In his book, ‘Return to Life Through Contrology,’ Joseph Pilates defined his work as a way to unify the body, mind, and spirit. When I practice Pilates this is the place I come from; through using the Pilates principles of breath, concentration, centering, control, precision, and flow.
Before I started to practice Pilates over 16 years ago, my workouts were a combination of high tempo music and fast-paced exercise to chase that adrenaline rush I would only get from either running or club classes. The thought of training at a slower tempo without the sweat pouring and blood pumping hard through my body was simply not on my agenda and I certainly paid no attention as to whether my exercise regime was creating any muscular imbalances or improving my posture or core strength.
My workouts today are very different. This is because I now encompass these underpinning principles which bring my mind body and spirit into alignment, enabling me to perform all movements with greater focus and control. As a result, I work safer yet with more challenges because I am much more in tune with my body and as a plus, I also de-stress from the demands and pressures that can build up in everyday life!
So if you want to go a level deeper with your training, read through these principles and check where you can begin to build your mind/body connection and get the most out of not just Pilates but all of your workouts!
The average adult takes 20,000 breaths a day, so it’s understandable why some people get confused when starting Pilates for the first time and their Instructor gives them instructions on how to breathe! The fact is that many people do not breathe correctly and as a result use half of their available lung capacity. Shallow breathing is very common and the result of several outside factors such as stress, sedentary lifestyle, even poor posture.
Breathing comes from one of two primary regions: your belly or your chest. In Pilates, the focus is on breathing into the chest-otherwise known as lateral thoracic breathing. Lateral breathing helps to maintain abdominal contraction and stabilization of the core while performing Pilates exercises which is important for successful performance and protection of the body.
To try this, imagine your ribs are a pair of curtains that draw back and to the sides of the body towards your underarms as you inhale. As you exhale, focus on breathing out fully through the mouth with a slow steady flow. Visualize the rib cage-like curtains drawing back together whilst maintaining an inward pull of the deep abdominal muscles. Notice the pause before you are ready to inhale again and develop a sense of rhythm. Practice inhaling for 4 counts and exhaling for 6 counts fully exhaling on each breath. Gradually increase the length of both phases the more you practice.
It’s important not to get too hung up about breathing in the beginning and just remember the general rule is to exhale on the greatest effort. The focus should be on ensuring a full exhalation in order to promote a fuller inhalation to aid oxygenation, purification, and blood circulation.
Breathing fully is also one way in which we can activate our Parasympathetic Nervous System which helps us to recover from those ‘flight or flight’ responses generated by everyday stressful situations. Bringing awareness to your breath is one of the quickest routes to promoting a calm body and mind which is why Pilates is perfect for re-balancing the mind, body, and spirit.
According to a study by Microsoft Corp, the average attention span of an adult now alarmingly stands at 8 seconds- which is apparently less than a goldfish! Offended? Don’t be! It’s easy to understand how this has occurred within our increasingly digitized lifestyle and its many distractions from multi streams of media on top of balancing the demands of juggling your family, career, or pursuing new goals to reach.
Pilates promotes mindful movements which are generally slowed down. It’s a mental as well as a physical discipline that trains the mind to stay focused on what it is doing, how it is moving, where it feels stabilized or under strain. If the mind starts to wander bring the concentration back to the breath then focus on one specific area which you can improve- after all, there will always be room for improvement!
Knowing where the line is between control and struggle requires concentration, without this the precision and control are lost. Training the mind to be still and concentrate promotes focused attention on what we are doing in time and space. This is essential if you are recovering from an injury or surgery as the proprioceptive system which is responsible for sensing where we are in relation to our surroundings can be affected leading to poor patterns of movement and possibly longer-term damage when compensatory patterns of movement develop into long term habits. It is no wonder then that Pilates has been renowned for being ‘Intelligent exercise with profound results’ and why Joseph Pilates himself stated that ‘It is the mind itself that builds the body
Centering for some is understood as a zen-like process of finding inner strength but within Pilates it is used to describe the use of collective muscles which make up your ‘core’ or ‘powerhouse’, these are; the abdominals, gluteals, pelvic floor and lower back muscles.
