Pilates laid out eight basic principles which are the underlying foundation of all Pilates exercise:
We only use a small part of our lungs, and most of us do not give any thought to using our diaphragm correctly when breathing deeply.
Breath control is an essential part of every technique. Without correct breathing, we lose most of the benefits of the exercise. We should therefore ensure that every time we breathe in, we are aware of taking the air fully into our lungs rather than into the abdominal area. When we breathe out, we should ensure that our lungs are properly emptied, cleansing our systems. We rarely consider the muscles we are using to inhale and exhale, and so breath control gives us the opportunity to become aware of the ‘inside’ of our bodies, putting us more in touch with ourselves and giving us the opportunity to regain control, correcting any poor habits.
Centring is concerned with finding the centre of the powerful core muscles. We all have a centre of gravity, which is located just below the navel, where the pelvis meets the spine. In martial arts this is often referred to as the seat of Chi or Ki energy. There are deep abdominal muscles in this area which draw the abdomen towards the spine, and deep spinal muscles which run the length of the torso. These abdominal muscles all work together, and if we take the analogy of a car, we need to be in neutral at the start, avoiding crashing the gears and going off in all directions. In Pilates, this position is referred to as ‘neutral spine alignment’. We will examine this in more detail in a later Lesson.
This is the first essential requirement of Pilates, and a lack of concentration will affect the whole purpose of the exercises. Not only is concentration required to learn the techniques, but also later on when poor habits can slip in un-noticed. Relaxing is not the same as losing concentration – in fact it has the opposite effect by enabling us to focus more easily. Many of the exercises involve stretching on contracting just one group of muscles whilst the rest of the body is relaxed, and this requires high levels of concentration.
We should not waste a single Pilates movement by being careless or thoughtless. The body and mind should be constantly linked, using pure body awareness to make each movement as controlled and focussed as possible. Mental control becomes developed through Pilates techniques so that every muscle can be controlled independently.
For a movement to have fluidity and grace, it requires all of the relevant muscles to work together. Because Pilates creates an ordered sequence of muscle movement, they may initially feel jerky or uncomfortable. It may therefore take a while to become fluid. However, once we reach unconscious competence, we will be totally fluid.
With Pilates having the emphasis of quality rather than quantity, we have greater opportunity to get each exercise just right. Each exercise has detailed, precise instructions which must be followed, and this is part and parcel of the Pilates discipline. A mirror will provide the opportunity to check positions at every stage – each movement should be exact, definite and accurate, encompassing fluidity, grace, co-ordination and accurate position.
From a Pilates perspective, we simply need to adopt a routine of structured exercise on a regular basis, as often as we would enjoy it. This may mean taking classes once or twice a week, or exercising at home regularly, or even just incorporating movements into daily life. Certainly, “neutral spine alignment” should become a natural habit of everyday life. This is not the usual meaning of “stamina” where we tend to think of running ourselves into the ground!
Pilates was careful to ensure that each of his exercises was designed to release stress and tension held in the body, particularly in the shoulders. It is an unusual system of exercise insofar as it allow its practitioners to relax yet exercise at the same time. This means being able to complete a full workout yet feel refreshed and energised.