At the core of Pilates teaching and practice are the fundamental principles that provide a focus and framework for completion of all the exercises. These principles are the foundation of the mind-body connection experienced during Pilates work.
The 10 Principles of Pilates
Joseph Pilates believed that mental and physical health were interrelated and were both necessary to create a balanced, centered human being. Physically, Pilates is driven by improving core strength, flexibility, overall physical performance, and the many other physical benefits that have been discussed up to this point. Mentally, Pilates is driven by making a mind-body connection and understanding how the body works from the inside out. Much of the focus is on external principles, such as breath, alignment, body placement, focus, and those things that only the student or practitioner can truly be aware of during practice.
Throughout the decades, principles have been added or changed and there is no one set of definite principles. From various sources, there have been as few as five basic principles – and on up to as many as ten. Many of the sources had overlapping principles, yet certain principles were present in each resource. For thoroughness and the idea that you can never know or learn too much, we will outline all of the principles we’ve found in the research done, which will be ten principles in total.
Breathing is one of the basic principles of Pilates, and all sources referenced showed agreement with this. Joseph Pilates wrote in his first book Return to Life Through Contrology, “breathing is the first act of life and the last”. With this thought in mind, he emphasized the importance of breathing correctly. A focus on breathing brings about a state of awareness in both mind and body. Full and thorough inhalation and exhalation are a part of every Pilates exercise. Joseph Pilates saw forced exhalation as the key to full inhalation.
Pilates breathing is described as posterior lateral breathing, meaning that the practitioner or student is instructed to breathe deeply into the back and sides of his or her rib cage. When exhaling, the focus should be on the engagement of the deep abdominal and pelvic floor muscles and maintaining this engagement through inhalation. Pilates breathing will also activate some diaphragmatic breathing. The diaphragm is a large dome-shaped muscle that extends across the bottom of the rib cage. The diaphragm is largely responsible for intra-thoracic pressure, which changes as we inhale and exhale. Exhaling releases the contraction of the diaphragm, which is why lateral and posterior breathing is encouraged throughout Pilates. Abdominal muscle contraction should always be maintained throughout the various exercises and movements. Pilates attempts to properly coordinate these breathing principles with every movement and every exercise.
Breathing is important and beneficial not just in Pilates practice, but in everyday life. Breathing does many things for the body including oxygenating and nourishing blood. Breathing also helps to improve circulation, improve skin tone, calm the mind and body, provide relaxation and stress relief, encourage concentration, assist in activating muscles, and expel toxins from the body. Breath is considered to truly be the connection between mind and body, as it drives all movements and therefore, lies at the center of all Pilates movements.
As an instructor, correct breathing techniques will be a constant cue required within your classes. Correct breathing techniques will be outlined for each of the 34 mat exercises. However, simply reminding students to breathe and giving them the cue “remember to breath” can be helpful and necessary. Sometimes the concentration on the movement is more than that of breathing and proper breathing techniques can fall by the wayside. As discussed, breathing is an integral part of each exercise just as the muscle movements themselves – and proper breathing may require constant cueing.
Pilates requires intense focus, as it is a bridge between awareness and movement. Concentration requires bringing full attention and awareness to the movement. It is also recognizing which muscles are being used, the positioning of the body, and the breath and breathing pattern being used. Pilates exercises involve highly specific movement patterns that require the correct placement of all parts of the body. When full concentration is given to the exercise and movement, all required components will align and provide the maximum benefit. Joseph Pilates promoted the value of concentration in Return to Life Through Contrology, by stating “one of the major results of Contrology (Pilates) is gaining the mastery of your mind of the complete control of your body”.
Concentrating on movement stimulates the brain and the neuromuscular system to perform coordinated patterns. This type of stimulation and learning of movement patterns and muscle memory will make the movements easier the next time they are performed. To engage the mind in this fashion has also been shown to promote cognitive function while continuing to increase the mind-body connection.
As an instructor, you will use concentration as a regular cue during exercises. You may cue students to concentrate or focus on hand placement for a particular exercise. You could also cue students to concentrate on breathing and the rhythm of their breath, which is promoting a strong mind-body connection.
