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By Ivon Dahl

The required ingredients in the Pilates’ Method & the foundation on which the Pilates’ concepts are built. Pilates’ effectiveness relies on application of these principles.
Every exercise must incorporate Pilates’ Principles to qualify it as a Pilates’ exercise. Principals are inter-dependant and can not be used independently. The principals listed below are a combination of terms from the Delsarte Method, Laban Dance Notations, current Exercise Physiology and Critical Educators. The original Pilates’ instructors had training in dance techniques. Dancers were traditionally chosen to be Pilates’ instructors due to their experiential understanding of these principals. A dancer instinctually understands and applies these principals in teaching the Pilates’ Method. Whether or not every Pilates’ school recognizes these terms, they can be applied to every modality.






Pilates uses a breathing technique called; Clavicular breathing. In yoga it is known as Ujjayi Prana Yama. Physical Therapists refer to it as Segmental breathing. Dancers use their Pull-up to make it happen automatically. The terminology is different, but the results are the same.

There are 3 steps to Clavicular Breathing
1) Inhale through the nostrils and direct the breath to the upper thoracic area.
2) Activate the transverse abdominal muscles to pull the stomach in & up and then gently close the lower, floating ribs, by engaging the intercostals.
3) Exhale through the mouth & upper throat making a slight wind sound. This sound should not be rough and only barely audible to the breather.

NOTE; · Equal importance is given to exhalation & inhalation.
· Inhalation facilitates torso extension while exhalation facilitates torso flexion.
· Inhale if the torso is stabilized in extension during rotation and exhale if the torso is stabilized in flexion during rotation.
· When the torso is simply stabilized, exhale during concentric contractions of the limbs and inhale during eccentric or isometric contractions.
· Breath initiates the action and sets the pace of each repetition. Synchronicity of breath to flowing movements creates Eurhythmics [graceful movement].
· Never hold the Breath. Movements never stop, even when appearing to sustain positions.

a. Encourages concentration
b. Develops focus
c. Helps one become centered and aware with presence of mind
d. Calms the mind yet heighten one’s consciousness
e. Increase the VO² max to prevent oxygen depletion
f. Detoxifies the lymphatic system
g. Builds energy for the body, mind and spiritual development

Breathing patterns are not necessarily natural
Men usually breathe abdominally, which gives them a deeper voice. Singers breathe from the diaphragm for volume & control. Both have a difficult time with Pilates’ Clavicular Breathing. They often complain of shortness of breath and feel uncomfortable lying over the barrels. Women tend to breath easier in Pilates because they are built to carry a fetus, which demands a higher breath.

Use observation & critical evaluation to determine HOW your clients breathe; Through close observation of our natural breathing process we discover a variety of natural breathing patterns. Lying on the back with a slight decline is ideal for this purpose, in this position we can breath without using postural muscles, which may cause distention. Have the client place one hand on the upper chest and the other on their abdomen to help them become aware of HOW they breathe. If they naturally breathe into the stomach or from the diaphragm, ask them to direct the breath into their upper chest. We first become aware of the expansion of the chest during inhalation, which causes a natural spinal extension, while exhalation creates a spinal flexion. Notice if the breathing is forced and labored or ambient and passive. Is there a hesitation after the inhalation or exhalation?

NOTE; Stopping causes a contraction of the throat, which can raise the blood pressure.
The irregularity of breathing is most noticeable when sobbing.
Holding the breath during physical exertion, may cause hemorrhoids or induce fainting; known as the Valsalva effect.
Time the breathing pattern; most people breathe at an average of 15 bpm, some give more time to the exhalation while others give more to the inhalation.
Many people tend to breath shallowly; about 2>3 seconds per inhalation.
Regulate the rhythm giving equal length of 5>10 seconds per inhalation and exhalation.
Are the nostrils, mouth or a combination used?
Ask the client to be aware of which nostril they are using more.
Usually breathing is dominant with one nostril and fluctuates from one to the other, every 1, 1/2 Hours.
When using the right nostril the body & mind are energized and metabolisms increase, which cause a rise in body temperatures.
When using the left nostril the mind quiets and the body cools [Closing the right nostril is an ancient method to induce sleep].
When breathing evenly from both nostrils we observe a natural spinal wave and the mind becomes alert but calm.

There are a variety of breathing techniques. Each one facilitates a different purpose. Therefore there is not ONE correct way of breathing.
A breathing technique can only be wrong if it is contraindicative to the purpose.

Orson Welles once said the most effective tool that actors have is in the control of their breath. ‘By changing an actor’s breathing a director can change feelings of the actor and the audience.’

· Singer’s breathe from the abdomen to create volume and to sustain notes or phrases.
· Martial Arts exhale and grip the abdomen to ground them to throw or block punches.
· Bodybuilders exhale to facilitate all concentric contractions.
· Weight lifters use fast shallow breathing for energy and hold the breath for strength.
· Dancers hold the abdomen in for balance & control and inhale to facilitate extension.
· Gymnasts & swimmers breathe to increase the volume of oxygen and prevent muscle failure.
· Indian yogis are interested in energizing the brain and developing a spiritual awareness.
· The Chinese are concerned with breathing for energizing internal organs, limbs and enhancing the quality of life.

