Body and mind come together in this low-intensity full body workout that is fabulous for core strength, flexibility, postural alignment, balance and mobility, and amazing for reducing stress, releasing emotional tension and practising mindfulness.
Many people have heard of Pilates, and many yoga aficionados are also Pilates practitioners. The two are certainly different (and that’s another article!), but share similarities in their huge benefits for the mind, body and spirit.
I started practising a full 8 years ago (wow) and I can truly say that I look forward to each and every session with complete joy, content in the knowledge that I am going to walk out of that studio feeling probably two inches taller, highly self-aware, and calm, balanced and at one with myself. Originally I started mat classes simply to get one hour a week to myself when my daughter was 6 months old, and I soon discovered that this was a practice I’d never be giving up.
A brief history of Joseph Pilates
The Pilates Method of Body Conditioning develops the body uniformly, corrects posture, restores vitality, invigorates the mind and elevates the spirit.
Joseph Pilates began teaching his pioneering method to dancers when he and his wife Clara moved to New York from England around 1920/25 and opened their ‘body-conditioning gym’ in New York. He was originally from Germany, and although we don’t have much information about his early life, we do know that he was unwell as a child, suffering from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever, and was sadly tormented by bullies in his younger years.
His mind was strong however, and he dedicated himself to transforming his body into a pinnacle of strength too. He proceeded to take up all of these activities:
- martial arts
He also worked as a circus performer, a professional boxer, and taught self-defence to police officers – impressive, right?! And he studied various Eastern practices and Zen Buddhism in his twenties.
During the First World War, before his move to the USA, he was interned in England and gave exercise classes to his peers, using bed coils to act as springy resistance exercisers. A driven and determined person, he consistently aimed to improve focus, strength, control, and posture, and gradually developed the techniques to do so which we now know as Pilates…
The Six Principles of Pilates
The six principles of Pilates are:
These principles weren’t set out by Joseph and Clara themselves; they’re the philosophy of Pilates condensed into six concepts by later instructors who wanted to continue teaching Joseph’s methods after his death in 1967 at age 83.
They don’t have be taken in any particular order really, although it is worth noting that originally Joseph called his method ‘Contrology’; he wanted to emphasise the control our minds have over our bodies.
It is the mind itself which builds the body. The Pilates Method teaches you to be in control of your body, and not at its mercy.
These six principles should be applied whether practising on a mat class or with equipment; keeping them at the forefront of your mind will ensure that each exercise is completed to its full potential and you’ll get all the benefits; each principle is mutually nourishing. Later on we’ll get to some basic movements and I’ll explain how some of the principles are applied practically.
Hugely important in every Pilates movement; using your breath properly is an integral part of completing them. Joseph Pilates would refer to the lungs as ‘bellows’, advising deep, full, breaths that focus on exhalation through the mouth for the effort of the exercises. There are a few different types of breathing in Pilates, but lateral breathing (expanding the ribs out sideways) is possibly the most important.
Kind of a no-brainer, but I find it really does make a difference! Your warm-up at the beginning of your session should help you clear your mind of clutter and find focus so that you can complete each movement to its full potential, achieving maximum value for body and mind.
The energy of a particular movement should connect the parts of the body it concentrates with ease, fluidity and no clunkiness. Everything should be very even and smooth, and if you’re on a piece of equipment, you’ll soon know if you lose that flow! It’ll be fine of course, just a bit bumpy…! Concentrating on retaining your focus will help.
This one is about muscular control and mind control. The mind controls every tiny movement of the body; quite often making a smaller movement than seems necessary (your instructor will help you with this) as it may be more effective. All movements are consciously, deliberately controlled.
Centre > core > ‘POWERHOUSE’. The muscles we mean when we refer to the core of our bodies are essential for everything; walking, carrying, gardening, hoovering, cycling… These muscles support the torso and protect the spine. What Pilates instructors mean when they say the ‘powerhouse’ is an area extending beyond the core to the hips and bottom. Joseph advocated strengthening the central core, powerhouse and beyond in his movements – when we check out some basic exercises later on you’ll see how the muscles flow from the centre of the body.
There’s a highly appropriate, particular placement for each part of the body within each specific movement. When performing the movements, your mind and body should be aware, focused and precise.
Five Basic Pilates Mat Movements
Let’s have a look at some of the basic movements. You can get a really good workout for body and mind using these, even though they could be classed as beginner movements. If you intend to try any of these, PLEASE do a warm-up! Some gentle crunches, some hamstring stretches lying on your back, some gentle stretches up and down.
- The Pilates 100
- The roll up
- The bridge/pelvic curl
- Single leg circles
- Single leg stretch
The Pilates 100
The can be pretty challenging! It is often done at the start of mat classes from beginner level upwards though, and is a great warm up for your core and abdominals.
