I fall into expansion. My chains loosen, then dissolve for the moment. A seed of truth, buried too long in depths I could not access, comes to light. New perspective is born, and life and spirit inhale the infinite. Here, I wear existence like a dazzling garb, lean into the wind, and let my heels leave the ground.
I fall into contraction. My body curls up on raw and rugged ground. Chaos and fear surface, join hands and dance. Their song is familiar, written long ago from bottomless wounds. The world shrinks; the air stagnates. There is nothing to be done but lie quiet and still, soft like an animal, and listen to that which is asking to be heard.
We continuously dance through moments of expansion, moments of contraction, and all the space between these two ends.
Our body flows with these rhythms as well. We experience days when our energy is expansive. We feel strong and balanced in our bodies, and move with vibrancy and ease. Then, we live days of contraction. We are tired, weak, and locked up in our tissues and muscles. And, more often, we move and spiral between these two extremes.
I wonder how many of us honor the rhythms of our body and spirit. I, certainly, have struggled with learning and befriending my rhythms, and coming to understand how valuable to growth they are. We have been conditioned to believe that we should consistently feel “good” mentally, emotionally, and physically. If we do not, there is a problem. Perhaps we even feel shame, as if we are somehow failing. Solutions surround us, promising stability and happiness- take the antidepressant, go to the gym often, invest in a relationship, and secure yourself in a nice house.
Yet there is nothing consistent or stable about life, other than the fact that everything is always changing. So, instead of trying to create a continual state of feeling "good," can we ease into the truth of life and who we are; and thereby honor the vast, rich, and varied experience of being human, which encompasses all kinds of states?
There is wisdom in softening into our difficult days and struggles, whether they are physical or spiritual. When we accept the truth of how we feel, we no longer have to live with resistance, which requires immense energy. We then carve out space for relief, and our body and mind can relax into their reality. Our feet soften into the true domain of where we stand, no longer having to pretend to trek some “ideal” path. We can then, in turn, release the judgements we hold against ourselves, as we recognize they were based upon a preconceived idea, an illusion in fact, of what and where we should be.
So what does this have to do with Pilates?
Pilates can be a wonderful anchor through the wild, diverse terrain of life. We adapt the method to match our present reality. The movements can be molded into a gentle and nurturing hour, and so we are able to practice even when we feel weak and tender, or are injured. And on days when we feel strong and want to “leap,” Pilates can deliver that joyful and challenging workout that pushes us in the healthiest of ways.
I recognize so much beauty in Pilates- not only because is it remarkable at balancing the body, but also because it has the capacity to support us continuously. It holds us through our moments of expansion, contraction, and everything in between. How many things in life can do that for us?
I’ve known these famous words from Joseph Pilates for a couple years now, but it was not until recently that this quote finally illuminated its simple yet deep truth to me.
In my ever-evolving practice, my experience with breath has shifted in a way that feels both subtle and significant at once. As my limbs reach and spiral out, striving towards length, stretch, and the pure joy of movement, my core roots itself down to the earth, holding steady and strong. Here, I meet my breath fully and intimately. My lungs, muscles, tissue, and cells embrace the breath—wrap it up and tie it into their being; for they know breath as what supports and moves them, and ultimately gives them life.
Breath is my body’s power and engine—the driving force behind my movement in Pilates. Active breath—full inhales, profound exhales. I imagine myself like a balloon, emptying my lungs out completely, and then filling myself back up with oxygen and energy. Each exhale is a chance to rid my lungs of stale, used air, discarding of what has gone and passed, and no longer serves me. Each inhale is a moment to welcome in fresh vitality, taking in exactly what I need.
In his book Return to Life, Joseph Pilates wrote: “Before any real benefits can be derived from physical exercise, one must first learn how to breathe properly.” As a child, Pilates was himself an asthmatic, so it seems evident that his emphasis on breath came as a result of his personal history and healing himself. In Pilates’ words, “…correct breathing… reduces heart strain, purifies the blood, and develops the lungs…This in turn supplies the bloodstream with vitally necessary life giving oxygen. Also, the complete exhalation and inhalation of air stimulates all muscles into greater activity.”
The benefits from improved breathing are vast. Breath helps in detoxification of the body, stress relief, pain reduction, mental clarity, increased energy, improved sleep and rest, elevated mood, and the list goes on. To experience the truth in this, simply take a few, deep breaths right now, and observe the difference in how you feel. Every cell in your body needs oxygen to survive and thrive, so is it not evident that the more fully you breathe, the better you feel?