Breathing Modalities are not universal in the Pilates Method

Breath is probably the most controversial aspect of the Method. Confusion may be due to the many techniques of breathing, but even when groups agree upon Clavicular breathing, there remains controversy over the HOW and WHY inhalation or exhalation is appropriate.
FOR EXAMPLE; inhalation facilitates spinal extension as in ‘Swan’; however, exhalation during ‘Swan’ prevents spinal hyper extension.

All Pilates’ modalities agree that breathing patterns should facilitate the movement or prevent contraindications.

Segmental breathing [Clavicular breathing] is most widely used in Pilates, however; Physical Therapists caution not to initiate inspiration with the accessory muscles and that the upper chest should be relatively quiet during respiration.

Pursed-lip breathing during exhalation is considered a traditional Pilates technique, but Physical Therapy protocols discourage forced exhalation with pursed-lips, because it encourages gasping for air, however; most therapists feel that gentle pursed lip inhalation breathing with passive expiration is useful to keep airways open by creating a back pressure in the airways.

Some Pilates’ instructors use Diaphragmatic breathing, which is designed to retrain the respiratory muscles, although research studies indicate that it may not affect alveolar ventilation and oxygenation.

Breathing exercises are designed to improve pulmonary status, overall endurance and function in daily activities. Therefore, it is this author’s opinion that all breathing patterns should be deep, voluntarily controlled, relaxed, and adapted to the clients needs or ability, regardless of the pattern being taught to the client.


Oppositions describe the direction of energy flow; to elongate muscles, protract joints or stabilize the core while performing Pilates’ exercises. While dynamic stretch techniques elongate a muscle in one direction, Pilates stretches in opposite directions to stretch the muscle at its origin & insertion and pull the joints out in traction, to avoid joint compression during articulation .Pilates also stabilizes the lower half of the torso by contracting muscles toward each other from opposite directions.

Therefore; experts classify oppositions in two categories
1) Those that extend in opposite directions to elongate
2) Those which contract toward each other to stabilize.


Imagine energy moving in opposite directions and then try to see it while watching others stretch. Some people extend in only one direction; we call this a parallel contraction or a dynamic stretch. Dancers & gymnasts stretch in two directions, used as a constant power to negotiate more extension away from the center and to create a longer moment-arm; as to give an architectural disadvantage so that the intrinsic muscles activate without stressing ligaments or joints. This, two direction stretching also creates space between joints to relieve compression and avoid joint deterioration during movements. When we apply these Opposition Elongations prior to & during joint mobilization they are called Articular Traction.


When opposing groups of muscles contract toward the median line [center] that area becomes stabilized and protracted. In Pilates, we apply compressed tension, equal in pressure, toward the center, employing the hips, back, abdominals and perineum muscles to maintain a neutral spine & pelvis, this is called core stability.

While tension equally compressed would seem to have a compression effect on joints, it has just the opposite result. Like Plate Tectonics the pressure is equally distributed out, in opposite directions, for movement within the joints, as in squeezing a tube of toothpaste in the center to create more length.

NOTE; Opposition elongations & contractions are in a continual renegotiation [a successive contraction] and never static as in locking out a joint.
This principal is adopted from the Delsarte Method, which research proves had a profound influence on Joseph Pilates’ Contrology, via Mary Wigman and Rudolph von Laban [who studied the Delsarte Method].
Opposition Principals were later reinforced by Carola Trier [one of the original Pilates’ teachers, who studied with Laban] and Ron Fletcher [a Pilates’ teacher who studied with Martha Graham; a famous dancer and choreographer, who studied the Delsarte Method].
Charles Atlas [1920-1950] integrated this Delsarte principal in calisthenics, and coined it Dynamic Tension.


Articular; joint
Traction; to pull away from

The term, Articular Traction is a medical term that means to put space between joints to avoid compressions & deterioration. Mobilizing a compressed joint causes chronic inflammation, pain, bursitis and arthritis. While most fitness modalities are satisfied with shortening one side of a joint in order to stretch antagonist muscles, or to increase the Range of Motion, Pilates & the health industry are more inclined to limit the ROM and create a protracted arc [gentle ‘C’ curves] to protect the joints’ articular surface. Using opposition elongations to avoid axial & appendicular joint compression during flexion, extension or rotation is a Hallmark of the Pilates Method. Traditional cueing exemplifies this; “Lift up to roll back”, “Spiral up to turn around” or “Lengthen out to lift the leg”. Most Pilates’ schools teach a form of this principal, although some graduates don’t adhere to its application. Never-the-less physicians recommend Pilates because of this principal. This opening of joints creates a long arc of movement, but not at the expense of shortening the opposite side. Teaching clients to pull out in traction prior to movements places less stress on their joints’ articular surface and demands 20 % more muscular strength, which is functionally efficient in strength training. However; according to Kinesiology protocols, it is functionally inefficient when lifting heavy weight loads, especially if ligaments & tendons have been over stretched due to hyper flexion or hyper extension. Therefore; Traditional Pilates’ schools discourage working with excess spring resistant [heavy springs are often used for assisting the client].

