What Is Pilates?

In his book Return to Life through Contrology, Joseph Pilates presents his method as the art of controlled movements, which should look and feel like a workout (not a therapy) when properly manifested. If practiced with consistency, Pilates improves flexibility, builds strength and develops control and endurance in the entire body. It puts emphasis on alignment, breathing, developing a strong core, and improving coordination and balance. The core, consisting of the muscles of the abdomen, low back, and hips, is often called the “powerhouse” and is thought to be the key to a person’s stability.

Pilates’ system allows for different exercises to be modified in range of difficulty from beginner to advanced or to any other level, and also in terms of the instructor and practitioner’s specific goals and/or limitations. Intensity can be increased over time as the body adapts itself to the exercises.

History of Pilates

Pilates was developed by Joseph Pilates, from Mönchengladbach, Germany. His father was a gymnast and his mother a naturopath.

During the first half of the twentieth century, he developed a system of exercises which were intended to strengthen the human mind and body. Pilates believed that mental and physical health were interrelated.

His first students went on to teach his methods, including: Romana Kryzanowska, Kathy Grant, Jay Grimes, Ron Fletcher, Mary Bowen, Carola Treir, Bob Seed, Eve Gentry, Bruce King, Lolita San Miguel, and Mary Pilates, Joseph’s niece. Contemporary Pilates includes both the “Modern” Pilates and the “Classical/Traditional” Pilates. Modern Pilates is partly derived from the teaching of some first generation students, while Classical Pilates aims to preserve the original work as Joseph Pilates taught it.

The 6 Pilates Principles

There are six principles of Pilates. They summarize the philosophy of the Pilates method and are essential to getting the most out of every exercise.

Centring: For practitioners to control their bodies, they must have a starting place: the centre. The center is the focal point of the Pilates method. Many Pilates teachers refer to the group of muscles in the centre of the body – encompassing the abdomen, lower and upper back, hips, buttocks, and inner thighs—as the “powerhouse”. All movement in Pilates should begin from the centre and move outward to the limbs.

Concentration: Pilates demands intense focus, the way that exercises are done is more important than the exercises themselves

Control: “Contrology” was Joseph Pilates’ preferred name for his method, and it was based on the idea of muscle control. All exercises are done with control, the muscles working to lift against gravity and the resistance of the springs and thereby control the movement of the body and the apparatus.

Precision: Precision is essential to correct Pilates. The focus is on doing one precise and perfect movement, rather than many half-hearted ones. Here Pilates reflects common physical culture wisdom, gaining more from a few energetic efforts than from many listless ones. The goal is for this precision to eventually become second nature and carry over into everyday life as grace and economy of movement.

Breath: Breathing is important in the Pilates method. In Return to Life, Pilates devotes a section of his introduction specifically to breathing “bodily house-cleaning with blood circulation”. He saw considerable value in increasing the intake of oxygen and the circulation of this oxygenated blood to every part of the body. This he saw as cleansing and invigorating. Proper full inhalation and complete exhalation were key to this. He advised people to squeeze out the lungs as they would wring a wet towel dry. In Pilates exercises, the practitioner breathes out with the effort and in on the return. In order to keep the lower abdominals close to the spine, the breathing needs to be directed laterally, into the lower rib cage. Pilates breathing is described as a posterior lateral breathing, meaning that the practitioner is instructed to breathe deep into the back and sides of his or her rib cage. When practitioners exhale, they are instructed to note the engagement of their deep abdominal and pelvic floor muscles and maintain this engagement as they inhale. Pilates attempts to properly coordinate this breathing practice with movement.

Flow: Pilates aims for elegant economy of movement, creating flow through the use of appropriate transitions. Once precision has been achieved, the exercises are intended to flow within and into each other in order to build strength and stamina. In other words, the Pilates technique asserts that physical energy exerted from the center should coordinate movements of the extremities.