Maintaining full breath throughout an entire Pilates session (or yoga, or daily life for that matter) is not easy. It requires practice, and above all, awareness and focus. On days when I succeed in making breath the foundation of my practice, everything shifts closer to perfection. The breath carries me through, as if I were riding a wave. In one inhale, I ascend and find length in my body. In the next exhale, I dive down and contract, feeling the depths of my internal strength. Here, I discover power and lightness in one. As I move through this ebb and flow, I hear my breath and feel it supporting me, lifting me, and moving me towards the ultimate—the coming together of body, mind, and spirit.
Without expecting it, my breath has taken me into another space—that of moving meditation.
If you have too comfortable of a path, you are not forced to grow.
This, of course, is no novel idea. But I was struck by this concept recently because I thought about it in a different way. I reflected on it in relation to my present world of being a Pilates instructor, a yoga enthusiast, and a student and lover of movement and the body.
A core reason why I was drawn into Pilates and yoga was because they are challenging practices. Even now, years after beginning the disciplines, I am required to work my hardest every time I get on the mat.
To flow through an hour or more of an ambitious physical practice, I must draw upon mental strength and discipline. I work to keep my body linked to my mind, and to stay present with acute awareness of how my body is moving and what it feels. I work to maintain strong breath and not sink into shallowness. I work to pace myself, and draw from heartfelt motivation when I find myself tired or struggling. I work to break mental blocks and fears—Yes, I am strong enough to balance upside down on my hands; and when I do fall, I know how to catch myself.
Ultimately, all of this becomes a beautifully, challenging dance--a dance between the body, the mind, and the creative, intuitive self that knows movement as an artful expression of life.
It is in the challenge of this dance that I grow, both in a physical and mental sense. When the moment demands much of me—when I lose fluidity of movement, forget my breath, or feel weak, tight, and shaky in a pose—it is then that I enter into the depth, into the significance, of these practices. Working through the difficulty forces me to grow; and a sense of growth gives way to a sense of heart and meaning.
Cultivating strength, flexibility, and balance in my body, has also translated into cultivating these same things inside myself. The mind and body work together, and it has been my experience that working on the physical self inevitably leads one to work on the deeper self.
Thus, my journey into movement has been, and continues to be, a journey into my self. On the exterior, my body moves and my physical being is challenged. On the interior, my soul dances, and my mind travels through moments of ease and tension, joy and frustration, strength and weakness, confidence and fear. In movement, I am learning the dance of life.
Our lives both demand and tempt us to be sedentary. We work, play, and socialize sitting down in front of electronic devices. Even when we are out with others, at a restaurant for example, many of us are hunched over—our head is down, our spine slouches, and our shoulders round forward. Our focus bounces between two worlds, as our gaze shifts from looking down at our phones to looking up at the people sitting with us. For a moment we are present in the here and now, only to fall, a few seconds later, back into the time warp of our digital worlds.
Perhaps you’ve seen this picture before. At first glance, it might appear comical, but upon deeper reflection, we see a gloomy and disturbing reality. Our bodies are degrading due to the way we live.
To see proof of this statement, simply look around you. Study people’s bodies. Notice their spine, shoulders, and head. It is not uncommon to see even young people, who have spent the last fifteen or so years mostly sitting down—at school, in front of the TV, and on computers—with posture that resembles a hunchback.
Over time, excessive sitting leads to a weak, inflexible body. This results in a whole host of potential physical problems, which can be experienced in many areas of the body, from head to toe. When one part of the body is out of alignment, it has a cascade effect, sending the entire body out of alignment.
Not giving your body what it loves and needs—movement—is unquestionably detrimental. But this, of course, is no surprise. Remember our origins. We are animals, and our bodies are designed to move.
Unfortunately, the majority of people’s work is now in front of computers, and thus fighting against all this proves difficult. Still, we must try. Take every chance to move. Walk up stairs instead of using the elevator. Take breaks from your desk to move around, even if it’s only for a few minutes (and don’t just walk—jump! It improves your bone density). Spend your weekends doing as little sitting as possible. Find a physical hobby—dance, Pilates, cycling, etc.
You only have one body. Listen to it. Learn it. Love it.
I have practiced both Pilates and yoga for some time now. In the first couple years of my practice, these two disciplines were separate worlds that didn’t much overlap. I saw Pilates as a brilliant system of movements that built a strong, balanced, and flexible body, and physically worked me in a different way than yoga.
