CAGED LION: JOSEPH PILATES AND HIS LEGACY Book Review — The Survival of Pilates

“We were motivated. We felt it might work. It was exciting at the beginning, like a love affair. And perhaps as mindless.”

This quote comes shortly after Joe Pilates, the inventor of Contrology, now known as Pilates, passes away. The author of Caged Lion: Joseph Pilates and His Legacy, John Howard Steel, and others were left to unexpectedly handle the fate of Pilates. There weren’t any directions—there was no plan. One day, Joe Pilates was just gone.

Author, bronze of Joe, and Clara and Joe Pilates, 1965

They held the world on their shoulders– John Howard Steel and others had to find a way to support Clara, Joe’s wife, as well as keep the Pilates gym open so they could continue to enjoy the exercise program they loved.

Caged Lion: Joseph Pilates and His Legacy explores Steel’s journey of keeping Pilates alive, his experiences with the mysterious Joe Pilates, and what exactly about the exercise program appeals to so many today.

Joe spots Ruth Steel over the Ladder Barrel

Steel’s tone is conversational, much like we are sitting down at a coffee shop with him as he tells us his story. And his story spans decades— from the author meeting Joe Pilates until approximately 50 years later, when the author is reflecting upon how Pilates and Joe himself has influenced his life.

At the beginning of the book, we learn a lot about Joe Pilates as a person— his certainty in himself and in his exercise program, his secretiveness about his past, and the origins of what is now known as Pilates. Joe was confident that he could fix people’s physical ailments like back pain and posture, and confident enough in himself to show off his physique until well into his 80s. Steel’s account also suggests Pilates didn’t seem too concerned with societal norms. He examples this by saying, “when we had to cross the street, Joe kept going despite the red traffic light, despite the traffic. Cars simply had to stop for him… Like Moses at the Red Sea, Joe proceeded, and the rest of New York parted before him.”

John with master Pilates teacher Amy Havens, who is making sure he does “Eve’s Lunge” correctly at her studio, CenterPoint Pilates in Santa Barbara

Joe Pilates’ gym was also different from what we would experience today– a no-frills type of establishment. There were no appointments, not even a phone. There was no loud, pounding music. The author describes it as comforting, clean, and open, but full of equipment such as the Reformer, the Chair, and the Ladder Barrel. Showers after a session were required— and there were two small back-to-back showers, one for men and one for women, both equipped with industrial-strength soap and a bristled brush, which Joe wanted all his clients to use.

Physical therapy facility at St. Francis Hospital in San Francisco in 1984. Elizabeth Larkam, Balanced Body Master Trainer, is the therapist on the left, back to camera, assisting a patient on Joe's "Cadillac."

CAGED LION: JOSEPH PILATES AND HIS LEGACY Satisfies Curiosity About How Pilates Got to Be the Phenomenon It Is Today

Caged Lion: Joseph Pilates and His Legacy is not about the mechanics of Pilates.  Yes, we learn about some of the inventions Joe Pilates created, but this book is not a comprehensive overview of Pilates as exercise. Rather, it is John Howard Steel’s experience of finding Pilates, his journey to keep Pilates alive, and a bit of history about Joe himself.

This book doesn’t paint a sugarcoated picture of what it took to revitalize Pilates either– we get to see the hardships faced, from quarrels to lawsuits, as well as the highlights. This book also doesn’t attempt to sugarcoat what it does find out about Joe Pilates’ past life. Instead, it tries to learn as much as possible about the inventor of Contrology, from his time being a POW and his voyage from Europe to the United States. Questions are answered, but more are still asked, and this writer wanted to know even more.

This book would be a good fit for anybody with an interest in Pilates, or those wanting to learn the backstory of an exercise program. This reviewer didn’t know much about Pilates before reading this book, and having a previous understanding of Pilates is not necessary.  You too may find yourself looking at Pilates gyms nearby to try them out. For those who aren’t interested in Pilates, or are looking for an extensive overview of Pilates as an exercise, should possibly look elsewhere. Caged Lion takes on more of a storytelling format instead of a how-to or informational format.


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To purchase a copy, visit the Amazon page for CAGED LION: JOSEPH PILATES AND HIS LEGACY

Images Courtesy of John Howard Steel


Nichole Gould
Nichole Gould

About the Author: Nichole Gould

If you’d met Nichole as a child, you may find her writing and illustrating her own “books”. By taking printer paper and heavy-duty stables, she constructed a makeshift book to write stories and draw accompanying pictures. These stories often followed the lives of a dog and a cat.

Today, she does things a little differently and her writing covers topics of disillusionment, nature, family, homecoming, and growth. She attempts to tackle these topics in an experimental and dreamy way, through both nonfiction and fiction, and sometimes, when she’s feeling confident, poetry. Nichole also spent a semester in Oregon, studying writing and hiking among the moss. Although she misses traveling, she enjoys exploring the magic of the Great Lakes in her home state of Michigan. When she’s not writing or traveling, you can find her reading, bookstore hopping, looking for her dream job as a recent grad, or hanging out with her 16-year-old cat, Kyle.

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