Pilates basics

Anula Maiberg on Pilates: What It Is, What It Is Not

Some of the most frequently asked questions Pilates instructors get to answer include:

“Pilates is like Yoga with crunches, right?”

“Pilates is an hour of ab work, right?”

“Pilates is [insert person quickly moving straight arms up and down à la the Hundred], right?”

“Pilates is that thing girls do, right?”

“I do Yoga, CrossFit, Spinning, Zumba, Barre, HIIT, BootCamp, Pole, 400 situps in front of the TV, etc… I don’t need Pilates, right?”

The quick answer is yes. In a way…

The long answer is no.

Actually, the answer to most of these questions about Pilates is in its original name, given by founding father Joseph Pilates (truly a man’s man, by the way). He called it Contrology—the art of control. Control over how you carry yourself in life. Control over how to move your body in space. Knowing your body and having the ability to listen and do what is asked.

What the practice of Contrology, or Pilates, has to offer goes well beyond just a firmer physique. It is a method, a workout, and a way of being. Your looks and the appearance of an elevated caboose is one of those amazing and highly welcomed side effects. But it is still just that: a side effect. More akin to martial arts, gymnastics, or ballet, Pilates is one of those methods where you have to fully immerse yourself—you simply can’t zone out. And it’s progressive, too. A skill baseline needs to be created and practiced in order to move on to more elaborate moves and skills.

The basics of mat work are simple, yet a lot harder to execute than they seem at first. 

These basics include mundane tasks such as:

  • How do you pick your head up off the floor without straining your neck?
  • How do you hold weight in your hands without your wrists screaming?
  • How do you pick up, lift, and lower your legs without your lower back aching the next day?
  • How do you strengthen smaller muscle groups around your joints to prevent injuries?
  • How do you keep your spine supple and supported?

These basics build the foundation for everything—in life, but also in your Pilates practice. Think of it this way: you won’t become a prima ballerina without mastering first position, or an Olympic swimmer without learning your strokes. Sure, your hard work and accomplishments in Pilates may not earn you a gold medal, but there is a much bigger incentive: good movement patterns become available to you in your everyday life and you gain improved health, and as Joseph Pilates liked to say, “spontaneous zest and pleasure.”

The best way to find out for yourself is to jump in and try it. The mat sets up a kind of a battle between you and gravity. Without any external resistance and support, the body needs to create its own, whether you notice it or not. Mat work gives you an opportunity to magnify the impact gravity has on your body and prepare yourself for “battle.”

Whatever your favorite workout is, we can all benefit from a little self-control. And, no worries, looking a little better in your favorite outfit will happen, too.