NOTE; although many Pilate’s books suggest spring loads for each exercise, this author has decided to leave that discretion to the instructor, as the Perceived Exertion varies daily, and from person to person.

WARNING; Exercise Physiologists blacklisted many original Pilates’ exercises as contraindicative.
· Full sit-ups [Roll-ups] create a strength imbalance and leads to pelvic instability.
· Pulling the neck forward with the hands [Neck pull] strains & misaligns the cervical vertebra.
· Double leg lifts [Teaser] expose the spine to injuries when in a ‘V’ balance.
· Side bends [Mermaid] causes abnormal stress on the oblique muscles and spinal discs.
· Spinal extensions [Swan] hyper extend & compress vertebra and leads to lordosis.
· Spinal rotation [Spine Twist] compresses and deteriorates vertebral discs, leading to arthritis.
· Twisting in flexion [Saw] has shearing effects and may cause herniated discs.
· Straight leg toe touches [Spine Stretch Forward] over stretch retaining ligaments of the spine.

NOTE; Today’s Pilates must be taught with Articular Traction to avoid client injuries. Experts agree, application of this principal is intelligent and a sophisticated approach to fitness


Reciprocal Enervation concerns agon & antagonist muscle relationships .Exercise Physiologists & Physical Therapists use enervation modalities to stretch muscles and innervate the systemic system by engaging opposing muscles. FOR EXAMPLE; hip flexion with knee extension uses the hip flexors and quadriceps to stretch the gluteus maximus & hamstrings.

This technique is known as an Activated Isolated Stretch Technique (AIS) in the fitness industry. However; Reciprocal Enervation is even more sophisticated in that it also activates isometric contractions of both agon & antagonist muscles simultaneously. Employing opposition contractions during movements reduces the ROM, in order to avoid joint hyper flexion or hyper extension, and ligament impingements.

By teaching reciprocal enervation, clients learn the difference between locking out a joint and extending it. They also realize that they are not fighting the Pilates’ apparatus, but creating a force from within themselves.

This use of synergistic muscles [intrinsic & extrinsic], increases strength reciprocally to the agon & antagonist muscles dramatically by working them in an elongated state [a hallmark of the Pilates Method].

Application of this principal restores & maintains a normal balance of symmetry & proportion of muscles and equalizes the strength > flexibility ratio of a muscle. EXAMPLE; it tightens & strengthens muscles, which have become Hyper-flexible, and stretches & strengthens muscles, which have become Hypertonic. Most exercise methods focus on stretching or strengthening muscles, however Pilates strengthens muscles in an elongated state.

Research proves that engaging a stretched muscle requires 20 % more energy [strength] than traditional exercises that only use concentric contractions. Reciprocal enervation balances the strength flexibility ratio of each muscle used [the tight ones get stretched while the weak get stronger]. Some Pilates’ instructors refer to this principal as Power-Pilates, however; it has always been a part of every good Pilates’ program. Most sports & fitness programs emphasis the already dominate muscles while ignoring the not so talented ones. Pilates’ creates balanced, tubular muscle shapes that are long, strong, firm, flexible and defined, like dancers or natural athletes, as opposed to the bulging round muscles of a weight lifter.

Pilates Concepts of Coordination and Efficiency are due to the application of this Principal.


Successive contractions are the sequence of muscle recruitment for movement progression as reflected in the cueing. Pilates Concept of Quality of Movement is due to the application of this Principal. These sequential contractions are a natural progression, originating proximally and extending distally. Francois Delsarte called these waves of organic actions which stem from the center and move outward, Authentic Movement. Both the Delsarte & Pilates Methods encourage using the body & mind as a whole, unlike the Plastic Movement of current fitness trends. Successive contractions are responsible for the Pilates concepts of Flow & Being Centered, both physically & mentally. Sophisticated fitness programs encourage working smarter, not harder, for an intelligent workout. This is why Pilates is known for working from inside, out. Today, mind-body work is referred to as Soma Therapy.

Successive contractions are not only used to work from the center, but are employed in Opposition Contractions & Elongations. Pilates never uses static positions, as in traditional Yoga exercises, but activates Successive contractions to renegotiate length and re energize core stability. Successive contractions are also used in transitions between different Pilates’ exercises.

[Successive Contractions were integrated in 1979 to Ashtanga Yoga, to create Power Yoga, for strength and flowing transitions.]

While most fitness programs depend on supplemental cardio exercise to fulfill endurance requirements [one of the five components of a complete fitness program], Pilates uses flowing transitions from one exercise to the next, for an accumulative affect of endurance training.

The Pilates principals are always integrated in their use & application

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