Pilates for Beginners: Your Complete Guide to Getting Started

Pilates is one of the best workouts to practice at home, online, or in your favorite studio.  You can start Pilates at any age, regardless of your budget, time, and fitness level.    You don’t need any special equipment for the Pilates Mat classes, and you can go nuts (as I’ve done) and invest in a full home studio.  Unlike yoga practice, there is no underline philosophy, but you still get the benefits of being mindful and staying in the body.  Many Pilates exercises can be modified for injuries and done supine (on your back).  The intelligent design allows the students to progress to more complex movement and flow.

One of the biggest benefits of the practice is that it brings the body back to balance by strengthening the weak muscles and lengthening the tight muscles.  In other words, functional movement helps you walk better, engage in your favorite sports, or rehabilitate after the injury.

So, dear reader, are you as excited as I am?  If so, read on to find out how you can benefit from the practice, different flavors of Pilates, key principles, and more!

Whether you are a complete beginner or a seasoned practitioner, the following blog will demystify the fundamental principles of Pilates and how you can apply them in Pilates and your life.

Pilates Origins

Pilates is a method of exercise designed to cultivate a strong, flexible, and balanced body using a systematic practice of exercises witjh a strong focus on breathing.  The practice is for everybody.  It is an excellent tool for fitness enthusiasts, professional sports, and physical rehabilitation.  Pilates takes its name from Joseph Pilates.  A German-born emigré to Britain and then America, he devised the Pilates method as a new approach to exercise and body-conditioning in the early decades of the last century.  Joseph Pilates was originally a gymnast and bodybuilder, part mechanical genius and part scientist.  He earned a living as a professional boxer, circus performer, and self-defense trainer at police schools in England around 1912.  The British authorities interned him during World War I in an internment camp.  Later, Joseph Pilates was transferred to the Isle of Man, where he developed his concept of an integrated, comprehensive system of physical exercise.  He called this system “Contrology.”  In addition, Joseph studied yoga and animal movements.   After World War I, Joseph Pilates returned to Germany, collaborating with dance and physical exercise experts.  Joseph Pilates emigrated to the United States around 1925, where he met his future wife, Clara.  The couple started teaching in their newly founded studio in New York.  They taught in the studio into the 1960s.  Joseph and Clara Pilates soon established a devoted following in the local dance and movement.  They had a loyal following in the local New York dance and performing arts community.  George Balanchine and Martha Graham became Pilate students.  Joseph Pilates died in 1967 at the age of 83 in New York.  There are many variations from “classical” Pilates.  As our lifestyle evolves, so is the method.  To practice Pilates is to set your intention and focus your attention to share equal prominence for all methods.

10 Pilates Key Principles:

#1 – Breath

“The greatest indicator of the life span wasn’t genetics, diet, or the amount of daily exercise, as many had suspected. It was lung capacity.” –  James Nestor, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art

Breath is the key focus of the Pilates practice.  Firstly, breath is the fuel of the powerhouse and the spine.  Secondly, it brings the body, mind, and spirit to alignment.  Finally, breath is one of the keys to life itself!  The respiratory muscles are the only skeletal muscles that are essential to life.

What is the optimal way to breathe during your practice?

Most of the teachers are sticking with the Pilates “tradition” – inhale through the nose, exhale through the mouth. Some even use forceful exhalation.  Some don’t teach breathing because it is complicated to incorporate it with movement. However, many progressive teachers (truly yours as well) are adapting nasal breathing based on the latest science and how breathing affects your mind, body, and spine.  The claim that you can only engage your powerhouse when you exhale through your mouth is a myth!  Personally, I saw how my deep core (transverse) muscles engaged when using nasal breathing via the ultrasound.  Of course, don’t believe me and do your own research.  I highly recommend the works of James Nestor, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art.

#2 – Concentration

Concentration is a direction of attention.  Once we are on the mat, we must focus on the body, breathing, and movement.  When we start our Pilates practice, we set the intention to perform each movement or flow based on our current skill level.  We always begin where we are, concentrating on the proper alignment and maintaining this alignment throughout the practice of Pilates.  The concept of concentration is super important and another cross-road with yoga and a direct link to a clear mind and happiness!

#3 – Center

The center is generally viewed as the core of the body.  Therefore, the center is our starting place.  We often refer to the center as the powerhouse.  All movement in Pilates should begin from our center or our powerhouse and flow out to the limbs.  You can think of the core as a tree trunk and the limbs as tree branches.

