There are 6 key principles that form the basis for Pilates. Whether you are new to Pilates or have many years of experience these basic principles are the foundation of good practice. If you bear these in mind every time you work out, your practice will become infinitely more effective and over time you will find these principles become second nature, not just in your Pilates practice, but in your daily life.
The first 3 principles are what I consider the most important and call Pilates’ A,B, C.
The first is Alignment. Precise, mindful execution of the movement and perfect alignment is the key to effective Pilates. When we talk about alignment, we are talking about how you position your body both when you are still and when you move. One of the reasons this is so important is that if our body is out of alignment it places enormous strain on our joint, ligaments and muscles and has a detrimental impact on the way we move.
One of the main goals of PIlates for the Over 50s and Pilates for Riders is to improve your proprioception (awareness of where your body really is in space) and thus improve your alignment.
The next is Breathing. Breathing is obviously essential for life, and something we obviously all do. Unfortunately very few of us really breathe efficiently. Two of the most common poor breathing habits I see are just breathing into the upper chest and/or holding your breath. The latter is particularly common in riders who are stressed or students struggling to do an exercise. Both in Pilates and while riding we should breathe laterally (into the sides of our ribs), which enables us to keep our core engaged as well as move.
Synchronizing the breath to the movement is another key of Pilates. Normally we inhale as we extend our body and exhale when we flex, rotate or bend. However it is important not to get hung up on breathing patterns, remembering to breathe is far more important than when. The correct patterns will sort themselves out over time.
The third of the 6 Keys is Centering – or as I tend to refer to it, Core Stability. Whilst neither of these terms were used by Pilates himself, all of Pilates movements are powered from the “powerhouse”, which is how Joseph Pilates referred to the core or centre.
Core stability is being able to stabilize and control different segments of our body as needed. Having stability gives you a strong and secure, but not necessarily still base of support from which all Pilates movements are initiated. To achieve this we have to train our core muscles.
But what are our core muscles? They are the basically the corset of muscles that make up our entire central unit, including our pelvic floor muscles, abdominals, obliques, the muscles in our lower back and our gluteals (muscles in our buttocks).
The principal of Centering is not just a physical concept; it also involves a mindful connection to your body as you move. If you are “centered” mentally while you move, you will become more focused and more aware of what is happening in your body. With greater focus, you will move with more accuracy and have better alignment.
The next 2 key principles are control and concentration:
Control – Control enables you to become more aware of where your body is in space (proprioception) and to work targeted muscles effectively. It is important to move with control rather than letting momentum take over. This applies to all movements, whether they are slow or fast. In fact, Joseph Pilates called his original system Contrology and said “ Contrology begins with mind control over muscles”. Which effectively brings us to Concentration.
Concentration – Pilates requires deep focus on your body, or as Joseph Pilates said “complete co-ordination of body, mind and spirit. Concentrating on the movement will help you become more centered and able to move with greater control. You need to think about the movement you want to make rather than what you are going to cook for dinner. If you’re working the body, your brain should be engaged too! But, a lot of people want to tune-out instead of tune-in to what they’re doing while they’re moving and this can make any workout a dangerous affair. If you’re not paying attention to what you’re doing, the muscles that you’re using, how your body feels or even how tired you are and whether it is safe to continue, there’s a good chance that your “good workout” will cause a strained or even a pulled muscle.
The final key principal is Mobility or as it is sometimes listed, Flowing Movement. Pilates improves mobility by establishing sound movement patterns rather than just stretching tight muscles. It is worth remembering that when a muscle is tight, there may well be a reason for it, it could be down to injury, postural habit or lack of stability around the joint. Pilates exercises incorporate stretching by using one muscle group to stretch the opposing muscle group.
We should also aim to move fluidly. Long term each exercise should flow seamlessly into the next. The transitions between the exercises are then as important as the exercise itself as they encourage you to maintain core stability and alignment. When you are finally able to run through a workout with flow and easily connect one exercise with the next, you will really start to feel the benefits of Pilates in your everyday life.
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