNH: What are you working on next?

JHS: Right now working on essays on current topics and some Pilates topics which interested me from the Q&A’s after webinars or during interviews. And I am starting to narrate for an Audible edition. I am 85, still doing a little legal work, still doing Pilates, and still trying to play the flute beautifully.

Caged Lion: Joseph Pilates and His Legacy by John Howard Steel (Last Leaf Press; May 2020) is available online and wherever books are sold.


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