For a while, when people heard the word Pilates, they envisioned either a slim ballerina or a wealthy actress in L.A. doing some form of “exercise” that didn’t look that hard. Or maybe you thought to yourself, Pilates is like yoga, right?
And while Pilates may have had a somewhat ambiguous rise to the spotlight, I can promise you, Pilates is far beyond that perception and has the power to change your entire quality of life.
At its baseline, Pilates is a method of movement that builds uniform strength and improves the functionality of your body. Pilates focuses on moving your body with intention and precision, connecting to your breath and activating your deep core, improving flexibility and balance, and creating greater overall body awareness and mind-body connection.
The method not only strengthens all your muscle groups, but fosters finding connections and learning exactly how your entire body works together. Pilates increases your mobility, to move more comfortably and pain free, while also improving your stability, helping you find better control.
The six principles of Pilates
Concentration: Maintaining a steady focus to execute the movement properly, creating a mind-body connection and gaining the most value out of the movement.
Control: Being intentional with every movement and specific about your pacing, allowing you to hone in on your form for optimum results. An ode to the method’s original name, “Contrology.”
Centering: Strengthening your core, or ‘powerhouse,” and finding how to move your body from the center/core.
Breath: Arguably the most important aspect of all movement. Breath drives all your movement and enhances your power, stability, and control.
Precision: Acute focus on your form and biomechanics, to maximize efficiency and results, to prevent injury.
Flow: Finding a fluidity of movement and transfer of energy, with thoughtful transitions.
The mini history.
Joseph Pilates, born in Germany in 1883, was the creator of the Pilates method, originally called “Contrology.” Pilates had very poor health as a child, which fueled his initial interest in physical fitness. In 1912, Pilates moved to Britain and worked as a boxer and circus performer. At the beginning of World War I, Pilates was interned in Britain with other German nationals. Having already begun creating a specified technique to improve physical fitness, he honed his method while working as an orderly during the war. He attached bed springs to the hospital beds to help rehab soldiers and rebuild their strength while they were still bedridden (which later translates to the resistance spring so the Pilates reformer).
In the mid 1920’s, Pilates emigrated to the United States and opened his first body-conditioning gym in New York City with his wife Clara. His new style of movement grew in popularity, especially among professional dancers of the time, as the method improved the dancer's technique, as well as helped them prevent and rehab from injuries.
From there, the method continued to make waves in the exercise industry.
Pilates continued to teach right up until his death in 1967. His writings (he published two books, “Your Health” in 1932 and “Return to Life Through Contrology” in 1945), as well as the continued teachings of the Pilates elders (the original students who worked with Joseph Pilates), allowed his method to be carried on and developed over the years since his death. The practice was renamed from Contrology to Pilates.
For more detailed information on Joseph Pilates and his life, read The History of Pilates on the Pilates Method Alliance website.
How Pilates has continually developed
Today, Pilates has maintained the integrity and original teachings of Joseph Pilates, while also adapting to new science and continuing to grow and progress.
There are varying ways you can practice Pilates, including classical and contemporary approaches.
Classical Pilates teaches Joseph Pilates actual exercises, executed in the order in which he created, with his original intentions (Shari Berkowitz, The Vertical Workshop blog).
Contemporary Pilates applies a more modern approach to the Pilates fundamentals, taking into consideration biomechanics and new knowledge and science about the way the body works. Contemporary Pilates includes additional variations and exercises, still based on the guiding Pilates principles.
Why you need Pilates and how it can change your life
If I had it my way, Pilates would be integrated into physical education classes in schools from a very young age. Kids would grow up learning the power that comes with understanding how to best move your body.
As with most forms of physical exercise, Pilates builds strength in the body, but Pilates does so in a very functional way, that improves your quality of life. You’re not building glamor muscles, like bulging biceps, but instead you are strengthening your deep core so you can live your life without back pain. You are building strong glutes, hamstrings, and hip flexors so you can get up and down from the floor to play with your kids and grandkids well into your 60s, 70s, and 80s. You strengthen your entire low body, including the muscles that support your knees, so you can run marathons or hike mountains safely.
As you age, you do not need to accept pain or stop doing physical activity. The strength you build with Pilates keeps doing all the things you love for as long as possible.
Pilates also teaches you about the connectivity of your body and how everything works together. You learn about proper body mechanics and form, that not only keeps you healthy and injury free, but when you exercise in this most efficient manner, you reach your physical goals faster.
And of course, the injury prevention that comes from Pilates saves you a whole lot of time and money. Not just time spent at the doctor (and time paying for the doctor $$), dealing with pain, and recovering, but the time you missed training, where you could’ve been progressing.
Pilates improves your flexibility and balance. Flexibility allows you to not only feel better in your body – less achy and tight – but move better in all your daily activities. Balance keeps you steady, safe from falls on slippery and icy surfaces or uneven ground. Through Pilates, You not only do you know how to use your core to regain your center of balance, but you also have the strength realign your body as it moves.
Moving your body through Pilates also helps prevent disease.
“Regular physical activity helps improve your overall health, fitness, and quality of life," says the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (2020). "It also helps reduce your risk of chronic conditions like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, many types of cancer, depression and anxiety, and dementia."
Not only does Pilates help your physical body, but the mental and emotional implications are just as important. As cited above, not only does movement reduce your risk of depression and anxiety, but exercise can also help reduce stress. Pilates, in particular, requires a detailed mind-body focus, forcing you to tune-out the rest of the world and all of your normal stressors, focusing on nothing but your movement and your body for the length of your session.
A steady Pilates practice changes your physical body and improves your mental state.
So you’re sold, now what?
Time to start your first beginner class. Check out this free 25 Minute Pilates for Beginners class.
Pilates is certainly a journey. The longer you practice, the more connected to your body and the more aware you become, the harder the classes become.
With consistency, Pilates has the ability to truly transform how you feel.