Aside from its ability to tone the core, Pilates is probably most famous for having 6 guiding principles.
In light of this it may surprise you to learn that Joseph Pilates – the man who invented the method – didn’t actually write them.
The 6 Pilates principles (Breath, Concentration, Control, Precision, Centre and Flow) were actually created by Joseph’s students. They condensed his theories into 6 simple ideas to make his method accessible for future generations of students.
Because of the way these 6 principles came about there is some debate within the Pilates community about the names and number of them.
Most teachers agree with the 6 basic concepts, however, even if they are sometimes called different things!
Pilates today and the 6 principles:
Our understanding of human anatomy and the moving body has evolved quite considerably since Joseph started teaching in the 1920s.
The application of Pilates has also changed in that time.
As well as using it to improve the physical fitness of clients, Pilates is now often a central tool in the rehabilitation of seriously injured patients. At times this means some radical modification of exercises and deviation from the repertoire!
Having said this, and despite all the scientific advances, even contemporary Pilates remains largely faithful to these 6 central pillars.
Proof, as if we needed it, that Joseph was a man ahead of his time.
Here we explore these 6 principles in more detail. We see how they stack up against the science, and explain what they mean for us at Complete Pilates.
The 6 Pilates Principles:
Pilates Principles #1. Breath
Think of Pilates and the image of the powerful inhale and exhale of the “hundreds” exercise often springs to mind.
It is no surprise then that “breath” was one of the most essential aspects of Pilates for Joseph.
Indeed, he is quoted as once saying: “Breathing is the first act of life, and the last… above all, learn how to breathe correctly.”
At Complete Pilates:
Breathing for us at Complete Pilates is as important as it was to Joseph. But thanks to scientific discoveries we now understand exactly why important breathing well is so vital.
Bad breathing habits can influence every part of the body. From creating neural sensitivity, to worsening postural issues and impacting our pelvic floor health. Improving them can therefore radically improve our health.
Our breathing patterns can also impact our ability to move.
Trying to curl the body with a held breath will get you nowhere. But breathe deeply and fully and your diaphragm will help you achieve this movement with ease.
A strong outbreath can also help activate those vital – but hard to access – deep core muscles when doing abdominal exercises.
The mental benefits of good breathing habits, as recent studies on mindfulness and meditation show, can’t be overstated.
A deep, slow inhale sends signals to the brain to calm down¹. Meaning that good breathing habits gained through Pilates can lead to a reduction in stress.
Our physical and our mental health are intimately connected.
It is probably no surprise then we’ve found that teaching people to breathe well is a vital part of helping them to reach their goals. Be that rehabilitation of an injury or just improved physical fitness.
Pilates Principles – Breathing
Pilates Principles #2. Concentration
Anyone who has ever taken a Pilates class will know that this type of movement requires maximum focus. Try swirling your legs in the air whilst keeping your pelvis completely still and your shoulders relaxed. You get the picture.
However, for Joseph, “concentration” meant more than just the attention required to successfully perform each exercise.
In fact, he believed it was vital for his students to focus intensely on the movements their bodies were performing for them to reap both the mental and physical benefits of Pilates.
At Complete Pilates:
Again, Joseph seemed to be ahead of his time on this one.
Thanks to the current stream of scientific research around mindfulness and meditation², we now know that this kind of “mindful movement” can reduce stress, blood pressure, and can help us manage pain better.
Concentrating on your body whilst doing your Pilates exercises – rather than, say, thinking about what you had for breakfast – also has other advantages.
By focusing your attention inwards, you can learn to feel where you are moving from and what muscles are working. Through this your body awareness will increase and this can help you become more efficient in your daily movement, be that sitting at your desk or running that half marathon.
At Complete Pilates, we see this improved body awareness as a great way for people to learn to relax their muscles as well as engage them.
Pilates is often associated with the “sucking in” of abs or “lifting” the pelvic floor, but we believe that it is just as important to learn to release, to soften and to let go order to improve overall physical health.
Pilates Principles – Concentration
Pilates Principles #3. Centre
The idea of the centre is linked to the concept of the Pilates “powerhouse”.
For Joseph, this area was a box covering the middle of the body, from the shoulders down to below the hip joints in front and the base of your bottom at the back. It is from this “box” that exercises in the Pilates repertoire are supposed to be performed.
Activation of this area can involve teachers cuing you to “scoop in” or “hollow” your abdominals.
Whilst these cues are said with the best intentions (to engage your core, tone your abdominals and protect your lower back) they can actually have a negative impact on the body.
