Pilates for health: six key principles for practice

Pilates for health - six key principles for practice

A growing awareness of health and wellbeing, together with the search for a solution to back pain, has led to a rise in popularity of Pilates in recent years. We currently offer Pilates classes at the retreat so in this article I explore the background to Pilates. I also take a look at the six key principles of practicing Pilates and share some practical exercises you can try at home, right now, so that you can make the most of your Pilates classes.

Who was Joseph Pilates?

Pilates takes its name from the German born Joseph Pilates (1883 – 1967). As a child he suffered from asthma and rickets but focused on making himself strong and healthy. He researched and practised many kinds of exercise from body building and gymnastics to classical Roman and Greek exercise regimes. He combined this with some of the Eastern disciplines of yoga, martial arts and Zen meditation. It was through his studies of anatomy, observing the movement of children at play and animals in the wild that he developed a holistic approach to his work. He was fond of saying “Change happens through movement and movement heals”, and this is as true now as it ever was.

Originally Joseph called his method Contrology as he not only saw it as a new approach to exercise but also a way to improve health and fitness. He was a great believer in de-toxing, skin brushing and deep breathing methods. He was amongst the first influential figures to combine Eastern and Western ideas about health and physical fitness. It was when Pilates emigrated to the USA in the early 1920´s, that he and his wife Clara developed and taught the method. Together they set up the first studio and trained the “Original Disciples” of Pilates but it wasn’t until the early 1990´s that Pilates hit mainstream exercise. Now it can be found in most gyms and studios and many Pilates exercises can be found in many different types of fitness classes.

Six key principles for Pilates practice

Pilates is a perfect addition to our timetable at La Crisalida as it supports your yoga practice and helps you to gain better posture and alignment. It has six principles at heart that aren’t that dissimilar to the principles of yoga which can be implemented in other areas of your life too. They are breath, centering, control, concentration, flow and precision.

So, if you are looking to “be the architect of your happiness” as Joseph was fond of saying, then read on…

1. Breath

“Breathing is the very first act of life and the last. Our very life depends upon it.” Joseph Pilates.

Breath is the first principle of Pilates, and one you may be already familiar with if you are used to doing yoga. There are many health benefits to breathing from alleviating stress, promoting confidence to improving blood circulation. Pilates breath is different to yoga breathing as you breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth. When we breath out through the mouth you connect with your deep transversus abdominus muscle (the core). This muscle is one of the key muscles in stabilising your spine and creating better core stability. This breath can be used to keep you strong and centered both emotionally and physically throughout your day.

How can I do this?

  • Until you get used to doing this breath it’s a good idea to practice it seated.
  • Make sure that you are comfortable, and your spine is straight and your feet on the floor.
  • Breathe in through your nose, keeping your shoulders still and imagining your breath expanding your ribcage at the front, sides and middle.
  • As you breathe out, keep your shoulders still and gently pull your belly button towards your spine as though a cord is attached to your belly button and is being pulled backwards.
  • Repeat ten times.
  • This is a great exercise to practice throughout the day, waiting for a kettle to boil, standing in a queue and watching TV…all the time strengthening your abdominals without even doing a sit up!!

Once you get used to breathing this way then start to incorporate it into your exercises. Your Pilates teacher will be happy to help you understand this in your body so do ask if you feel you can’t quite get the coordination. You can also use this breath to help you in some of the more challenging poses. If you are interested in learning more about the breath, read our earlier article: Yoga and breath.

2. Centering

Joseph Pilates taught that “energy flows from a strong centre”.

He referred to the centre as the Powerhouse as he recognised this part of the body as being crucial in health and good posture. The Powerhouse includes the abdominal muscles, pelvic floor, lower back, hips and buttocks. They work together to create an internal corset for the torso, which is a great way to keep our spines stable and strong. All Pilates movements start from the Powerhouse and when combined with Pilates breath make even more of a muscular impact. Nowadays, we more commonly know it as core stability but there is so much more to centering than ab work! When we centre our body, we also centre our minds, which helps with our emotional balance.

At La Crisalida we offer you the chance to really break down your understanding of this in our Coreworks classes. You can then go on to implement this newfound knowledge on our walks and in your Yoga practice.

How do I connect with my core?

First, practice your breathing exercises as this is key to your success. Then, when you feel you understand this process in your body, you can move into the next part of deepening your core contraction:

  • Take a deep breath in through your nose, and, as you breathe out through your mouth, start to pull your belly button towards your spine.
  • As you start to feel the connection, begin to lightly engage your pelvic floor muscles. These are the muscles between your genitals and anus. If you aren’t sure abut how to find your pelvic floor muscles, you can explore this further here (external link)
  • Once you have connected your pelvic floor muscles with your out-breath, you start the exercise.
    Through the setup of this core contraction you will create a strong abdominal platform from which all your movement can come.

Another great way to connect to your centre is to eat mindfully, chew your food well and remember to cleanse your body with juices to help your digestion…and drink plenty of water!!

3. Control

“Be in control of your body and not at its mercy” Joseph Pilates.

Learning to control our movements helps to retrain our faulty movement patterns and improve our posture. Every Pilates exercise is done with muscular control as a conscious, deliberate movement. This has many health benefits including improving physical coordination, balance and helping alignment of the different body parts.

How can I gain more control in my workout?

In a Pilates class you can learn to control your body at a deeper level by listening to your inner voice directing you to what your body needs today. Then perform each movement with conscious, deliberate movement that the mind is controlling…moving through mindfulness. This will help you to train your nervous system to respond more effectively with your muscles and improve their efficiency.

