Do you exercise with Pilates? Here’s the legacy of its founder


Part biography, part history, and part memoir, Caged Lion: Joseph Pilates and His Legacy (Last Leaf Press; May 2020) untangles for the first time Joseph Pilates’s opaque life story and the perilous journey of his exercise program known the world over as Pilates.

This is the story of Joseph Pilates, a gifted man who immigrated to the United States at forty-three with no assets or credentials. He not only invented an exercise regimen—which today is practiced by more than ten million people—but in the process, reinvented himself.

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 cadre of dedicated adherents, through two periods of near extinction, to the global sensation it is today. 

Steel describes Joseph Pilates’s years as a prisoner during World War I, Joe’s motivation to discover his system of exercises, his inspirational teaching technique, and the unique attraction of the Pilates Method. 


“John Steel’s vivid firsthand account of his unlikely friendship–and his life-changing workout routines–with the legendary Joseph Pilates reads like a ballet fairy tale. But it’s all true. Steel recounts with verve (and admirable modesty) his own crucial role in assuring that the exercises Pilates used to heal famous dancers and ordinary New Yorkers alike would bloom into the worldwide wellness movement that millions know today.”

–Todd S. Purdum, author of Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution

“I binge-read in one sitting this engrossing biography of Joseph and Clara Pilates and the Pilates phenomenon written by a man who was not only a Pilates student for many years but also their friend. John Howard Steel is a great writer with a fascinating tale to tell!”

–Anne Marie O’Connor, executive editor of Pilates Style magazine

“A huge debt of gratitude is owed John Howard Steel, not only for his contribution to the Pilates method at a time when it wasn’t clear if it would survive after Mr. Pilates death, but also for his delightful, insightful writing. Steel looks inside the complicated yet focused mind of Joseph Pilates and the behind-the-scenes life in his studio to provide the reader a deeper understanding of the man and his life’s work. Thank you.”

–Kevin A. Bowen, founder of The Pilates Method Alliance and The Pilates Initiative; director, Core Dynamics Pilates, Santa Fe

“What an informative and fun read! Everybody will get something from this book: Pilates teachers and students and everyone who likes a good book. John Steel gives life to Joseph Pilates in ways that will only deepen your appreciation for or understanding of the method and the handful of people who saved it from sure extinction. This story is rich with suspense, intrigue, humor, and information about Joseph Pilates that you’ve never heard before. Some will find long-held notions completely upended in one sentence. Mr. Steel’s writing style is clear, full of nuance and wit. I thoroughly enjoyed every page.”

–Kristi Cooper, founder of Pilates Anytime

Caged Lion is a fascinating story about the inside history of Pilates. John Howard Steel takes the reader on an extraordinary journey from first meeting Joseph Pilates in New York City to the global phenomenon that is modern-day Pilates. With a front row seat, we’re able to experience the ins and outs, ups and downs of moving Pilates from a mom-and-pop enterprise into what it is today. As someone who started a fitness studio and someone who enjoys a good book, I loved this story of focus, passion, grit, and enterprise. Not to be missed.”

–Elizabeth Cutler, cofounder and former CEO of Soul Cycle

John Howard 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. Steel 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. This is his first book.