Unprincipled Pilates

March 23, 2014 — 3 Comments

previewI’m afraid that I can’t find the original comment, so am unable to quote precisely (even if I had permission) something that I read in the thread of a Pilates related Facebook forum. The comment was written by a teacher, who appears to be considered something of an expert on all things Pilates related (in the particular forum, at least) and was along the lines of ‘Joseph Pilates did not teach principles, he taught exercises, in a specific sequence.’

This is a fascinating idea for me, not because I have a special allegiance to the ‘Whole body health; Whole body commitment; Breathing’ that I believe the PMA refer to as Joseph Pilates’ own guiding principles for Contrology, nor to the 6 principles that Friedman and Eisen presented in their ‘The Pilates Method of Physical and Mental Conditioning’, published in 1980. I think all 8 of these ideas have a valid place in the practice and teaching of Pilates. It is a fascinating idea for me more because the act of teaching almost seems dependent on principles, or is doomed to be rather dull, if not pointless, without them.

Ironically, I attended a class a couple of days ago that reminds me of this. It wasn’t a Pilates class (a more recently developed movement practice) that was distinctly unsatisfying because, it now occurs to me, it appeared to be devoid of principles. It seemed more like nice, but aimless choreographed movement (the teacher led the entire class with her back to the participants – viewing the room in the mirrored wall), and I’d rather save that for when I’m drunk on music and good company, perhaps with a little less choreography.

I’m not suggesting that principles of any sort need to be explicit in anyone’s teaching, but rather that there need to be some fundamentals, something that underpins the exercises/movements being taught. I think of all Pilates exercises fitting into (or straddling a couple of) three basic categories – Stabilising the trunk while moving the extremities; Sequential spinal articulation; Transferring load from the extremities to the centre (which, to me, is part of a circuit with the idea of working from the inside out). These, for me, (because they are invaluable movement skills) form the basis for teaching people to move (or position themselves) well.  And that is what Pilates is, to me, in a nutshell. Of course, this is personal, and I know that the practice of Pilates adds up to more than that for many people. For me, moving well and eating well are the ‘secrets’ to excellent health.

I’m very willing to believe that Pilates did not speak of principles when he was teaching (and perhaps this is what the post on Facebook I referred to was indicating), but I do not accept that they weren’t there. Perhaps that was part of Joseph’s genius – that he didn’t need to be explicit, because the work made it obvious. Whether you’re explicit about some underlying principles of your work or not, I would suggest that they need to be there, if what you teach is to have any meaning for your clients beyond the time they spend in class, or in the studio.

3 responses to Unprincipled Pilates


    Found this quote from Joe in a PMA peice recently, it sounds pretty principled to me.
    “Contrology is the science and art of body-mind-spirit development through mild but rigorously disciplined physical movement. It is specifically designed and conducted to arouse sluggish blood, d-i-s-t-e-n-d every capillary, force lymph through every interstice: by s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g every muscle and sinew and wringing-out the body. All under the strict control of the awakened brain in each of its ten billions of nerve cells.”
    The people I have met that knew him say he loved to talk about the ideas behind his work.


    I agree that the principles were in the work from the beginning. I found the recently published biography of Hubertus Joseph Pilates to be well worth the sticker price. It answered many of my longstanding questions. It seems that Joe Pilates struggled with the work that Romana ultimately did, to clarify the overall structure of the method that he developed in such a way that it could be passed on to the next generation of practitioners. To me this makes sense because to develop a method and then to pass it on in some standardized format are two different endeavors. As he got working far into adulthood and in a country that was not his homeland, it stands to reason that he didn’t manage to do all that he desired to do. I am of the opinion that dialogues in writing about the work of Joe Pilates are very beneficial since it is body work and that realm can often be dominated by myths and ideas that are not fully formed. It’s one thing to say something to prove a certain point in real time when the emphasis is on the physical body and clearly that is an important skill for a movement instructor to have. But as you point out, the ideas behind the work are equally important and I’m of the opinion that when we put an idea in writing it automatically becomes more weighted by the amount of thought that anchors it to our shared physical reality. Much as the fluff may get us moving in the real world, in the more intellectual realm of sharing thoughts via written word, the fluff gets us thinking – and writing. And getting clearer and clearer on just what it is we are doing when we practice the amazing Pilates method. Thanks for getting my thoughts in gear!


    Joe may not have discussed his principles whilst teaching. He may not even have formally written them down (though in my opinion/interpretation of his writings, they are clear). But a framework, structure and various fundamental disciplines underpin his body of work. And besides, wasn’t he against “mindless repetition” of exercises…

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