Yoga, on the other hand, was “special,” so much so that I didn’t want to try to verbalize why it felt so profound. Yoga was a gateway to the inner world, the meditative mind, and thereby an entrance into spirituality. Ultimately, I loved both Pilates and yoga, but in different ways. I loved Pilates intellectually and physically, and I loved yoga with my heart.
Then, somewhere along the way, something shifted in my Pilates practice. I began to enter that same meditative state as in yoga. I swam further into its depths, and discovered that I could make this practice just as soulful. My two, once separate worlds began to come together.
With this, came another realization. I saw outside the Pilates and yoga box, and understood that this meditative state—a place of fluidity, peace and bliss—can be achieved through many types of movement practices that incorporate a few key elements—a deep sense of body and mind awareness, mental focus, and full, strong breath.
Mindful movement, in whatever form you choose, has the potential to be special, exquisite, and divine.
The creator of Pilates, Joseph Pilates, believed in the absolute unification of mind, body, and spirit. Joseph studied many different movement forms, including those from the East, and then created his own method. He meant for Pilates to be holistic, meaning that the mind, body, and spirit are all part of and benefit from the practice. This is evidenced in his words:
“Through (Pilates), this unique trinity of a balanced body, mind and spirit can ever be attained. Self confidence follows.”
"The mind, when housed within a healthful body, possesses a glorious sense of power."
“(Pilates) invigorates the mind and elevates the spirit.”
Pilates has the power to be mentally profound, deeply personal, and even a spiritual practice. Of course, you don’t have to make it this. Pilates is, in its most simple and exterior form, an outstanding physical conditioning system. But if you do want to enter into its greatest possibilities, then:
*bring awareness to your every movement
*focus on each moment
*breathe to your fullest potential.
There, you are able to discover the transformative power and beauty of mindful movement.
"I believe that we learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing, or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same. In each, it is the performance of a dedicated, precise set of acts, physical or intellectual, from which comes shape of achievement, the sense of one’s being, the satisfaction of spirit. One becomes in some area an athlete of God. Practice means to perform over and over again, in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire." - Martha Graham
Pilates is all about practice. Like any meaningful pursuit, Pilates encompasses dedication and hard work. We repeat the movements and sequences over and over. Again and again. Try today; try tomorrow. Get stronger. Get flexible. Build a more balanced body.
There is no final goal to reach in Pilates. The desire to improve never ends. It’s a lifetime practice. Strength, flexibility, balance, endurance, mind-body connection—there is always work to be done here.
“Who is an authentic seeker, but someone who has understood that there is nothing else to do but practice? Enthusiastic or discouraged, he or she continues, no matter what."-Lee Lozowick
Some days I feel growth and progress. I stay connected to my breath—deep, full breath; I take in life, and expel used energy. I flow through the movements fast, with grace and ease. I feel powerful—equals parts strength and flexibility.
Other days I hit a wall. I question if I’ve improved in the last six months. I am weak. The movements feel heavy, full of effort, like I’m pushing my muscles through mud.
But as with all things, you cannot have the good without the bad—both are essential for the practice. The difficult days are when I feel challenged, not only physically, but also on a mental level. I question why I practice Pilates, why I teach the method, why I write about it, and why I so wholeheartedly believe in it.
And I am required to answer.
But the answers come quickly. Firstly, it’s my moving meditation and truly helps me to be a better person. It creates peace, balance, and pure joy within my internal world.
Secondly, it’s highly effective. It’s an incredibly intelligent method, created by a man who was a genius about the body and movement. Pilates builds a balanced body—one that is both strong and flexible. This, undoubtedly, is essential for living a fulfilling life. When people feel their best physically, it profoundly impacts their internal and external world in the most positive of ways. Not only do I love experiencing the benefits of Pilates on my own body and mind, I also love sharing and teaching this method, a remarkable tool and gift, to my students.
And so, again and again, I return home to my mat for a lifetime of practice.
"Abhyasa (practice) is a dedicated, unswerving, constant, and vigilant search into a chosen subject pursued against all odds in the face of repeated failures, for indefinitely long periods of time."- B.K.S. Iyengar
Be strong, but soft. Do not tense; do not force the position. Engage the muscles, work hard, and then release some—soften the body. Use deep breath—full inhales, complete exhales—to find space between your bones, your muscles, your tissue.
