What is Pilates? A Beginner’s Guide
by CJ Kelly, NCPT, Owner Gumption Collective Ask anyone on the street if they’ve heard of Pilates and they might say it’s all about core, core, and more core. And that’s partially true. Pilates offers plenty of benefits to your body, no matter your fitness level. You’ll improve your posture, focus on alignment, and get a killer workout.
While often attributed to the rise of VHS workouts in the 1980s, Pilates was developed pre-spandex and leg warmers in the early 20th century on the Isle of Man and then later in New York City. Founder, Joseph Pilates called his original system Contrology—the complete coordination of body, mind, and spirit.
Joseph Pilates firmly believed that modern civilization impairs physical fitness. This is true now more than ever. Young and aging adults are experiencing arthritic changes in the neck and disc degeneration from their forward head position blamed on “the screen.” Our movement patterns are learned, for better or worse, and thankfully can be reprogrammed to improve our overall well-being.
The Pilates Method has a long history of restorative and athletic application, and it was Mr. Pilates’s desire for the method to become part of the subconscious mind. Just as you properly learned how to ride a bike, swim, or drive a car, this practice will instill movement confidence by “re-toning” muscles that have become “soft” from disuse (as referenced in Pilates's book, Return to Life Through Contrology). This is why Pilates is for every body. Pilates does not discriminate.
Published in 1945, Return to Life Through Contrology details Pilates's methodology, exercises, and instructions specifically for matwork. He states, “Through Contrology you first purposely acquire complete control of your own body and then through proper repetition of its exercises you gradually and progressively acquire the natural rhythm and coordination associated with all your subconscious activities.” Simply put: If practiced with consistency, Pilates makes daily life easier by improving flexibility, building strength, and developing control and endurance in the entire body.
Whether you're on a mat or machine, you can gain the same benefits. Pilates is a low-impact, full body workout. After your first class you may notice abdominal strength is a key component of the work, but Pilates is never restricted to a single muscle group. In one movement, you may feel your abdominals, inner thighs, glutes, and arms working.
So why do we associate Pilates with “core work” so much? Imagine your core as the trunk: the muscles of the abdomen, those surrounding the spine, and hips. As your center, the truck is where we initiate movement and energetically expand from. Throughout a typical class, you’ll move through various shapes and body orientations, moving on your back, sides, stomach, and often standing.
There’s a balance and flow throughout our system, just like throughout an orchestra. Often when performing abdominal work, we tend to bear down, or grip. This where our level of effort comes into play. You need to allow for ease and release in order to find balance. Out of balance, it’s just noise. As you move through a series of exercises it becomes a flow—a sequence with rhythm. The body begins to breathe and move. This is the essence of Pilates.
When you first start your journey, you may opt to use modifications so that you can perform each movement with good form. As you dive deeper into your practice, you may realize Pilates is more than movement.
So I asked around: “What is Pilates to you?”
“Pilates is an avenue to keep my body strong and limber.”
“Pilates is my way to de-stress.”
“It’s a way to center my mind. To connect to my inner self.”
“As an active artist and physical maker, the balance, strength and control that I get from Pilates prepares me for my daily art practice.”
What is Pilates to you? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org
Coming soon from CJ Kelly: The 10 Essential Pilates Exercises for Beginners