#4 – Control

Our focus is on quality and not quantity when we practice Pilates.  The control is how we can use strength and flexibility to master a movement.  Control gives us an aesthetically pleasing view of the movement that might seem effortless without any tension.  As our journey progresses, we can control movements and complete them precisely.  Control is essential because it helps us achieve greater mobility, strength, flexibility, and self-awareness.

#5 – Precision

Precision is how we perform a given exercise.  First, we must understand anatomy (which muscles are on and which are off).  Then, we can align the body based on the goals of the exercise and our individual goals.  Precision is the key to the pilates approach to movement.  Important to note that even though we strive for perfection, we never compromise quality for the sake of form.

#6 – Flow

Like all the other principles of Pilates, flow can be viewed as a principle of Pilates or life itself.  As one of my favorite authors, Steven Kotler defined flow:

“Flow is an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.  In flow, concentration becomes so laser-focused that everything else falls away.  Action and awareness merge.  Our sense of self and our sense of self-consciousness completely disappear.  Time dilates, meaning it slows down (like the freeze-frame of a car crash) or speeds up (and five hours pass by in five minutes).  And throughout, all aspects of performance are incredibly heightened – and that includes creative performance.”

Flow is something we can strive for in our Pilates practice.  When we set our intention to be present and pay attention to each movement and transition based on our current skill level, we can let go and be fully present.  This is another point that is very yogic in nature.

#7 – Range of Motion

Range of motion (ROM) measures movement around a specific joint. It involves both the distance a joint can move and the direction in which it can move. There are established ranges considered normal for various joints in the body. For a joint to have full ROM, it must have good flexibility.

Pilates exercise has been well known in the therapy community.  Many physical therapists adapted the use of the discipline to enhance rehabilitation programs by focusing on spinal or core stabilization.  Particularly, the method can be used to improve a patient’s treatment range of motion.  Most of the exercises can be done on the floor or with Pilates equipment, making it safe for the patient.  Pilates functional movement patterns provide for varied rehabilitation programming with many different orthopedic diagnoses.

#8 – Opposition

Pilates teachers often use imagery and metaphor, like imagine a golden string that is attached to the top of your head and the bottom of your spine; as your head reaches towards the sky, your tail is reaching down toward the mat. As we push through our feet and the crown of our head reaches up, we attain a flexible and healthy spine.
.

#9 – Mindfulness

“Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body.”

― James Joyce, Dubliners

Unfortunately, pilates focuses on physical fitness only, and unlike yoga, there are no official meditation or breathing practices. Yet, I personally always mix a bit of mindfulness into the soup. Because many of us are disconnected from our bodies. As we come to the mat, we continue to stay in our heads; we have no clue about how our body works. We forget to breathe during work and just go through the motions.  You don’t need to have an official meditation practice (even though it can help). Just pay attention to your body, and be present! I often ask my students why are you here? Or the better question would be: “Are you here?”   So, next time you practice, pay attention. Pilates aims to strengthen and elongate the whole system and clear the mind for us to show up to the world to shine.

 

If you feel disconnected, a few good sessions with a trained instructor should set you free.

#10 – Visualization

If you can, get up and move, stretch your legs for a second. You most likely did not think very hard about movement, right? Did you have to tell your body to move? Or did you get up and move without thinking?

So, how exactly does the moment work? There was a series of complex and coordinated movements, as you gave zero thought. Yet, if you pause and think, movement is an incredible task. In summary, your brain works in conjunction with your muscles, which in turn work with your skeletal bones to produce various movements.

Any kind of movement begins with a need or desire to move. That need or desire may be conscious if you’re deliberately thinking about moving, but most of the time, it doesn’t even register in our conscious minds. Instead, the brain simply takes control, plans, and initiates the movement.

During deliberate practice, I often use pictures and imagery and ask my students to visualize movement before executing it. If one can imagine it, it can be done! Well, for the most part.

