Understanding the ‘Why’ behind Pilates in order to appreciate the ‘What’ and ‘How’

By: Carla Ricalis

When I did my Pilates certification in 1995 (!) I found myself explaining to every person who asked, what it was and why it was so amazing. At times, it was easier to just say I taught fitness and hope it quashed their questions and quizzical looks. 

Flash forward 26 years and here we are with nearly everyone knowing what Pilates is; which is a true testament to the Pilates certification programs out there.

But many Pilates enthusiasts are unaware of the key elements of the original method that was created by Joseph Pilates and how they still show up in nearly all of the contemporary teaching methods taught today. 

Simply put, Pilates has always been about learning how to move with precision, flow and control while placing emphasis on your breath, concentration and centering. 

Let’s take a look at each of those important foundations and how they’re a part of your workouts. 


Even in the most contemporary of Pilates exercises, the way you’re encouraged to approach the movement and control the equipment demands precision.

By taking the time to learn the details and finer nuances of the exercise (think: Slow Double Leg Stretch or Developpe on the Reformer), your movement choices are more precise which is strengthening and training your neuromuscular system. This in turn will improve your mental focus, memory and coordination. 


For every exercise that demands precision, there are just as many that emphasize flow. Some of the equipment (think of the Cadillac and Barrels, in particular) highlight this element in their design. 

But an experienced instructor will be able to cue and encourage you to find flow in every single movement sequence you do. 

So although something as familiar and repetitive as the Footwork on the Reformer emphasizes your breath and control, the rhythm and continuity of the repetitions is where the flow is found. 

That constancy of movement will keep your muscles engaged throughout the reps rather than working against the resistance as you press out and giving into the resistance as you return the carriage in. This is then transferred into how you move through everyday patterns like walking and transferring from sitting to standing. 


Regardless of the movement you’re doing, control is always a part of it; either consciously or subconsciously. 

The end goal in Pilates is to get you to move efficiently through a challenging exercise or sequence with something that’s known as unconscious competence (check back in September for our blog on that stage of learning!).

This just means that you’re able to move with control and ease through an exercise without giving it more mental energy than is needed.  

A great one to think about for Reformer lovers is the Short Spine; sometimes those first few reps are a struggle because of your resistance to the pulley and carriage system. But it eventually eases into control of equipment and your movement allowing for a flow into the inverted position and articulation of the spine.  


Every Pilates exercise is cued on the breath. Over time, we’ve learned more about the importance of breathing and the application of the inhale or exhale to help with core stability. As well, current research proves the critical role of a strong diaphragm in helping with the hydration, mobility and dynamic stability of our fascial system. 

Like most things, there are many paths towards a common goal and the breath patterns in Pilates or exercise in general are no exceptions. 

One purpose to cueing the breath is to bring awareness to its value as a key participator in oxygenating our blood, focusing our mind, calming our neuromuscular system and contributing to the stability and mobility in our bodies.  

As long as your instructor is clearly explaining and helping you connect with the ‘why’ and ‘how’ we breathe, understanding ‘where’ and ‘when’ will start to become more natural and customized for you, the exercise you’re doing and when you need the expansion of the inhale or the recruitment of the exhale.  


There are A LOT of things happening in a Pilates workout – just by participating, you’re tapping into your concentration abilities. 

But the beauty of Pilates lies in the exercises that require you to concentrate on where you are in space, how you’re moving through it PLUS the integration of a strong, effective breath pattern. 

The contemporary value of Pilates is often upheld because of the exercises that strengthen good biomechanics and movement patterns in our joints and limbs. 

But a lot of the time, the exercises that stimulate and challenge our concentration are those that are on the other end of the spectrum (think: Rolling Like A Ball or Back Arch & Bridge below). 

Perhaps biomechanically, there are better options. But to strengthen your concentration which in turn strengthens your mind-body awareness, those exercises that are truly ‘Pilates’ are the ones that you want to be doing. 


I was introduced to Pilates in the early 1990’s by a friend who said it helped her balance better and longer in dance class. And while all those who train in Pilates aren’t dancing across the floor,  the concept of being centered is one we can all benefit from. 

Physically, being centered allows us to move with efficiency, stand with ease and continue our activities without restrictions. Being centered also helps us mentally because it allows us to focus more clearly and with less distractions from discomfort and misalignments in our body. 

There are so many great aspects of Pilates including it’s longevity as a form of fitness and its potential to evolve in order to integrate what we’ve learned about the human body and biomechanics. 

For instructors, understanding the ‘why’ behind some of the foundational parts of the method and mindfully integrating them into your clients workouts can be a great tool in learning the ‘what’ and ‘how’…

2 Replies to “Understanding the ‘Why’ behind Pilates in order to appreciate the ‘What’ and ‘How’”

  1. Amanda Close says:

    So insightful. What I’ve learned works best for myself is borrowing from both – classical and contemporary Pilates. Often creating my own flow. Most importantly staying true to the foundations of Pilates as you stated (and taught me!) – control, precision, flow, centering, breath, concentration.
    These anchor my practice.

    1. Carla Ricalis says:

      Thanks Amanda. It’s so important to see the value in all of it. Because, as you said, it anchors your practice. But, for me, it also anchors my teaching..and I think that’s where the longevity of offering Pilates can be found.

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