Before my own Pilates practice, I paid little attention to initiating these core muscles at the beginning of each exercise. As I learned to engage them before all other muscle groups I noticed my strength almost growing from within. It takes time to rewire old patterns of movement so at first, it may be difficult to center your movements around engaging your core muscles first. With practice, it will become second nature as you train your body to initiate seemingly unrelated movements from the center of your body. This will result in increased stability as you move dynamically through each movement with more control, precision, and finesse, whilst at the same time reducing the risk of strains and injuries.
Picture a gymnast performing handstands on the balance beam, constantly regulating the execution of each movement. Now picture their descent-a climax of triple somersaults landing with remarkable precision and control. Pilates originally called his method of exercise ‘Contrology’ and stipulated the importance of control in everything we do. From initiating a movement to bringing it to an end-control is crucial throughout. It’s easy to spot when someone is not able to regulate and maintain control throughout their movements because coordination, precision, and balance are lost. It is the conscious control of your muscles, position, and speed that will give you results and reduce the risk of injury, this also applies to the transition phase in between exercises. Taking your time to focus control on the correct alignment of exercises and precision of movement is key to ensuring that you train your muscles effectively. You will also encourage effective use of your ‘synergistic muscles’ which work to stabilize a joint around which movement is occurring and in turn assist your larger muscle groups to function correctly.
When practicing Pilates (or any exercise program) it is key to tap into your internal dialogue and be aware of your thoughts. If your mind is wandering away from focusing on your movement, it is likely that control will be lost. Being aware of your physical status and listening to your body’s feedback is key. I am constantly encouraging my students to remain on the side of control and be aware of where that fine line is between training and straining. Start from where your level of control is at and don’t rush the journey. You will soon start to refine your movements, and whilst you may not end up doing tricks like a gymnast on a balance beam, you will definitely feel more confident in your ability to move with poise and grace knowing your muscles are working together more effectively to perform the best version of you that you can be!
Precision is linked very closely with control for without control the ability to execute an exercise with exact precision is lost. It is this principle that separates Pilates from most other exercise systems. To train with precision increases our spatial awareness, ensuring correct alignment with each exercise. The mind acts as an internal GPS device guiding the body through all planes of movement, delivering accuracy throughout each repetition and sequence, and therefore getting better results. Consider yourself to be the architect of your own body and pay attention to what can be improved upon-there will always something no matter how advanced you are! As you learn each exercise consider what the next level will be and how precision and accuracy will be maintained to the same degree.
Working with precision can make the difference between accessing a muscle or not and achieving your goal or not. You will find your knowledge about your muscles and the movement of your body starts to grow and develop. This awareness and a greater appreciation for your body also translate outside of sessions, as you become more aware of how you carry your posture. Research suggests that 55% of our communication is body language, so consider your posture and precision of movement and use this core principle to aid the way in which you communicate with others too!
Flow wraps up all the above principles. It is a quality to strive for and can be described as a smooth, uninterrupted continuity of movement. When we are practicing all the above concepts, our movements are performed with control and precision, initiated from our center whilst breathing fully and deeply. The body is now at ease to perform balanced movements that flow smoothly integrating the nervous system, muscles, and joints, and can move dynamically with inner strength and greater awareness.
Flow can also describe a movement that is ‘mindful’. As you increase your repertoire of exercises you will start to link them together to build sequences. It is important that flow is maintained, again by incorporating all of these principles together in your practice. Increasing the speed at which you train will challenge your ability to keep the flow, so again, remaining aware of your performance and using your inner critic to assess your progress will prevent poor habits forming which can lead to muscular imbalances and increase the risk of injury.
Incorporating these Pilates Principles will help you to get the most out of your sessions and beyond. ‘Going with the flow’ will take on a whole new and literal meaning. Your mind and body will be disciplined to know its strengths, weaknesses, and limitations. Your ability to hold focused attention to your task at hand will improve, your stress levels will decline, your posture and breathing will improve which in turn will result in greater mental clarity and focus with reduced physical and mental stress!
”Correctly executed and mastered to the point of subconscious reaction, these exercises will reflect grace and balance in your routine activities”. Joseph Pilates
If you would like an opportunity to book onto one of my Pilates Courses please check out my Website: www.onebodyloveit.com and visit the ‘classes’ page. This is regularly updated with current courses in the Corsham, Box, and Melksham areas. Individual coaching is available by appointment.