When I first saw Pilates classes advertised at a local leisure center quite a few years back, I didn’t’ initially feel inclined to try them as it said: Pilates is a lifestyle choice, not a fitness program. That’s, of course, very general information and didn’t really answer my question: what is Pilates about?
What I immediately associated with that was classes probably targeted at those who want to do some exercise without exerting themselves maybe trying to teach you to meditate and relax a bit or trying to change your mindset.
Although I quite like the idea of meditation and relaxation, it just doesn’t work for me in the uninspiring – and sometimes overcrowded – environment of a leisure center. So I didn’t even give it a second thought.
It was only a couple of years later, when I had developed some back and shoulder pain, that my attention was drawn to it again. Independently of each other, not only a friend, who had tried Pilates after pregnancy, but also my then physiotherapist recommended Pilates to me. So I decided to give it a go. I have to say, I was quite surprised when I found out that it was quite different from what I had anticipated.
Pilates is about alignment, centering and co-ordination
One big focus in Pilates is bringing the body into good postural alignment and reminding it constantly of how it should be standing, sitting or lying. Proper alignment of each part of the body during your exercises is crucial to safety and to correcting muscle imbalances. Only if your bones and joints are in the correct place, can you get the right muscles working. This way, you build the muscles so they are able to support your joints and bone structure.
Another important Pilates principle is centering, or creating a strong core/center. For this you need to build your lower abdominal muscles that are key in providing core stability. When you have a strong core with strong stabilizing lower abdominal muscles, you are less prone to back injuries as your lower back is more protected.
Good postural alignment and a strong core, in turn, are the prerequisites for good co-ordination. Co-ordination has to do with muscle control and muscle memory. It is a physical and mental process. It requires the brain to remember sequences of movements whilst each involved muscle needs to remember in which order to fire. To achieve good co-ordination it is necessary to feed the brain with good movement input so the muscles learn the right firing order.
Pilates is about building up your strength and stamina
Building up strength is a central goal in Pilates as you need strength for protecting the muscles and the joints against acute and chronic injuries. It goes hand in hand with building stamina and endurance. To achieve strength and stamina, you need to progressively challenge your stability. That’s why most Pilates exercises comprise a number of levels so you can progress to a higher level as your core is getting stronger.
As you become more proficient at the exercises and your muscles begin to work the way they are supposed to work, you will discover that your overall stamina will improve considerably. The reason being that you are no longer wasting energy holding on to unnecessary muscle tension or moving inefficiently.
This type of stamina is, however, very different from the type of stamina gained through regular cardio-vascular exercises, such as aerobics or running. In Pilates, the improved stamina is the result of higher efficiency when performing movements. Although your heart rate will increase when doing a number of Pilates exercises in succession, it is not a cardio-vascular workout, but excellent for preparing your body for such an activity.
Pilates is about concentration and relaxation
Unlike other exercise routines, Pilates puts strong emphasis on relaxing even before you start your workout. In fact, it is a top priority to ensure that you do not bring any of the stress of the day into your Pilates routine. Areas of unwanted tension need to be recognized and released to avoid the wrong muscles firing up again and again. By learning to relax and to release tension, you will be able to break the cycle of bad body use.
The most common areas that build up tension are the upper shoulders, the back of the neck, and also the muscles round the front of the hips and the lower back, if you sit a lot and in an incorrect position. To release the tension in those areas, you need to learn to be aware of it and how to release it. So this is another focus in Pilates.
When you are relaxed, it will be much easier to focus and concentrate on your exercises. After all, ‘it is the mind itself which builds the body’ (Joseph Pilates).
So Pilates can be regarded as a mental and physical conditioning program with the aim to train both body and mind. It requires you to focus your mind on each and every movement you make and develops your body’s sensory feedback so you know where you are in space and what each part of the body is doing. And this requirement to concentrate will never cease as there is always a further level of awareness to reach.
Pilates is about lateral breathing
Another important Pilates principle is correct breathing. Now you may think breathing is something you do automatically and which doesn’t need to be learned. However, breathing is like moving your body – you may do this automatically, but not efficiently. And if you are not moving or breathing efficiently, you will use up far more energy than necessary and feel tired and exhausted much faster.
So what is the correct way of breathing? Wide and full into the sides of the rib cage, also called lateral breathing. This way, the volume of the cavity is increased, meaning the capacity for oxygen intake is also increased thus making maximum use of the lower part of the lungs. Lateral breathing also works the muscles between the ribs making the body more fluid and mobile.
By breathing in or out, you can help or hinder a movement. So the timing of the breath is vital for any movement. For this reason, Pilates exercises are carefully designed to reinforce and encourage the correct muscle recruitment using the right way of breathing. You learn not to hold your breath when movements get harder, but to time them correctly thus also avoiding unduly stress for the heart.
Pilates is both – a lifestyle choice and an exercise regime
So when trying to answer the question ‘What is Pilates about’, you clearly have to say it is certainly a lifestyle choice but no less than an exercise regime.
It is about the physical and the mental side of a person not only concentrating on developing core muscles through toning and stretching but also on promoting body awareness through a strong mind-body connection.
In some way, Pilates can be regarded as a wholesome lifestyle. As it increases the body awareness, it often leads to further changes in life, such as a diet change or a change of habits that negatively affect your life. Once the vicious circle of incorrect or inefficient posture, alignment, movements and breathing is broken, there is room and possibility for further positive change – it is a change that will improve both body and mind.