I thought it would be a good moment to resume our chit chat on this and suggest some books to start with. Below I have listed my favourite ones: the ones that I learned with, and the ones I still currently refer to.
I prefer to follow the true pilates style of Joseph Pilates, at least at the beginning. Classic pilates just as he taught it. Not to be snobbish, but simply because it's the bare essentials and it works as it is. Know the rules before you break them. There was a huge Pilates revolution about a decade ago, hollywood celebrities adopting the method, schools of thought arising everywhere, interpretations and styles plenty and it can get confusing. Some "pilates" offered around is more like a spin class, god knows what they're doing. As for the original Pilates, yes he did use machines (and I love the machines. They are dangerous instruments of torture and they work beautifully), but not until he had created his mat exercise program, and these mat exercises are a complete method in themselves.
(I have to make a little parenthesis here to clarify that the Pilates method alone doesn't address all the needs of the body and should be combined with other forms of exercise. Cardiovascular (running, swimming, walking), and strength (weights) need to be included in your regime for healthy bones and circulation.)
There's nothing gimmicky about this book: It's a clear, concise guide to the full method with a good introduction and clear pictures.
Brooke Siler is a student of Romana Kryzanowska, the chosen succesor of Pilates, so all of her exercises and postures are the original. I was taught Pilates by a student of Romana too, and her knowledge, program and the way she adapted them to my body was just mindblowing. It is for this reason (correcting bad postural habits we might not be aware of) that I think it's a good idea to have a couple of one-on-one sessions with a pilates instructor when you're starting out.
I wouldn't attempt to do anything, not even going to a pilates class, before having read this book, because it gets you in the right mindset for you to know what to concentrate on. And that is, succintly put, control. It takes a little bit until you "get it", if you haven't done this kind of exercise before.
Alycea Ungaro: Pilates in motion
This was the first book I bought myself. It's in full colour, which is nice, and the exercises and explanations are similar to the ones of Siler's: they are both classic Pilates. Again, beautifully clear pictures, precise, contains all the information you need to know. This has been probably the book I have used the most, because it's so easy and clear to look at, but has all the content you need. I read these books again and again and I always feel like I'm learning something. The more you know, the more you realise you don't know or you can improve something.
Ultimate Pilates by Andreas Reyneke
This is a different one, that you need to read after you have an idea of what you're doing and you're familiar with the exercises. Dreas goes further into the muscle groups, suggests advanced moves, talks about different anatomical problems, how to engage muscles in detail etc. Very interesting read, it gives a new perspective and interpretations of the method.
I wouldn't get it as an only book because you'll need one with the actual routine, with all the exercises and step by step movements, which this one doesn't include. If you don't know your routine before you read this, it can be confusing. The exercises he suggests are not a program, they're extras, and a lot of it is discussion rather than a clear explanation of what to do.
Regrettably, I have this book in Spain and cannot show you the inside. But it has a lot of text.
Denise Austin Pilates for Every Body
Finally, a completely different take but one that always cheers me up. Denise is your typical american fitness bombshell, smiles wide in every photograph and even talks about lifestyle and food. You can just feel her enthusiasm, and while I don't think her teaching is the most precise out there I often refer to her for ideas on extra exercises, or when I want a more personable approach. Whenever I'm not feeling like exercising, looking at Denise makes me do it. She's having the time of her life, clearly. Just look at her frilly outfits.
Even though some of her exercises are not fully Pilates, she interprets them by the Pilates principles. And the principles are what makes Joseph's method so interesting. After all, the form of the exercises in themselves are essentially what has always existed as "gym or ballet warm-up exercise" with a few adaptations. But when you put the Pilates principles into the equation, suddenly you're doing something different, even if it isn't visually apparent. You're engaging your body in a deeper way.
Which leads me to address: You can't always tell if someone is doing a Pilates exercise correctly by looking at them. You can get an idea by their posture, but a ballet dancer for instance will imitate any posture, and may not be engaging the correct muscles. The point of Pilates is not what you're doing, but how you're doing it. Tension is the other thing I feel strongly about, there should be contraction but there shouldn't be tension, or too much pressure on any joint.
There's a lot to say but I must contain myself and give it to you in small doses or you'll fall asleep! Feel free to suggest other books or discuss
WHERE TO PRACTICE PILATES and EQUIPMENT
You'll need a floor space where you can lie down and extend your arms outwards in the shape of a cross. You'll also need a mat. You can use towels in a pinch but you need a mat. My favourite is the Airex Fitline. It's the best. Holds your spine, and you won't sink in it or leave marks, it springs right into shape. Mine have lasted...10 years? And counting. I have three, one in each house. It's THAT good.