Book Review: CAGED LION Joseph Pilates & His Legacy

written by John Howard Steel (2020)

Call me crazy, but I am currently reading three books about Joseph Pilates. One of these books is JOSEPH HUBERTUS PILATES: The Biography by Javier Perez Pont & Esperanza Aparicio Romero (2013) & has 13,950 pages according to my kindle. Steel’s book has 192 pages; so quite a stunning contrast. Where Javier’s book could have done with a good editor, Steel’s book CAGED LION is definitely succinct.

John Steel starts his book saying that he spent hours at a Pilates conference regaling attendees with his personal stories about Joe.  He claimed that half the attendees at his presentation didn’t even know that Joseph Pilates was a person. Really? At a PMA conference? So I approached the book with some concerns. Given that Joe’s death is recorded exactly one third into the book, it is quite light on in regards to shedding light on Joe or his thinking.

So, clearly, the book is more about Joe’s legacy & what transpired after his death on October 9, 1967.

Joseph Pilates teaching the Barrel

The man with Joe in this photo, taken by IC Rapoport, was the father of the author. His mother was also a client of Joe’s and they encouraged their son to visit Joe for Pilates classes. His description of entering the Pilates studio for the first time is evocative and I felt like I was there.


John is one of the few people I have heard talk about Joe outside the studio. This started after about six months of classes when Clara invited John to have a beer with Joe after work. This became a weekly event.

On the first visit, John notes that the six dining room chairs around the dining table were actually wunda chairs. It is worth revisiting this video of Joe showing how the chairs converted from a regular chair into a piece of exercise apparatus.

Sometimes Joe would take John with him on his walks through New York. On one occasion, conversation turned to sex. Joe asked John if sex had improved with his wife since he started doing Pilates. John explained that he was in a very unhappy marriage and so he and his wife were not having sex. Joe suggested that he should find a lover as a way to save his marriage. He clearly saw sex as an important release and as important as exercise in maintaining good mental health.

My favourite passage in the book is this explanation by Joe about how the magic circle got its name: “Now & then they (the female clients) ask me why I named it ‘magic’ and I tell them because it has a magical effect on their thighs and breasts. But you want to know the real reason I named it ‘magic’? It’s because of the magic that happens when they have sex. Their squeeze is so much stronger that now and then their husband says, ‘Wow, that was magic.’”

After Joe’s death, the book chronicles the ongoing difficulty in maintaining the viability of running the studio. He details the management of the studio, the recruitment of Romana & moving premises. He then talks of the expansion to the East Coast by Ron Fletcher. I felt most uncomfortable with some of his comments about these two people, including details that I thought bordered on gossip & were, at times, unnecessarily derogatory. At a time when I believe it is more important than ever for the Pilates community to be cohesive, I felt this attack, particularly on Romana, to be counterproductive & marred the book for me. (I teach contemporary Pilates and felt affronted so I can’t imagine how this would make Classical Pilates instructors feel.)

He covers the court case over the use of the name of Pilates. (Do we need to hear this again?)

He summarises Pont & Romero’s book in one chapter & spends one chapter surmising why Pilates is so enjoyable. There is a real sense here that he was short on content.

I bought CAGED LION because I wanted to hear the stories about Joe and was less interested in the spread of Pilates from New York. If you are buying this book to read personal anecdotes about Joe, I would save my money.

If you are wondering where the title came from, Joe liked to visit Central Park Zoo & watch the big cats. It reminded the author of the first time he had met Joe & how his stance & his full head of hair had elicited the image of a lion. At the zoo, Joe watched the movements of lions and tigers but John realised, that like zoo animals, Joe had also experienced being caged. Although John doesn’t spell it out, there is the sense that Joe was caged, not only literally during his internment on the Isle of Man but also metaphorically as he struggled throughout his life to have his method recognised.

Luckily, the Epilogue meant at least the book finished well. The author imagines Joe being bought into one of today’s modern studios & how he might respond to what he saw. I have often wondered what he would think if he was alive today. So, whilst fictitious, it gave an insight into Joe and his possible reaction from John’s knowledge of this amazingly inspirational man.


Robyn Rix

PAA Treasurer and Public Officer

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