Pilates explained


With 36 manuals and eight videos devoted to Pilates to her name, Master Instructor Kelly McKinnon opened Belgium’s first Pilates studio Corpus Studios in 1999 and also introduced the disciplines Gyrotonic, Gyrokinesis and Core Align to this country; photos by Virginie Morel

Just about everyone has heard of Pilates, but ask around and few people know what it really is. An American thing that film stars do to keep slim? A girly thing that no self-respecting athlete would want to do? A therapy thing for people with injuries?

Pilates is a movement system which can benefit young, old, injured, and the superfit: the deepest muscles close to the joints are challenged and developed to provide support, strength, mobility and awaken the nervous and respiratory systems.

Joseph Pilates (1883-1967) created the exercises drawing on his experience of years in sport, boxing, circus arts and modern gymnastics.

The recent explosion of Pilates in Europe has largely focused on “mat” classes to be found in just about any self-respecting gym. Yet many of today’s mat Pilates enthusiasts may not be aware that there is another extremely important dimension to Pilates based on mechanical apparatus designed and developed by Joseph Pilates himself.


img1659The mat is only one segment of a true Pilates “ Hour of Power”. Traditionally, Pilates challenges the body in its many relationships to gravity. The extraordinarily versatile apparatus offers endless possibilities to work the body on a moving base, against the resistance of springs and in different positions, from the horizontal to the vertical, building core strength, suppleness and stability, whether the goal is simply a healthy body or competitive sports.

Pilates is not a therapy. If you are broken, visit a doctor, physiotherapist, or chiroprator. But too often people injure themselves, and go to a doctor or osteopath and then right back to the fun sport they started with, and in no time at all end up back in the fix stage. The key is an adequate foundation which Pilates and other disciplines such as Gyrotonic, Yoga or Feldenkreis can provide.

Eventually everyone passes through the fix stage – bodies need maintenance – but regularly performed cognitive foundation exercises make for the most efficient working body. A healthy body delivers a healthy heart and respiratory system, which leads to a healthy mind and spirit.

“It helps keep its practitioners agile with lean and strong, defined muscles”

Pilates offers a wide range of exercise possibilities and working with specially designed equipment is especially beneficial for sport-specific training, for tennis and golf players and dancers. It can also strengthen backs, buttocks and thighs, hips, the upper back and shoulders and tackle neck problems, frozen shoulders and much more. At whatever age, it helps keep its practitioners agile with lean, strong, and defined muscles. And Pilates can radically improve the quality of life.


I have one client who had a back operation and has several herniated disks. He was in pain simply from brushing his teeth. I took him on with the condition he committed to three classes a week. Two years later this person rides a bike to class and downhill skis again, is able to play with his children and enjoys the benefits of a healthy body.

As the trainer it is my responsibility to understand the implications of damage to the spine, and factor this into my programming. Each client has to respect the reality of his or her own body, but quality of life can be improved 100 percent. But remember that only an experienced teacher of many years should be working with the seriously injured and then only after suitable physiotherapy and with the green light from a doctor.


img1650A certified instructor should have undergone a Pilates education with exams, apprentice hours, instruction in anatomy, pedagogical programming for Pilates – and they should be someone who knows how to teach. Unfortunately, there are a great many Pilates teachers out there who cannot tick all of these boxes. How do you know if your teacher is safe? A good teacher is attentive and teaches the student, not the exercise. My personal recommendation is to look for a teacher who does not work out themselves during the class, but constantly checks the student’s body position and execution of the exercise. Look for a teacher who has a plan for you, an objective in each class, and a strategy for your development; a teacher who is informed about the individual needs of their students, and who offers modifications to exercises when necessary to meet these needs. Make sure you choose an instructor who knows their limits and who teaches a class with only as many students as it is possible to control safely.


Pilates videos are useful once you have had some face-to-face instruction and understand the concept; they are not a great place to start. There are different schools of thought, but as far as music is concerned, I would rather use breathing to give rhythm to the exercises. Pilates is about control and concentration, and if I want to give it my full attention I am personally better off without the distraction of music. Music has its own rhythm and emotion and but so does breathing.

Concentrating 100 percent for one hour of cognitive exercise relaxes the parasympathetic nervous system. Our lives are so over-stimulated that to have an hour to focus only on oneself is a real pleasure. And it can be fun.