It’s been a while since I wrote about Pilates, but as it was my first venture into mind-body fitness and I promised myself I’d become an instructor in it, I thought I’d take the time to write about the basic principles that act as the foundation for Joseph Pilates’ method of “Contrology” which he based on a lifetime of study of movement and fitness. There have been a lot of studies coming out on the benefits of doing Pilates in the past year, ranging from improving sleep to quality of life. Before I launch into the explanations of the six principles (sometimes they vary a little depending on the school teaching them, but these are the main foundational ideas he wrote about), I want to talk about the powerhouse.
In Pilates, the powerhouse is considered your core. Not just your rectus abdominus, the superficial muscle that makes six- or eight-pack abs look good but actually can contribute to back pain when overworked, but the integrated system of muscles that supports your lower back and pelvic girdle. There are a lot of them because the pelvis is where the two halves of your body combine. Besides the rectus, which is focused upon least (in my opinion), the powerhouse includes:
- The transverse abdominals
- The internal and external obliques
- The erector spinae and other back muscles
- The hip flexors
- The gluteals
Most of the focus is on the transverse abdominus, obliques, hip flexors, back muscles, and other supporting trunk muscles. Pilates believed–and science has since proved–that all movement originates in the core. When the mind-body link is established through practicing the Pilates principles which underline the method of Contrology, you’ll find that you have an enormous sense of understanding of what’s happening within your body as well as being able to control what your body is doing. It no longer acts of its own accord, but instead you become more mindfully aware of how you move.
The principles are:
Concentration: perhaps the most important principle (again, in my opinion), it is absolutely necessary to stay focused on what you are doing throughout your practice, whether it be a 15-minute or hour-long workout. Concentration establishes the mind-body link, allowing for new neurological pathways to be established over time with repeating the exercises. It takes at least six seconds to begin establishing these new neurological pathways, and at least 1000 times repeated with an average of 10,000 times, equating roughly to 18 hours of practice for each exercise.
Centering: this principle states that all movement starts in the powerhouse, with the main working muscles being those of the deeper abdominals, back muscles, and glutes. From the powerhouse, each movement flows outward into the rest of the body, enhanced by correct form and anatomical alignment.
Precision: in addition to doing an exercise with full concentration and the activation of the powerhouse, Pilates asks the student to approach each exercise with goal. “Honor every movement,” said Pilates. Every exercise has a purpose, a way it will help build strength and the connection between mind and body. Therefore, each exercise should be done with the aim of achieving perfected repetitions, which is part of the reason most of them are performed in a low number of repetitions. It is vital that, as you practice your exercises, you continually scan your body and breath (coming up) to see if you are doing all six principles.
Breathing: not only do you need to perform exercises as well as possible, you must also breathe with them. The breath is integral to every exercise because it helps create a rhythm and flow with which to follow. It also makes the exercises easier, though it can take getting used to. Sri K. Pattabi Jois used to say to his students, “Incorrect breathing, pain coming.” So many people hold their breath when they work out, causing an increased thoracic pressure (and elevated blood pressure), veins popping out of their bodies, redness in the skin, faintness that might lead to nausea or fainting, etc. As a general rule, a student inhales through the nose on the preparation and exhales through the mouth to execute the movement.
Control: in order to prevent any injury from happening to the body, all exercises need to be done mindfully. A student needs to be in full control of every movement they execute, both in body and mind. (Again, coming back to the link between body-mind is very important in establishing those neurological pathways.) This idea is where Pilates got his “Contrology” term, or “The art of control.” When done without sudden, thoughtless, or haphazard movements (and distracted thoughts), Pilates is one of the safest exercise regimens out there.
Fluidity of movement: also called “flow,” this principle states that each exercise should have a smooth, graceful quality to it; additionally, transitions between each exercise should also flow together. With practice and time, any jerkiness, static rests, or fragmented movements will melt away into an effortless dance-like practice.
As with any exercise, particularly if you are new to it, it’s going to take some time to learn all of this. I highly recommend finding a qualified instructor under whom to study. As I tell my new students, who often look like deer in the headlights when they have to think about all of these things at once (and look a little worn out after class from having used their brains in new, unexpected ways), take things one step at a time. Master one principle at a time–make it the focus of a practice and as you begin to learn the movements, add more and more principles until you can concentrate (no pun intended!) on them all while flowing (hehe!) through all the exercises.