- Lie on your back and raise yours legs to the ‘tabletop’ position (shins parallel to the floor and knees above hips) and inhale.
- Exhale, bring your head up with your chin down, and curl your upper spine up off the floor, only as far as your shoulder blades, using your abs. Inhale.
- Feel further pull through your abs if you can, and extend your arm and legs and legs. They should be placed so that the arms are parallel to the floor a few inches up, and the legs are diagonal, as low as you can go, but not shaking!
- In this position, take 5 short breaths – in through the nose and out through the mouth. While you’re doing this, move your arms up and down, but be careful not to use your neck or shoulder muscles – it should all be through your abs.
- Complete a cycle of 10 breaths, 5 in and 5 out, pumping your arms up and down in unison with your breath. Yours abs should be ‘scooped’ (tucked in), and remember not to come up further than your shoulder blades.
- Finish: bring your knees into your chest and roll your upper spine and head down to the floor.
The roll up
Traditionally follows on from the 100 in a mat class. It’s a fab exercise, and is more beneficial than a load of crunches! It may be hard as a beginner, but your instructor can offer an alternative with bent legs. You can build up to the stronger version. It aims to target each and every vertebra singly, curling up through the spine using the abs.
- Lie on your back with arms stretched behind your head.
- Inhale as you reach your arms to the ceiling, slowly, think CONTROL.
- Exhale as you start to roll up through the spine. Think of each single vertebra moving one after the other.
- When the whole of the spine has left the floor in a lovely smooth curling movement, reach down towards your legs.
- Continue this downwards movement as far as your hamstrings will allow.
Inhale when facing down, then exhale as you slowly roll back down to the start, concentrating on each vertebra individually.
- Do this 10 times!
This’ll give you a stronger back and butt and is amazing for your core.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet hip width apart.
- Expand into your back and lungs.
- Exhale as you press your feet down into the floor and slowly raise your hips off the floor. Come up so that your body makes a straight line from shoulders to knees.
- Inhale. Maintain the bridge.
- Exhale. Imagine squeezing your ribs down to your belly, tighten your butt, and feel the lengthening in the front of your hips.
- Inhale, holding the bridge.
- Exhale and come back down to the mat.
Single leg circles
This is a classical mat exercise, and awesome for strengthening your core. The abs have to work hard to keep your torso controlled when your leg is moving. It promotes balance and function in your hips, and also stretches your hamstrings.
- Lie on your back, legs flat on the floor, arms up to the ceiling.
- Pull your abs in, and try to imagine your ribs dropping to the floor. Engaging your breath will help with this. ‘Anchor’ the shoulders and pelvis. Draw one leg in towards the chest, then extend it straight up to the ceiling.
- Inhale and draw the leg across, over the body towards the opposite shoulder.
- Continue in a flowing movement, and exhale and lower the leg down in a circling motion.
- Control the movement as your move the leg out to the side and then back to the centre.
- Essentially, you inhale at the top of the movement, when the leg is up straight, and exhale on the circular movement.
- Do 8-10 on this side, then change sides.
Single leg stretch
Another classical mat exercise, this one is great for all levels, and challenges the core and abs. Remember not to ‘bicycle’ your legs; they should move outwards in a straight line.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent in the tabletop position. Breathe deeply into the back and lower abdominals.
- Exhale while you pull your abs in, dropping the belly-button to the floor (that sounds odd but it’s what my instructor always says!) and slowly begin to peel up you head and neck to the tip of the shoulder blades. As you’re curling, extend your left leg out straight at 45°. Keep the right leg in tabletop position, and the right hand grasps the right ankle and the left hand gently holds the right knee. Remember to keep your upper body curved and your abs ‘scooped’.
- Begin switching legs. Inhale as the left leg comes in, and inhale a little more as you pulse the leg. The arms have also switched position – the left hand grasps the left ankle and the right hand gently holds the left knee.
- Exhale as the left leg goes out.
- Inhale as the right leg comes in, inhale a little again as you pulse, exhale as it goes out.
- Repeat, switching up to 10 times.
So now you have a few exercises, feel free to try them out gently – maybe follow a YouTube tutorial, or try a local class if you can!
I can guarantee that after around 8 weeks, your body will feel more toned, more flexible and stronger. I can also assure you that after even just one session, your mind and spirit will be calm, serene, and balanced, and if you’re anything like me, super-keen for the next!
Claire King is a copywriter and translator based in York, the UK. When she’s not reading, writing, or doodling ads, you’ll find her practising Pilates or enjoying some top-notch comedy!