Another universal Pilates principle is control. Control refers to having complete muscular control when completing each exercise. Joseph Pilates based his method on control, hence his books’ titles both using the term “contrology”. At first, achieving control will be a conscious effort and one that must be thought about during each exercise. Over time and many hours of practice, control should be more automatic and occur without thought. It is something highly trained athletes and performers achieve. They have complete and total control over their bodies and movements. Their actions are purposeful, yet routine and automatic in most instances.
As an instructor, control is not something that is easily cued and taught in a few classes. It will come with continued practice and mastery of exercises and skills. To help students gain better control, cueing them to focus on certain muscular contractions, or to feel and be aware of where their limbs are relative to their core, may help. The concepts of limb placement and control of parts of the body in relation to others are related to proprioception and kinesthetic awareness. Again, this creates a mind-body awareness.
Centering quite simply means to bring attention or focus to the core of where the center of gravity lies. Joseph Pilates called the very large group of muscles in the center of the body, i.e. the abdomen, lower back, hips, and buttocks, the “powerhouse.” It is the same as what is commonly referred to in the present day as “the core”. All energy for Pilates exercises is said to arise from the powerhouse and then flow outward to the limbs. In other words, the Pilates technique asserts that physical energy exerted from the center should coordinate movements of the extremities. Pilates felt that it was important to build a strong powerhouse in order to rely on it for daily living.
Centering can go beyond just finding the “core” or “powerhouse” muscles, and actually centering yourself physically, mentally, and spiritually. It is also finding the center within the person, that center that encompasses all aspects of the person.
As an instructor, cueing for centering will be used throughout each class. Engaging the core or powerhouse is a verbal and visual cue that can apply to nearly all exercises. Reminding students to constantly center themselves by “bracing the abdominal wall” or to “engage the abdominals and core” or “create energy starting at the navel” are all visual and verbal cues that should paint a clear picture for students as to how to center themselves.
5. Flow and Fluidity
Pilates should be done in a flowing manner. Fluidity, grace, and ease are goals applied to all exercises. Each exercise should be performed seamlessly, in one continuous motion, and should not appear jerky or disconnected. The energy of the exercise should connect all body parts and flow through the body in an even way.
As mentioned in previous sections, the primary focus of Pilates Mat work is flow, as you are able to transition from one exercise to another without much readjustment or preparation to begin the next.
As an instructor, it may not always be easy to create a continuous flow. This is even more true in a beginner class, due to needing to stop to take time for corrections and detailed explanations. However, you should create a sense of flow in the way you present the exercises and by following the order in which the mat exercises are performed. While cueing students to be aware of the flow, you should encourage them to think of the Mat classes as one long dance or performance that shouldn’t have gaps in between. You can also create visual concepts for students to think of such as moving through honey or molasses. Movements should have a slow controlled motion that appears as if it can continue to the very last second before moving to the next. By controlling the muscles and thinking of moving through honey or molasses, the flow should come easier. Like control, the flow will be something that comes with many hours of practice.
Every movement in the Pilates Method has a purpose. Every instruction and each part is considered vitally important to the success of the whole exercise. To leave out any detail or nuance is to ignore or dis- regard the true value of the exercise. The focus is on doing one precise and perfect movement, rather than many halfhearted ones. The goal is for this precision to eventually become second nature, and carry over into everyday life as is the goal of control and flow.
Precision requires complete muscle integration and recognizing corrections that need to be made in order for the exercise to be performed just right. Precision is the attention to subtle details and movements. Focusing the mind and attention on completing exercises correctly further promotes the mind-body connection.
As an instructor, you will work to help students master precision. You will need to constantly watch form and technique so that feedback can be given and corrections can be made. You will also have to cue students on the nuances and subtle details of each exercise. Small things such as the position of the fingers, whether the toes or relaxed or pointed and where the focus of the eyes should be are some of the small components to an exercise that make up the entire pose. Each movement has a purpose and must be addressed to successfully complete each exercise. This concept will be especially important with beginning students who need constant cueing and reminders to the various nuances.
Alignment refers to correct postural alignment and positioning of the musculoskeletal system. Correct alignment is important for many reasons, including prevention of injury and achieving the de-sired actions and results from a particular exercise. As discussed in other principles, Joseph Pilates was a huge advocate and believer in executing all exercises properly and correctly. Achieving optimal alignment starts with positioning the pelvis, ribcage, shoulder girdle, and head in a neutral alignment to one another, and then utilizing all the stabilization muscles to maintain that alignment while performing the exercises.
