What is Pilates?

What is pilates - Two females wearing gym clothes and stretching on a studio floor using pilates equipment

Pilates is a method of exercise that has been used by elite athletes and dancers for decades.

But Pilates’s popularity has exploded in recent years, thanks to celebrity endorsements from the likes of Kate Hudson and Jennifer Anniston.

For those of you who don’t know about Pilates – hello, where have you been? –  this article will answer that all important question: “what is Pilates?”, give you a brief breakdown of its history, and let you in on the main benefits of the method.

So read on and discover why Pilates has been such a hit.

What is Pilates: a brief history

The method we now know as Pilates was originally called “Contrology” and was invented by bodybuilder and gymnast Joseph Pilates.

German-born Joseph was a sickly child. In order to combat his ill health, he studied and practised lots of different types of exercise programmes. It was through this he began to devise his own unique style of movement.

After coming to England in 1912 for work, Joseph was held prisoner in an internment camp on the Isle of Wight with other Germans at the beginning of World War 1.

He continued to develop his method whilst captive and even tried it out on the other men. In an early version of the Pilates equipment, Joseph even attached springs to hospital beds so that sick inmates could exercise.

The Pilates system really took form, however, once Joseph emigrated to New York in 1926. It was here that Joseph and his wife Clara set up their first studio and attracted the first group of Pilates students.

By the 60s, Joseph and his method was an established favourite amongst New York ballet dancers.

By the 1970s, Hollywood’s elite started to pay attention to the body benefits Joseph’s system offered.

And, by the 80s, the media started to pay attention and Pilates moved into mainstream fitness.

Today there exist a number of different Pilates schools and each teach a variation of the method. But all remain true to the original guiding principles of Pilates – a testament to Joseph’s brilliance.

So, what is Pilates?

Pilates stabilises the body

Pilates is famous for toning abs and strengthening the “core” – or the “powerhouse” as Joseph Pilates called it.

But the Pilates method is so much more than this.

Pilates uses slow, controlled and precise movements to strengthen the deep stabilising muscles found in the neck and shoulder, the spine and the pelvis.

This is important because these deep muscles stabilise and support your spine. When they switch off, pain in the lower back or around the pelvis is often the result.

Of course, Pilates does tone the body and can help you get that much sought-after flat stomach. But it also, much more importantly, helps your body to function better and will leave it less prone to injury.

Pilates builds a balanced body

Joseph Pilates was inspired by the classical Greek ideal of the man balance in body, mind and in spirit when creating his method.

The theme of “balance” appears both in the Pilates repertoire itself and the ideology surrounding it.

But one of the most significant ways it shows itself is in the emphasis on balanced muscles development.

Imbalances in the body may occur as a result of genetics, the work that you do, or the sport that you play.

Pilates is a great tool for correcting these because the repertoire incorporates unilateral exercises (meaning you train one side at a time). These type of movements highlight – and help to even up – any asymmetries in the body.

There are many other amazing benefits to Pilates. These include (but are definitely not limited to): increased control, greater flexibility and mobility, and improved coordination.

What is Pilates

Pilates is a mind-body activity

Pilates is more than merely an exercise programme designed to sculpt muscles. Like Tai Chi and Yoga, Pilates is a type of mindful movement.

Mindfulness expert Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn describes the concept of mindfulness as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.”

Given what Kabat-Zinn says, anyone who has ever taken a Pilates class will understand why it is referred to as “mindful exercise” – to get through one successfully requires a lot of focus!

This is because Pilates exercises are all about precision. Therefore, in trying to perform them correctly you need to concentrate intensely on your body and what it is experiencing in the moment.

Doing so creates a harmony between mind and body, and a “present” state of mind.

Importantly, mindfulness as a technique is now celebrated for the way it reduces stress, anxiety, depression – and can even help manage chronic pain.

And, as the above shows, Pilates is the perfect environment to create this mindful state.

Those who practise Pilates with this intention can therefore reap the benefits of mindfulness at the same time as improving their physical health.

Pilates creates good breathing habits

For Joseph Pilates, breathing well was an integral part of good health. He used the Pilates repertoire – particularly abdominal exercises like the “hundreds” – to teach people how to fully inhale and fully exhale.

He saw breathing as a cleansing mechanism for the body and referred to it as the “internal shower”.

And Joseph was on to something.

Optimal breathing helps to stimulate certain muscle groups. It also helps to carry oxygen-rich blood to nourish all tissues, while removing impurities and metabolic waste.

Learning to breathe well through Pilates is also important because shallow breathing has become a chronic problem in our society. This is largely a result of environmental stressors such as pollution and a response to the requirements of our hectic lives.

Shallow breathing is a major issue because when it becomes habitual it can result in chronic stress.

Applied in the right way, Pilates can be a brilliant way to re-educate our bodies, undoing these bad habits, and learn to breathe properly again.

What is Pilates - breathing meditation

Pilates teaches us skills for life

Joseph Pilates saw his method as a way of life, rather than merely a fitness regime.

Unsurprisingly, he touted Pilates as an essential tool for health. At the same time, however, he also recognised that diet, recreation and mind-set were also vital and he wrote about these in his book Return to Life.

Aside from “breathing”, the other two principles he believed that were vital for good health were “whole body commitment” and “whole body health”.

For him, “Whole body commitment” meant applying your full attention whilst performing the Pilates exercises. In doing he claimed you would reap the most physical reward for your hard work.

Discipline, demonstrated through a regular Pilates practice, was also part of his recipe for wellbeing.

At the same time, Joseph also believed a balanced combination of restorative sleep, work, exercise and play was vital to achieve real and long-term “whole body health”.

Despite being having been written all the way back in 1945, Joseph’s advice is even more relevant today given the stresses and strains modern life puts on bodily health and mental wellbeing.

Achieving the balance in life Joseph talked about is difficult.

And we’re not promising that Pilates is the answer.

But taking a regular Pilates session is an easy and enjoyable way to make a commitment to your mental and physical wellbeing. And it might just be that first step on a journey to “whole body health”.