8 Key Benefits of Pilates:

  1. Cultivate strength
  2. Increases flexibility and range of motion
  3. Improves endurance
  4. Increases lung capacity
  5. Low-impact exercise
  6. Improves posture
  7. Reduces stress
  8. Safe to practice Pilates after injury or as part of physical rehabilitation

8 kinds of Pilates:

  1. Classic Pilates: Pilates exercises as devised by Joseph and Clara Pilates, performed in the same sequence each time (can be done with or without equipment)
  2. Mat Pilates: Classical mat includes 34 exercises typically broken down by levels; props like therabands, balls, and magic circles can be used.
  3. Pilates Fusion: A mix of classical and new Pilates exercises, mixed with yoga flow performed in varying sequences using a range of small pieces of equipment
  4. Reformer Pilates: Pilates workout using Reformer apparatus.
  5. Tower Pilates: Tower is typically a part of the Reformer apparatus.
  6. Springboard Pilates: Invited by the master (and my mentor), Ellie Herman, the board can be attached to the wall, repertuar is similar to the tower.
  7. Cadilac Pilates: Similar to the tower but with more options
  8. Chair Pilates: Funky chair for Pilates

Pilates Mat

When you embark on the path of practice, you typically start with the Pilates Mat practice, which is the foundation of Pilates.

Pilates Reformer

The Reformer includes a sliding carriage (a bed-like frame) with a sliding carriage attached to one end with a set of springs. These springs are adjustable for different levels of resistance. We get shoulder blocks on the carriage to stop you from sliding off as you push or pull the carriage. A foot bar is attached at the spring end of the reformer for more variety.  Long straps with handles are attached to the other end of the frame. Straps help pull your arms or legs and move the carriage.  Many Pilates exercises can be done on the reformer.  I love reformer! One of the benefits of the reformer is that it lengthens your muscles as they resist the force of the springs creating eccentric muscle contraction – excellent for cultivating strong, long muscles without added bulk. The reformer is super useful if you have some form of injury or are recuperating from an injury as your muscles can be gently stretched and strengthened using only slight resistance.  The equipment comes with a price tag and can take up space.  Recently, I invested in a Balanced Body Alegro and will never look back.

Pilates Cadilac

The Cadillac is like a wealthy, intelligent, carrying, and suffisticated lover. It is an upgrade from ting piece of equipment, and at first glance, it looks more like a medieval torture device than a piece of exercise equipment.

It consists of a bed with a mat on it and a three-sided frame going over the top and attached to either end of the bed. It usually stands about 6 feet tall. Attached to the frame are various apparatus like leg springs, arm springs, loops to hang from, a push-through bar and even a trapeze.

Due to its large size, the Cadillac is not often used in group classes, so if you want to try out this piece of equipment, you would be better off searching for some private Pilate classes in your area. Some of these private studios have what is called a Cadillac wall unit which is basically one side of the Cadillac attached to a wall for better stability.

The Cadillac can accommodate all kinds of stretching exercises and is useful if you find it difficult to lie down on your back for long periods. You’ll almost feel like a gymnast when you use the Cadillac!

What Can Other Types Of Equipment Be Use In Pilates?

Other types of Pilates equipment include the stability chair, the ladder barrel, the spine corrector, and the arc barrel.

These are all used as aids and supports to perform the various exercises. All of these are useful for isolating, strengthening, and stretching various muscles. You’ll find most of these in private Pilates studios.

Pilates Chair

How to Start Pilates?

A mat on the floor is really all you need when you’re just starting out. A lot of the basic beginner exercises can be done this way. Once you become more advanced, you might look into investing into a equipment if you prefer to be you own master or join a gym or studio which offers private Pilates classes.  The SOFLY Pilates, of course, offers Pilates classes at any level.

So, here are the six original elements of Pilates in a nutshell.  You can see that each principle can be applied to your pilates practice and will translate into your life.

How to Make Your Practice Perfect?

  • Respect and understand where you are in your life and fitness journey.
  • Focus on learning fundamentals based on breath, position, and flow.
  • Find a qualified and certified Pilates teacher.
  • Concentrate when practicing to the point when the exercises become a moving meditation and your second nature.
  • Learn how to turn the muscles on or off for the appropriate exercise.
  • Master timing and principles; pay attention to transitions that take you into a flow.
  • Combine the principles of Pilates with an understanding of anatomy and practice consistently.

To conclude, the Pilates practice suits men and women in many physical conditions, from professional athletes to out-of-shape folks, injured, young, old, etc.  In other words, anyone who is looking to make some life improvements.  We can say that Pilates can be low impact and compelling or energetic.  When done correctly and consistently with explicit instruction, focus, and dedication, the practice will help you embrace the fundamental principles, change your life, improve your posture, keep you looking young, and feel fantastic!

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