Perhaps you are new to mindfulness and would like more information? Read our article: a beginners guide to meditation for a greater understanding.

4. Concentration

“Concentrate on the correct movement each time you exercise, lest you do them improperly and thus lose all vital benefits”. Joseph Pilates.

Concentration is the perfect partner for breath, and it helps us to attain a mind-body awareness. When we do Pilates, we are invited to concentrate intensely so that the exercises are less about the repetitions but more about the quality of movement. This will help our mental health, increase our body connection and creative a more positive body image. Two universities in China performed a study where brain activity was measured in participants who completed ten weeks of Pilates. They found increases in the neural networks, improved cognitive function and enhanced memory performance.

How can I gain more concentration in my workout?

It´s quite simple really, by applying the principles of Breath and Control you are on the path to enhanced concentration. When you find yourself wandering in a class, bring your focus to your breath, which will anchor you again to the here and now. Accepting that our monkey mind will jump about until it is trained is an important part of accepting who you are. Over time, like any muscle, the brain can be trained to respond differently and that is when we and make long term changes to our physical and mental health. If you would like more ideas about how to increase your concentration (and gain contentment), we have lots of useful tips in our article: increase concentration and contentment in mindfulness of breathing.

5. Flow

“Contrology (Pilates) is designed to give you suppleness, natural grace, and skill that will be unmistakably reflected in the way you walk, in the way you play, and in the way you work.” Joseph Pilates.

As I mentioned earlier Joseph Pilates developed his method by watching children and play and wild animals. He observed their natural grace and efficiency of movement and felt inspired to incorporate that in his movements. One of the fundamentals of Plates is better posture. This comes from efficiency of movement through good joint alignment. In a Pilates class your teacher will talk about alignment and the set up of your positions before you start an exercise. This will help your skeleton move at its optimum and recruit the muscles effectively and effortlessly

How can I improve my flow?

To help with your alignment in a Pilates class, listen carefully to your teacher´s instructions. There is a great method you can use here called the rapid repeat method. This is when you repeat everything in your mind your teacher says. It will keep you fully engaged throughout your practice. Do ask the teacher if you are uncertain whether you are correctly aligned, and they will help you. Many Pilates exercise focus on the deep muscles that help to stabilise your skeleton and joints and iron out any imbalances you may have. When you practice the principle of breath and centering you will gain a greater connection to your core – this will also help you with your flow.

Outside of a class focus more on your posture and be mindful of your movement. For example, when you are walking observe which foot you lead with…do you work heavier on one leg more than the other? How are you sitting at work, are you slumping or using your body well? This change of mind to body connection will allow you to develop a more graceful flow to your movements, which will improve your flexibility and give you a greater sense of relaxation.

6. Precision

A few well designed movements, properly performed in a balanced sequence are worth hours of sloppy calisthenics or forced contortion” Joseph Pilates.

The principle of Precision has many benefits. It can bring you improved posture and create more balance on both sides of your body in muscular strength as well as flexibility. As a result of this, in the last decade Pilates has gained more popularity in mainstream medicine as a form of exercise for patients with back issues. The emphasis on precision is paramount in a Pilates class making it a wonderful tool for rehabilitation. However, this focus on precision also helps to improve sports performance and top athletes, dancers and footballers are known to use Pilates as part of their training regime.

How can I develop precision in my workouts?

When we work precisely with our bodies, we help the smaller muscles to contract. We develop a deeper awareness or ourselves that is sustained through each movement and gives us greater control and skill. When you are in a Pilates class (or any other exercise class for that matter) try the following:

  • Listen to your body and look at the set up of your exercise, making sure your joints are in alignment.
  • Breathe deeply and connect with your centre to create a strong abdominal platform to refine your more precise movements from.
  • Focus on the tiny nuances of your movement as you do it. Notice where you are feeling it, where your body is in relation to the mat and space, which muscles you can feel working.
  • Check in with what your teacher is saying and if you are experiencing something different, simply ask for clarification.
  • Give every aspect of the exercise attention. This includes the speed, the timing and the amount of repetitions you are doing.
  • Imagine that your body is an orchestra, finely tuned and in harmony with all the different parts. Pilates is coordination of the mind body and spirit so be aware of every part of you
  • When you are outside of the class, practice your breathing and centering work so that it becomes automatic when you are in the class.

Tips for looking for a teacher?

Every country has its own training organisation and regulations about training in Pilates so it is good to look around to ensure that your teacher is suitably qualified. You can do Pilates as a Matwork class or in a Pilates studio with apparatus. Ideally, your teacher should belong to an Exercise Regulatory Body. In the UK you can look at the Register of Exercise Professionals or The Chartered Institute for the Management of Sport and Physical Activity (CIMPSA) (external link).

The standard qualification is a Level 3 Diploma in Instructing Pilates although you may find teachers who have been qualified for longer with organisations such as Stott Pilates (external link), and The Independent Pilates Teachers Association. (Please note, these links should not be considered as recommendations for these asssociations or companies). Do your research!

Pilates is a safe system of exercise with amazing benefits for everyone regardless of their age, gender or profession. Practitioners love Pilates, often calling it their Happy Hour as it develops and maintains a toned and healthy body, improves posture and develops a better awareness of self.

Joseph Pilates said “Every moment of our life can be the beginning of great things..” so come and join us today at La Crisalida and find out for yourself!