As an instructor, you will play a huge role in helping students achieve proper alignment. You can do this through example, by demonstrating proper alignment; or by utilizing mirrors in the gym or studio to have students check their own alignment. You can also walk around during class and help make physical corrections to position and alignment among the students. Verbal cues will also be important to help students achieve alignment. Saying things such as “tuck your tailbone under”, “relax your shoulders”, “lengthen your neck”, or “create a ninety-degree angle at your knees” will help to create a visual for students to self -correct their alignment.
Balance can relate to and mean many different things. In regular Pilates practice, balance is an outcome goal, as we try to correct imbalances in the body. Imbalances can come from injuries or chronic conditions, but can also be related to occupation or habits. Many of us are dominant on one side or can favor one side more than the other. This can create imbalances as muscles and tissue develop (or hypertrophy) more on one side. This imbalance can put undue stress on joints and connective tissues. Joseph Pilates mentions the importance of uniformly developed musculature in his books and stated that only when the muscles are developed correctly and uniformly can proper function and flexibility be achieved.
Balance can also refer to creating a balanced Pilates class and practice. It is important to teach in a way where all muscles and planes of motion are utilized and focused upon. Pilates does focus primarily on the core, however, it is important to work the core in a variety of ways (i.e. through flexion, extension, lateral flexion, rotation, etc) and to also utilize the extremities. The 34 Mat exercises represent a well-balanced program, focusing on muscles throughout the body and promoting movement through all planes.
Balance can also go beyond musculoskeletal and class format and refer more to mind-body elements. To create a balance between the mind and body is to put as much focus and importance on achieving a balanced body with a balanced mind.
As an instructor, balance is something you can help create for students but something they will also have to work on most of the time. Creating a balanced Mat class is your responsibility and requires you to carefully and thoughtfully plan out your workouts. By sticking to class exercises, you will be able to achieve a balanced class.
However, if you do choose to branch out beyond the 34 exercises or incorporate other equipment, you will always have to keep balance in mind. Balance from a musculoskeletal standpoint is an ongoing goal. You may notice the pelvis or shoulders tilted in a student’s balance profile, however, they may never have even realized it. Many times, when the body has been imbalanced or been compensating for an injury, we don’t realize our misalignments.
As an instructor, it is your responsibility to help students realize these concerns and help them to work towards resolving them. Lastly, creating a balance between mind and body is something you can encourage and dis- cuss – but will largely be up to the student to achieve.
Awareness meant being mindful and present during Pilates practice. It means that all other distracters should be eliminated – if possible – to create an environment in which Pilates practice is the only focus. The environment needs to have this quiet and focus in order to allow practitioners a way to create a mind-body connection and to be aware of the body as its practices. Awareness can also translate to having an awareness of the body’s position and alignment. To achieve balance or alignment, we must first have an awareness of what is correct and what correct feels like to us.
As an instructor, you can help students achieve awareness by creating a distraction-free environment. This means keeping studio doors closed from the rest of the gym, only playing music that is instrumental and calm (or not playing music at all), and keeping the studio clean and organized. Also, cueing will play a big part
in helping students to both focus and find awareness. At the start of class, cue your class to focus on their practice and forget about other worries or distractions for the hour; this will help them to bring their attention to the class. Cueing them on their breathing and how their body feels at the start of class will also create a mind-body awareness at the very start of class.
Harmony is sometimes referred to as integration. These terms are somewhat interchangeable, as they both mean the coming together of many pieces or parts to create a whole. During Pilates practice, several different muscle groups are engaged simultaneously to both control and support movement. The previous nine principles are also all engaged and being used in practice. All principles and muscle movements come together, making for a holistic mind-body workout. The feeling of harmony is what is experienced at the end of a class when you feel rejuvenated and refocused. It’s a feeling of accomplishment and inner peace. It’s that yin-yang effect where you feel like your body has just been worked and pushed physically but you also feel completely relaxed – two sensations that are very opposite from one another but are very connected in this instance.
As an instructor, you can encourage students to find inner peace and focus, but they will truly have to find it for themselves. You can create an environment and class that gives them all the tools and focuses on all the principles, but they will have to integrate them all together and then find their inner-peace and balance.
Complete harmony may not come in the first or second class, like some of the other principles. But with hard work and continued practice, all of these concepts and principles should eventually become second nature. Being able to do this is truly finding the mind-body connection that Pilates practice provides.
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