The 6 Essential Principles of Pilates

Three women doing Pilates mat exercises

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The six principles of the Pilates approach to exercise are part of what makes it unique in the fitness world. Pilates is Pilates because of the six principles. The Pilates principles may sound a bit abstract, but the integration of these principles accounts for the balance, grace, and ease that one can experience due to practicing Pilates. You may hear them expressed with slightly different words and in a different order, but they convey the same meaning in Pilates.

The Origins of The Pilates Principles

It is important to note that Joseph Pilates, the founder of Pilates, did not directly set out the Pilates principles. They are concepts distilled from Joseph Pilates' work by later instructors. Because of this, there is not always an agreement in the Pilates community about the order of the principles, the specific words used for certain concepts, or the number of principles. Nevertheless, you will find some version of the Pilates principles to be part of almost any Pilates class or program you participate in.

The 6 Principles of the Integrative Mind-Body-Spirit Approach of Pilates

Joseph Pilates originally called his work "Contrology." He considered this to be a body/mind/spirit approach to movement founded on the integrative effect of principles such as centering, concentration, control, precision, breath, and flow. Whether one is working out on a mat or using Pilates equipment, like the reformer or cadillac, these basic principles infuse each exercise with intention and fullness of expression:


This concept is defined as physically bringing the focus to the center of the body, the powerhouse area between the lower ribs and pubic bone. Energetically, Pilates exercises are sourced from the center. All movements in Pilates originate from this center of the body, including activating and engaging or relaxing your core and pelvic floor muscles. The Pilates starting position helps you to center before engaging in further movements.


If you bring full attention to the exercise and do it with full commitment, you will obtain maximum value from each movement. The act of concentrating on each aspect of the movements is not only necessary to perform them optimally, but also provides mental and physical rewards. Concentration in Pilates is similar to practicing mindfulness and meditation. Bringing awareness to your movements in the present moment.


Every Pilates exercise is done with complete muscular control. No body part is left to its own devices. It is all a conscious, deliberate movement that the mind is controlling. This principle of control extends to the mind as well, as you learn to mindfully control your movements.


In Pilates, awareness is sustained throughout each movement. There is an appropriate placement, alignment relative to other body parts, and trajectory for each part of the body. Every movement and step is performed in a precise manner with specific shapes and cues for each exercise. A focus on perfecting technique is key in Pilates to break harmful past exercise habits and movement patterns.


Joseph Pilates emphasized using a very full breath in his exercises. He advocated thinking of the lungs as a bellows -- using them strongly to pump the air fully in and out of the body. Most Pilates exercises coordinate with the breath, and using the breath properly is an integral part of Pilates exercise. Breath is likely the most important principle in Pilates as Joseph himself stressed that above all, you should learn how to breathe correctly.


Pilates exercise is done in a flowing manner. Fluidity, grace, and ease are goals applied to all exercises. The energy of an exercise connects all body parts and flows through the body in an even way. The reformer and other Pilates equipment are very good mirrors of your flow and concentration since they tend to bang around and suddenly become quite "machine-like" if you lose your control and flow.

More Pilates Definitions

Other essential aspects of Pilates that you should be aware of include the correct terms for Pilates equipment such as mats, balls, and machinery like the Reformer. It's also vital that you know how to find your neutral spine position and how to pull in the abdominals for all Pilates movements, as well as the traditional order of Pilates mat exercises.

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