Joseph H. Pilates, born in 1883, was a sickly child and suffered from asthma, rickets, and rheumatic fever, and he dedicated his entire life to improving his physical strength. He studied body-building, yoga, "cong fu" (probably what we now call qigong), and gymnastics. By the age of 14, he was fit enough to pose for anatomical charts.
His method, which he originally called "Contrology," is 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.
Pilates came to believe that the "modern" life-style, bad posture, and inefficient breathing lay at the roots of poor health. He ultimately devised a series of exercises and training-techniques and engineered all the equipment required to teach his methods properly.
Joseph Pilates wrote several books, including Return to Life through Contrology and Your Health.
Joseph Pilates died in 1967 at the age of 84 in New York.