Long ago, I took a mat Pilates class and found it rather dull and unchallenging. But this goes back a solid 10 to 15 years, before it became mainstream. Over time, however, I’ve learned that Pilates isn’t about the “no pain, no gain” attitude, the hardcore cardio many of us have come to know (and for some of us, love), or the heavy iron pumping we think we need to do. It is about a mind-body connection, that challenges your body in a different way.
For a Pilates workout to truly be beneficial, it is important that it integrates the six principles outlined below, and that your mindset needs to shift from quantity (reps, miles, etc.) to quality: Pilates exercises use a low number of repetitions, with precision, yielding significant results in a shorter time.
- Breath: Learning to consciously breathe fully and smoothly while still maintaining powerhouse control. “Pilates Breathing” involves inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth, breathing laterally through the sides of the ribs and into the back. This is important because correct Pilates breathing increases circulation, bringing needed oxygen to the brain and muscles while exercising, while maintaining the necessary core strength to support the movements. It also reduces unnecessary muscular tension and decreases stress during Pilates and in daily life. It can even aid respiratory conditions, such as asthma, by exercising the lungs.
- Centering: Centering means working from the “powerhouse”, pulling the navel to the spine, and creating a concave “scoop” in the belly. It means beginning every exercise from the center – or core – of your body. It includes the deepest abdominals and spinal muscles, and those in and around the hips and buttocks as your source of movement and strength, even when working the arms and legs. Doing this maintains a center of balance, maximizing your ability to perform the exercises, and using the least amount of energy to do it. It strengthens and supports the alignment of the spine, preventing or correcting conditions like scoliosis, disc herniations, sciatica, and disc degeneration. It protects joints and extremities from being overused or injured. It aids in overall effectiveness of your body to perform everyday tasks like sitting, working at a desk, walking, standing or doing any manual labor. And, it fosters any type of extreme activity that uses focus, balance, strength, agility, precision, and/or overall power, including most sports, dance, and martial arts.
- Concentration: Pilates requires that you have a mind-body connection by using careful mental focus to perform the exercises with precision, by visualizing and feeling how your body is moving in space. This helps you to understand and appreciate the purpose of each exercise as well as its placement in sequence. Concentrating creates a meditative experience, as the mind focuses completely on the body and becomes clear and undistracted. It helps connect the mind to the breath, which is slow and even and thus relaxing and allows for lifelong personal growth, as the mind processes a continually deeper and often NEW experience of the body as it moves through the exercise system. This leads to everyday awareness of your body.
- Control: Control requires you use your mind to carefully regulate the movements of your body, understanding how to effectively use and manipulate your deepest muscles. This helps to build long, lean muscles by monitoring how they are used. It generates self-awareness and overall muscular mastery, and maximizes effectiveness of both daily and extreme activities.
- Precision: Again, Pilates requires you focus on the quality of practice, not quantity. Performing only a few repetitions of each exercise with careful form and control, and executing the detailed movements within each exercise, with specific intent. This helps to keep Pilates challenging and interesting by discovering new details within the exercises, and allows you to experience the “process” or practice of Pilates, rather than a technique that can be mastered. This leads to everyday benefits of body alignment and great posture.
- Rhythm and Flow: Rhythm and flow involves performing exercises in a fairly slow, even, and fluid way; each exercise connecting directly to the next with smooth transitions. This help to ensure energy is maximized, allows for easier control of breath and release of unnecessary tension, and leads to a fluidity, grace, and ease in every day movements.
I know, it sounds hard to believe. For so long we’ve been taught that the harder we exercise, the more results we will see. But, I do believe that if Pilates is a component of a larger fitness strategy, it can prove to be beneficial when the above principles are incorporated.
Have you tried Pilates? Do you think you get anything out of it? Have you applied the above principles to your practice?