At Complete Pilates:
Thanks to advances in science – including this study about how trying to lift your pelvic floor can lead to you pushing it down³ – we now understand why these cues might not always be very effective.
Over recruitment of your abdominal muscles can even inhibit the movement of your diaphragm. And no six pack is worth that.
The idea of core activation has also radically shifted over time. We now know that muscles need to relax and contract – even during a Pilates session.
For those people suffering with pain, often getting out of a braced state is an important part of recovery and is as vital as building strength.
With good breathing habits helping you to connect to your centre, you can build a strong, solid basis for movement without any clenching, sucking in or bracing.
Pilates Principles – Centre
Pilates Principles #4. Control
Pilates was originally called Contrology, so it’s not surprising that one of its central principles is all about “control”.
Joseph placed great emphasis on the importance of deliberately controlling every movement and all parts of the body when performing the Pilates repertoire.
He also designed the Pilates equipment for this specific purpose. Total control of the body is required to make sure the pulleys and springs of the machines glide smoothly.
But for him, control was about more than just the body though.
Romana Kryzanowska, one his original students, once said, “Pilates is about stretch, strength and control. And control is most important because it uses your mind”.
As with the other principles, Joseph wanted his students to cultivate a mind/body relationship.
To do so, he believed participants in a Pilates class needed to exercise control over the mind to create exact movements in the body.
At Complete Pilates:
We use this principle at Complete Pilates to help people to reconnect with their bodies.
This is especially important for those clients who might feel their bodies are out of their control due to injury, illness, pregnancy, or just years of inactivity.
By developing this level of control through Pilates, our clients also learn new and more efficient ways to move.
And it’s not just us saying it. There is science to back us up.
As with acquiring any new movement skills, doing Pilates exercises ‘soft-wires’ them into the brain, which means they are still a conscious effort to produce. Over time, however, they get ‘hard-wired’ into the brain and become automatic.
For those in rehabilitation for an injury: work on controlling your movement through Pilates and eventually these healthy movement patterns will become a natural part of your life.
The same applies for those who are simply looking to challenge their body and mind through doing the more advanced Pilates exercises.
So the next time you’re hanging upside down from a strange looking apparatus remember – it’s all in the name of rewiring your brain.
Pilates Principles #5. Precision
Unlike other movement practices, Pilates requires you to move in a very precise and exact way.
Teachers of Joseph’s method are often looking for certain shapes and movement patterns created using the body. This is achieved through very specific cueing and corrections during a class, with teachers often pointing out the muscles and bones that should be working at any given time.
Joseph believed this emphasis on perfect technique and movement helped his students to both break down existing bad habits and then learn how to move in a better way.
At Complete Pilates:
We agree with Joseph whole heartedly that Pilates can re-educate the body through movement.
Our mission at Complete is to use the latest science to get you moving in the most efficient way. And, whilst we might not be after the best-looking “Teaser”, we still want precision in the execution of each exercise.
Precision is all about learning to initiate movements from the right part of your anatomy and doing them in a way that requires the appropriate level of effort.
Science proves that the repetition of exercises in this way allows movement to become second nature.
So, once the body gets the hang of these Pilates exercises, bigger movements – running, squatting, jumping – suddenly become attainable.
Pilates Principles – Precision
Pilates Principles #6. Flow
The ultimate goal of Pilates is to encourage the body to move with ease and fluidity through even the most challenging of movements.
Given that many of Joseph Pilates’s early clients were ballet students, it is unsurprising that there is this emphasis on beautiful, graceful movement.
At Complete Pilates:
Flow for us at Complete means ease of movement, both inside the studio and out of it.
We’re not overly concerned with how beautifully you move on the equipment – although it is always nice to see. Instead, we’re more focused on making your body work in an optimal way biomechanically.
Having said that, “flow” is still important for us to see.
An ability to move fluidly through exercises that involve the coordination of various body parts means that your body now automatically knows what to do.
It tells us that all those endless cues have worked and you now understand when to apply effort, how much is appropriate, and where each movement should be coming from.
Most importantly for us, this means that you’ll now be able to do ordinary things – or extraordinary if you’re one of our athlete clients – be that pick up a baby or a 100kg barbell in the gym, safely and efficiently.
And if you’re anything like us, that’s more than reason enough to keep us coming back to the Pilates studio.
Pilates Principles – Flow
To find out more about the classes we run at Complete Pilates click here.
3. Brent Anderson