The Principles of Pilates

Founded by Joseph Pilates, the original purpose of the Pilates exercise was to rehabilitate patients with injuries and diseases. To help create the resistance exercise equipment required by his patients, Joseph Pilates used everyday objects around him, such as bedsprings.

Born a frail child, Joseph Pilates was determined to overcome his physical weaknesses through fitness and exercise. Utilising his personal experiences in boxing, gymnastics, diving, skiing and from performing as a circus performer, he developed exercises that incorporated concepts from yoga, Zen Buddhism and the ancient Greek ideal of man who was perfected in the development of body, mind and spirit. He studied anatomy to further his understanding of the human body.

Pilates evolved into a more mainstream form of exercise when it was discovered that the exercises were not only beneficial to the sick and injured but were also effective for individuals who were healthy. Having continued to develop since its original inception in the early 1900s, there are some variations in understanding of the Pilates principles. Differing schools of thought talk about various principles which include some variation or all of the following concepts:

1. Control
2. Flow
3. Breathing
4. Centering
5. Precision
6. Concentration
7. Stability
8. Alignment
9. Integration
10. Range of Motion

It is important to understand the basic principles of Pilates to ensure that each exercise is performed correctly. Failure to observe these fundamentals may prevent individuals practicing Pilates from realising the full benefits of this method.

The most commonly discussed principles are the first six listed above – control, flow, breathing, centering, precision and concentration. The other principles are variations in views of the principles which the author believes are covered by the first six principles. Their inclusion in this article is merely to highlight the differing schools of thought and to increase awareness of how best to practice Pilates.

1. Control

This is the fundamental principle of Pilates as the original method founded by Joseph Pilates was called Contrology. The concept behind this principle is that each movement of the body must be made in a controlled fashion. Controlled movements require various muscles to work together which help the body develop greater coordination and balance.

2. Flow

Pilates exercises are intended to be performed with fluidity. Movements are smooth and continuous, and keep the body flowing. This differs from Yoga where certain positions are usually held for a minute or two. The continuous flow of movement in Pilates trains flexibility of the joints and muscles and helps create grace as the body learns to move more evenly.

3. Breathing

According to Joseph Pilates, it is important to breathe fully to allow circulating blood to remove wastes in the body relating to fatigue. Full intakes of breaths ensure the blood is charged with oxygen, while complete exhalation assists removal of waste gases. Breathing deeply helps to stretch and release tension from the muscles during exercise which in turn helps to promote optimum body control.

Described as a posterior lateral breathing, the aim of a full breath in Pilates is to breathe deep into the back and the sides of the rib cage. To facilitate deep inhalation, it is important to ensure complete exhalation by squeezing the air out of the lungs. Breathing during Pilates exercises involves the deep abdominal and pelvic floor muscles which must be engaged with each breath in and out. Breathing must also be coordinated with each movement and is performed with concentration, control and precision.

In any Pilates exercise, the breath is one of the most important components. A failure to breathe properly is a failure to perform the exercise effectively.

4. Centering

Pilates focuses on utilising core strength – the large group of muscles in the center of the body comprising of the abdomen, lower back, hips and buttocks. These are called the “powerhouse”. Pilates exercises utilise abdominal strength by pulling the navel into the spine to activate the deep abdominal muscles. Engaging the powerhouse stabilises all movements and helps to avoid injuries from occurring. All Pilates movements should begin with the powerhouse and flow outward towards the limbs. It is the core strength that coordinates the movements of the extremities.

5. Precision

Every Pilates exercise has a specific purpose therefore it is important that each movement be carried out precisely. It is important to maintain spatial awareness of all the parts of the body during an exercise as there is a specific start and end point to every movement. In order to perform an exercise properly, it is important to focus on making each move as precise and perfect as possible. It is better to do one perfect move than it is to complete a series of half-hearted movements.

6. Concentration

Every move in Pilates demands intense focus and concentration. It is important to be consciously aware of each part of the body and how it moves in relation to the breath. Concentration not only enhances body awareness but it ensures that each exercise is performed with full commitment to achieve maximum value from that movement.

The Other Pilates Principles

The principles of stability, alignment, integration, and range of motion overlap with the six principles outlined above. Take stability, for instance, in order to achieve controlled, flowing movements during exercise, it is important to maintain stability in other parts of the body that are not in action. For example, in a mat exercise, this may mean keeping your back from arching while raising your arms in front of you. This also falls back to the importance of engaging the powerhouse to maintain core stability while the extremities are in motion. It also explains why movements begin with the powerhouse and flow out to the extremes.

Alignment refers to posture and being aware of the position of all parts of the body from the head and neck, through the spine and pelvis, down to the legs and toes. Achieving proper alignment requires the integration of the principles of centering, precision and concentration.
Integration involves the coordinated action of different muscles groups, which is important for maintaining fluidity and grace through each exercise – in other words, flow.

Range of motion or flexibility will affect the individual’s ability to perform each exercise precisely. With time and practice, range of motion and flexibility will increase.

Regardless of how Pilates has evolved over the last century, or the somewhat differing views of its fundamentals and principles, it is still agreed that Pilates is an excellent exercise both for the rehabilitation of sick or injured individuals as well as for healthy individuals seeking an exercise that will help them achieve strength, flexibility, balance, coordination.

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