Although Joseph Pilates did not specifically notate tenets for his method, the following principles can be identified clearly throughout the pages of his texts and gleaned from original film footage and other archival material. Depending on the school of Pilates, the list of principles and the way they are presented may vary slightly; however, this list—breath, concentration, center, control, precision, and flow—includes those principles that form the basis of many approaches of Pilates and are generally accepted as the foundation of the system.
Although all the foundation principles share equal importance, the importance of breath and its numerous implications can be observed far beyond the fundamental and crucial role of respiration. This inclusive view is the basis of some approaches to the study of Pilates, but certainly not all. In this context, breath can be described as the fuel of the powerhouse, which is the engine that drives Pilates. It may be viewed as being of the body, of the mind, and of the spirit, as Joseph Pilates regarded it. In this view breath can serve as a common thread that runs through all the foundation principles, in a sense sewing them together.
Breath is one of the keys to life itself—the respiratory muscles are the only skeletal muscles essential to life—and yet breath is so often taken for granted. An understanding of the anatomy underlying breath can facilitate optimal use of breath.
Concentration can be defined as direction of attention to a single objective, in this case the mastery of a given Pilates exercise. A Pilates practitioner’s intent is to perform the exercises as correctly as his or her current skill level will allow. This requires concentration. Begin by going through a mental checklist of points to focus on for each exercise. This may take a few seconds or even a minute or two and should include awareness of the breath pattern as well as the muscles that are about to be worked. Concentrate on the alignment of the body and on maintaining correct alignment and stabilization throughout the execution of the exercise. Maintain mental concentration for the duration of the session.
The concept of center can have several levels of meaning. Primarily it relates to the body’s center of gravity. The body’s center of gravity is the single point about which every particle of its mass is equally distributed—the point at which the body could be suspended and where it would be totally balanced in all directions.
Each person is built differently and has an individual center of gravity. Where the center of gravity lies distinctly affects how an exercise feels and how difficult or easy it is to execute. Therefore it is a mistake to assume a person lacks strength if he cannot execute an exercise successfully. Lack of success may have more to do with how the person is built and the distribution of body weight. When standing upright with the arms down by the sides, the center of gravity of the average person is located just in front of the second sacral vertebra and at about 55 percent of the person’s height. However, significant variances can be observed within, as well as between, genders.
Center also relates to the core and the muscles of the core. In Pilates this is referred to as the powerhouse. Center also may have a more esoteric connotation, referring to a feeling of balance within or the eternal spring of energy from which all movement emanates.
Control can be defined as the regulation of the execution of a given action. Refining control is inherent in mastering a skill. The first time someone executes an exercise, he or she has to use control, but as skill increases, this control will be more refined. You can see a distinct difference when viewing a movement performed by someone who has achieved a high level of control and someone who has not. Often a higher level of control is associated with fewer and smaller errors, exact alignment, greater coordination, greater balance, and greater ability to reproduce the exercise successfully over multiple attempts, using less effort and avoiding excessive muscle tension. Refined control requires a great deal of practice, which can aid in developing the necessary strength and flexibility of key muscles as well as allow for the development of more refined motor programs. This practice can also allow these motor programs to run with less conscious attention, so that attention can be paid to finer details and to making minute adjustments, only when needed.
Precision is key when distinguishing Pilates from many other exercise systems. Precision can be described as the exact manner in which an action is executed. Often the exercise itself is not so different from other exercise regimens, but the way it is executed is different.
Knowledge of anatomy aids greatly in achieving precision. You will understand which muscles are working or should be working. You will align your body correctly and understand the goals of an exercise. The greater the precision, the more likely the goal will be achieved and the greater the benefit from doing the exercise. Precision is key to the Pilates approach to movement and to the infinite corrections that need to be implemented through the learning process.
Precision can be associated with the activation of isolated muscles and at the same time with the integration of the required muscles to create movement. Precision can make the difference between accessing a muscle or not and between achieving the goal or not.
Flow is an essential quality to strive for. Flow can be described as a smooth, uninterrupted continuity of movement. Romana Kryzanowska describes the Pilates method as “flowing motion outward from a strong center.” Flow requires a deep understanding of the movement and incorporates precise muscle activation and timing. As movement proficiency develops from extensive practice, each movement and each session should flow.
Some approaches also encourage a more esoteric use of flow. This meaning is exemplified in the statement by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi that “flow is the mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.”
The way in which each person integrates these principles into the practice of Pilates and life itself is individual. For example, one person may emphasize more of the physical aspects, using Pilates to enhance athletic performance, improve muscle tone, or aid with recovery from injury. Another person may place greater import on the mental aspects, using Pilates to reduce stress or aid with improving focus and concentration in his or her life. Yet the important issue is that the execution of each exercise and the practice of the system as a whole are not just a careless imitation but rather a process focused on learning how the exercises are executed and applying these six principles in accordance with your current physical and mental acuity.
Read more about Pilates Anatomy.