Movement Therapies

Pilates: An Intelligent Form of Exercise




When I first looked at my new book on Pilates, my initial reaction was, "You must be joking! I can't get into any of those positions." After sulking about this for a few weeks I decided to go back and read the introduction to find out what was making so many of my friends "Pilates crazy." I am glad I did, because as I began to understand the basic principles and to realize that I wasn't expected to balance on my hands—with my torso and one leg in the air—on my first attempt, I found that the intelligence behind this form of exercise made perfect sense.


Pilates was designed by Joseph Pilates, who was born in Düsseldorf, Germany, in 1880. Pilates was not a healthy individual: he suffered from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever. He was determined to find a way to strengthen his body, increase his stamina and improve his balance and flexibility. Over the years he studied a variety of methods, from yoga to circus training, and worked out his own system to bring about the best results. He discovered that if he hollowed his naval back towards his spine, then his lower back felt protected. He worked on the idea that if you could establish a strong, stable base to secure your body as you moved then the muscles would work freely, doing only the job they were intended to do—allowing movement to become more flowing and natural.


Each muscle was designed to do a specific job as part of a team that enables us to move our skeleton around in a coordinated and balanced way. The muscles across the abdomen and deep back muscles are supposed to form a girdle of strength at the core of our body to act as a stable base from which movement can occur easily and safely. "Problems can arise when these deep stabling muscles are not working correctly, for example, if the body is out of alignment and holds an incorrect position for any length of time," explains Lynne Robinson in her book Intelligent Exercise with Pilates & Yoga. "When stabilizing muscles are held stretched, they weaken, forcing other muscles to take over the stabilizing role—the wrong muscles are then doing the wrong job." To learn to move correctly again, you have to ensure that each muscle is doing the job it was designed to do, and to act as stabilizers core muscles have to be strong. Therefore, the first exercises you will always encounter at a Pilates class will involve strengthening these core muscles.


But before you even start exercising, your Pilates instructor should explain the importance of relaxation, concentration, alignment and breathing.

  • Relaxation: It is vital to release stress and tension from your body before you begin to exercise. If your job involves sitting at a desk all day you are likely to have tension in your neck and shoulders, lower back and hamstrings. Learning to release this tension will prevent you from using the wrong muscles as you move.
  • Concentration: As you relax, you are more able to focus and to concentrate on the movements that you make. "Pilates is a mental and physical conditioning program that should train both mind and body," explains Robinson. "It requires you to focus on each movement made... so you know where you are in space and what you are doing with every part of your body."
  • Alignment: Learning to recognize when your body is correctly aligned is something that comes with practice. Perfect alignment restores muscle balance, allowing your body to move freely and naturally.
  • Breathing: Learning to breathe correctly can enhance an overall sense of well-being. As you learn to expand your lungs to a greater capacity, you enhance the intake of oxygen into your body, and the movement brings about a sense of body awareness, allowing you to focus inwardly. In Pilates the timing of breathing is also crucial, so that you move when you exhale to enable you to relax into the stretch.

As you work to master these skills and gradually build your "girdle of strength," you will be ready to introduce movements. Pilates will teach you to move correctly while engaging your core stabilizing muscles to support each movement. The movements tend to be slow and controlled, which as I found out, is actually more physically demanding than quick active movements. However, the movements tend to flow naturally without involving any twists or straining of the muscles. As you become accustomed to the movements your muscles will automatically begin to work correctly and your stamina will increase dramatically. Robinson equates this to a well-serviced car. When the engine is tuned and the wheels are aligned, "It runs more efficiently, as will your body. You will no longer be wasting energy holding on to unnecessary tension or moving inefficiently."


Pilates can also be viewed as a return to the movement of childhood. If you look at the movement of young healthy children, you will see that they move easily and naturally, often performing movements that seem impossible to an adult. "This freedom is best evident in children up to five years old, when they first enter the classroom and start to spend hours sitting on chairs in front of desks for most of the week," Robinson points out. "At home there are more chairs—for watching television and playing computer games. As young adults, they face piles of homework and exams... they carry heavily loaded backpacks over one shoulder distorting the spine and musculature.... When they are older and go to work, the chances are they will sit at a desk all day before driving home to slump on the couch all evening. All the natural flowing movements used as a child are now restricted to a limited range of repetitive actions." The intelligent pathway of the Pilates program is to reverse the years and to teach the body how to move correctly again.


If you wish to find out more about Pilates and how it could improve your stamina, flexibility and muscle strength you can purchase books from your local bookstore. It is highly recommended to attend a class for beginners taught by a fully qualified instructor, rather than to learn the techniques solely through a book, as individual requirements can vary.

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