Pilates: For a strong body and mind

The Pilates method combines the best of different exercise forms for the benefit of the body, mind, soul

Girl working out on Swiss BallIn the mid-1920s, German-born Joseph Pilates devised a new form of exercise that later took the world by storm. Pilates combined yoga, gymnastics, martial arts, and Eastern and Western philosophies in his new method. It is said that he even integrated some movements of animals in his comprehensive form. Today, the likes of Madonna, Tiger Woods, and Julia Roberts practice Pilates.

The basics

The mind-body relationship is the essence of Pilates practice. “A perfect balance of body and mind is that quality that furnishes all the physical and mental powers for attaining [the] ultimate goal…health and happiness,” Joseph Pilates had said.

The physical exercises in Pilates focus on the core muscles of the body—26 muscles located in the abdominal and lower back area of the body.

Body-mind benefits

  • Increased ability to concentrate and focus
  • Weight loss
  • Better posture–people have even reported feeling taller after practicing Pilates
  • Increased flexibility
  • Better body control
  • Greater agility, speed, and endurance
  • Optimal functioning of muscles and bone structure.

At the core

At the foundation of the Pilates method of exercise are 10 movement principles. It is essential to practise these principles throughout while doing Pilates. The 10 movement principles are:

  1. Become aware
    • Practice in an environment that helps you become aware of the mind-body connection—without loud music, TV, and any other distractions.
    • Be present in the movement, concentrating on the mind and body.
  2. Achieve balance
    • This refers to components of fitness such as strength and flexibility and also to the importance of uniformly developed muscles of the body.
    • Though Pilates does focus on developing core strength, it is important to incorporate other Pilates exercises, which help increase flexibility and correct imbalances.
  3. Breathe correctly
    • Joseph Pilates wrote in his book Return to Life Through Contrology, “Breathing is the first act of life, and the last….above all, learn to breathe correctly.”
    • In Pilates, emphasis is made on expanding the rib cage while inhaling and keeping the abdominal muscles tight throughout the breathing process to allow maximum utilisation of one’s lung capacity.
  4. Concentrate deeply
    • Concentration creates a bridge between awareness and movement.
    • It also allows for more precise movement.
  5. Centre yourself
    • This refers to finding your centre of gravity [in women this is usually in the middle of the pelvis and in men, in front of the navel]. It also refers to the union of the body, mind, and spirit.
    • Once you become centered through the practice of Pilates, the experience becomes much more rewarding.
  6. Gain control
    • Control of movement occurs after much practice.
    • Eventually movement looks effortless due to remarkable control.
  7. Be efficient
    • Working towards efficiency helps focus our energy where it is needed.
    • One must learn to exert the required energy towards the body part that is being exercised and keep the remainder of the body relaxed.
  8. Create flow
    • This refers to continuous and seamless movement and also to the flow between breathing and movement.
  9. Be precise
    • With precision in movement comes the ability to adequately isolate muscles and exercise them.
    • A great deal of precision is required while practicing Pilates to ensure each movement is executed in the right way.
  10. Seek harmony
    • Correct body alignment, teaching positive movement, and achieving strength and flexibility help guide one towards the transformation that leads to harmony of the mind, body, and soul, – the essence of Pilates.

Instruments of health

Pilates is most often performed on a mat, however, its founder also devised several apparatus back when he was in Germany. These equipment “resist your movement in just the right way” Pilates had said. Some of them are:

  • Reformer: The most popular piece of Pilate’s equipment perhaps due to its versatility and ability to perform exercises in full range of motion.
  • Cadillac: Also known as a trap table, it is clear that Joseph Pilates got his inspiration for the Cadillac from a hospital bed, which he created to help World War I soldiers rehabilitate. As the base of the Cadillac does not move, it becomes an ideal choice for those lacking balance and stability, such as the elderly.
  • Wunda Chair: This chair is simply a box with four springs. It is a very versatile piece of equipment with endless possibilities to exercise. With it, most of the exercises are done sitting up, making them more functional.
  • Ladder Barrel and Step Barrel: Both are great pieces of equipment to help strengthen lower back muscles and stretch out on.
  • Ped-a-Pul: One of Joseph Pilates original apparatus, though not commonly used, it helps develop upright alignment and balance. It is also helps shoulder rehabilitation and general upper body conditioning.
  • Arm Chair: The arm chair aides in teaching correct shoulder mechanics—how to lower your shoulder blades, stabilise your upper body using your shoulders, and release tension from your shoulders.

So, if you’re looking for a complete workout, try Pilates.

Reference: Pilates by Real Isacowitz

Do it yourself

Here are a few mat Pilates exercises you can try at home.

Rolling Like a Ball

  1. Rolling Like a Ball- Step 1Sit on a mat, holding each leg under the knee. Round your back tucking your chin in towards your chest to make your spine into a C curve. Lift your feet up, off the mat and balanced on your sit bones [the bony joints in your gluteals]. Now deepen the C curve by making your body into a compact ball.
  2. Inhale and shift your body weight back allowing yourself to roll back onto the top of your shoulder blades NOT onto your head or cervical area.
  3. Rolling Like a Ball- Step 3Exhale and reverse the direction of the roll to come back to the starting position while continuing to keep the tight compact ball-shape of your body and trying not to allow your feet to touch back down onto the mat. Repeat the movement 6 – 8 times.

Double Leg Stretch

  1. Double Leg Stretch- Step 1Lie on your back with your knees bent towards your chest and one hand on each knee. Lift your head, neck, and top of shoulders off the mat into a small abdominal crunch.
  2. Double Leg Stretch- Step 2Inhale and move your hand overhead and simultaneously straighten your legs in the opposite direction, keeping your trunk stable and feet slightly above eye level.
  3. Exhale and circle your arms from overhead out to the sides and simultaneously drawing your knees back into your chest coming back to the starting position.

Spine Twist

  1. Spine Twist- Step 1Sit upright with legs straight out in front and together. Feet flexed with toes pointing up. Cross arms, gently placing palms on opposite arms and lifting arm to shoulder level. Sit up tall on your sit bones.
  2. Spine Twist- Step 2Exhale and rotate your trunk to one side, twisting from only the trunk. Keeping hips facing forward and arms in line with your shoulders.
  3. Inhale and come back into centre. Exhale and twist to opposite side. Repeat twisting to each side 4 – 5 times.

Single Leg Scissors

  1. Lie down supine on a mat. Inhale and extend your right leg straight up focusing on lengthening the leg. Float your left leg up off the mat a couple of inches. Hold on to your right leg as high up on the leg as possible while keeping the leg straight.
  2. Single Leg Scissors- Step 1Exhale and slowly lift your head neck and shoulders, much as possible, up off the mat into a small abdominal crunch [As shown in picture]. Inhale and exhale while dropping the right leg straight down and simultaneously lifting the left leg straight up and grab the leg as high up as possible. Focus on keeping your pelvic area steady by keeping your navel pulled in towards your spinal column to engage the abdominal muscles. Continue switching legs for 8 – 10 repetitions.
Radhika Karle-Ghorpade
Radhika Karle-Ghorpade is a Mumbai-based dietician with a Masters degree from Texas Women's University, Houston. She is a certified Yoga and Pilates instructor as well as a personal trainer. She loves to swim, play tennis, and travel in her free time. Her nutrition mantra: everything in moderation.


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