The Six Principles of Pilates

Pilates is not simply a collection of exercises, it is a method which follows a set of basic principles. You need to be familiar with these six principles before starting to do the movements. The Pilates Method has been carefully developed and refined through use and observation over the last sixty years, its principles based on a solid, practical approach [no mysticism or divine intervention here!].

Unlike the latest gyms, where patrons can watch TV to take their minds off endless jogging, the Pilates Method requires concentration. Attention must be paid to every part of the body, and to every movement.

Concentration is the first of the six principles, the others being:

  • control
  • centering
  • precision
  • flowing movement
  • breathing

By applying these principles, the Pilates Method can be summarised as:

A few well-designed movements properly performed from the centre out in a balanced sequence. Through application of this simple definition, and without the need for hours of sloppy exercise or tensing and straining, Pilates can make positive changes to your life as well as your body.

The goal of the Pilates Method [beyond the slimming and strengthening so often touted in today’s magazines] is to create a fusion of mind and body, enabling you to move with economy, grace and balance – without thinking about it. However there is a paradox here, in that producing a union of mind and body that is attention-free, requires paying constant attention to the body whilst doing the movements. This is vital; more important than any other single aspect of the movements or the method.

Details of the Six Principles

These six basic principles show the specific form in which you pay attention as you do the Pilates exercises.

Concentration

Joseph Pilates once wrote, “Study carefully and do slowly the foundation work. Follow directions exactly, with respect to every detail given.”

You have to concentrate all the time on what you’re doing … and concentrate on your entire body. In the beginning this will be harder than you think, and when you really begin to pay attention to your body you will find that what at first seemed a simple movement is actually quite complex.

The position and movement of every part of your body is interrelated and important, e.g. when walking, how you place your foot both influences and is affected by the way you hold your head. ‘Whole body concentration’ is a challenge, but skill will come step by step as you pursue the Pilates Method. This skill will be an aid to both work and relaxation – the key to an effortless fusion of mind and body.

Control

Total concentration is needed in order to control every aspect of every movement – from the position of fingers, toes, head; the rotation of the wrists; the back [e.g. how arched or flat it is] to larger movements of the limbs.

Most people can remember flinging themselves around in the school gym – not much grace or control there! This lack of control is often carried into everyday life, and especially into recreational sports which can then lead to injury. Pilates can teach the ‘body control’ often admired in professional dancers and sportsmen and women.

Centering

Concentrating on the body to gain full control of it is a starting place from which to build a foundation for the body. The physical centre of the body is that part which forms a continuous band, front and back, between the bottom of the ribcage and the line across the hipbones. This centre is the focal point of the Pilates Method.

The prime physical result of practising the method is firming and strengthening the centre whilst keeping it stretched and supple. This means a trimmer waist and flatter stomach; better posture and a more regal carriage. A properly developed centre can also means less fatigue and a lower incidence of back pain and injury.

Chronic lower back pain has become a major health problem in Britain – suppleness and balanced strength in the lower back are widely recognised as being important preventives of this condition.

The continued emphasis on the body’s centre during Pilates instruction is there for a reason – so that a firm centre can be established, and the techniques help develop and strengthen it.

Flowing Movement

The essence of a Pilates movement was described by Romana Kryzanowska, [prime disciple of Joseph Pilates] as,

“…flowing motion outward from a strong centre”.

Nothing should be stiff or jerky; too rapid or too slow. Smoothness and evenly flowing movement should go hand in hand with control.

Precision

Like concentration, precision is a vital partner of control.

“Concentrate on right movements each time you exercise,” Joe Pilates said, “else you will do them improperly and lose their value.”

In muscle building aimed for by ‘pumping iron’, haphazard movement can be useful – but there is nothing precise in this. However, concentrating on precision of motion and placement helps ‘fine tune’ the body, which carries over into everyday life as grace and economy of movement.

Breathing

Breathing should be properly coordinated with movement, and is also concerned with concentration, control and precision. Joe Pilates believed that getting the blood moving wakes up the body’s cells and carries away wastes related to fatigue. To do this properly, blood must be charged with oxygen and purged of waste gases, which means proper breathing. Inhaling and exhaling fully and thoroughly is part of every Pilates exercise.

Each exercise is accompanied by breathing instructions. In this studio we generally breathe out on the point of effort so as to lessen the tendency towards habitual tension in movement and to connect with your centre easily.

Finally, remember Joe Pilates words,

“…even if you follow no other instructions, learn to breathe correctly”.

Additional Principles

To these six basic principles we have added Simplicity and Empowerment.

Empowerment

Choice is the other name for this principle. We teach why we are doing a particular exercise, what the aim is and how to apply it in every day life. It is not for us to decide how other adults should run their lives. But we can open doors for them to look inside to see what is possible. In everyday life with the pressure of time on commitments people can’t do everything. There is a trade off or balance to be struck. We give them the tools to make choices about their being.

Simplicity

Not everyone can concentrate on every part of their body straight off. It takes practice. Most of our exercises are simple at the beginning. After a few classes the same exercise will start to grow in complexity as you gain more awareness of your body. The exercises have been refined to do their job with simple movements so even beginners will achieve something.