These two ideas—being strong, but soft; engaged, but relaxed—perhaps seem contradictory. But in reality, they are complimentary, and create ideal form in any kind of movement, whether it is Pilates, yoga, a sport, or simply just moving through daily life.
Think of movement in its most natural state—the movement of a wild animal. Call to mind an animal that moves beautifully, such as a cat. A cat moves with strength, but also with ease. It walks, runs, and jumps with power, but also with softness and grace.
This concept of being strong, but soft, is something I only recently integrated into my body, and it has completely changed how I feel both physically and mentally during my practice. I realize that I used to do Pilates with a tense body, which greatly limits the benefits of the practice—you tire more quickly, hold stress in the body and mind, and you are less likely to zone in on the “core” if the limbs are overly engaged.
Give this concept a try in your own body. For those of you who practice Pilates or yoga, come into Teaser (Pilates) or Navasana (yoga). In this pose, many people feel as if they cannot help but grip into the muscles of the front thighs. If this is the case for you, engage the mind to create change in the body. Give your body precise verbal cues. Legs are strong, but soft. Arms are active, but free of tension. Then, draw the real power from the deep abdominal muscles. Scoop the belly in and up, but do so with a sense of softness. There, you will discover that essential balance between being active and relaxed, strong but soft.
Very quickly into my teaching career, I saw first hand how profoundly beneficial Pilates is. My students were physically transformed by their practice, whether they were strong and fit to begin with, or exercising for the first time in years.
It was especially incredible to witness those clients—who originally came to me with pain, aliments, or injuries—achieve a much healthier, balanced body. Below are a few examples of such clients who transformed their body with Pilates.
(Note: The names are fictitious, as I honor my clients’ privacy).
Dan had done years of intense sports, suffered from serious injuries, and had been feeling chronic aches and pains for a long time. After doing just a few, private sessions with me, Dan became a Pilates devotee, saying that the method was “magic.” He was feeling the best he had felt in years!
“In ten sessions you will feel the difference, in twenty you will see the difference, and in thirty you’ll have a whole new body.” Joseph Pilates
By doing Pilates regularly, Dan was finally developing a balanced body—a body that his past sports training had not given him. He was acquiring strength in the most key areas—the muscles of his abdomen, back, butt, and hips, and was also gaining flexibility, especially in his spine. His aches, such as in his back, were disappearing; and within a month, he was moving through sequences he never thought possible for him.
Claire was recovering from a serious injury, and had been bed ridden for two months. Claire told me she had tried some yoga recently, but had not found it helpful. After coming to her first Pilates class, she exclaimed with astonishment, that she was able to touch her toes for the first time in six months. Claire continued to come to my group classes the following week, and when I asked her how she was feeling after having done a total of four sessions, she again expressed wonder, saying how her personal results were truly amazing. Simple, daily activities like walking, which she struggled to do just the previous week, were suddenly no longer painful.
Pilates really resonated with her, not only physically, but also mentally. She mentioned the value of the breath work, particularly the deep exhales through the mouth. She said this helped her enter into a meditative state, more than she was ever able to in yoga classes that she had tried in the past.
“Above all, learn how to breathe correctly.” –Joseph Pilates
Sara was a professional tennis player in her younger days, and now suffered from serious knee pain. She had tried yoga, but found that the multitude of standing lunges in yoga—the warrior poses—aggravated her problem. Pilates worked wonderfully for her because it is very low impact on the joints. You are mostly on the back, stomach, or lying on your side. After years of not doing any kind of sport or exercise because of her knee pain, Sara finally discovered a safe method that could help her build the kind of strength and flexibility she desired.
Since getting into Pilates myself, I have always believed that it is a wonderful method. But when I see the results in my students, it makes me realize on a new level how truly profound it is. Joseph Pilates was a genius about the body and movement, and he designed his system with remarkable intelligence and precision. I feel deeply grateful that I more or less “stumbled” upon the method, and now have the opportunity to spread its gift.
1. It’s for women
I do not know why Pilates has earned this reputation, but the idea that it’s a feminine kind of exercise is a complete fallacy.
The creator of Pilates was a man, and in its early days, it was much more practiced by men then women. I am certain that any man who has attended a Pilates class will confirm there is nothing girly about the practice. It’s a highly intelligent system of body conditioning, concentrating on core strength and flexibility, and it’s a challenging workout.
Pilates benefits all people—men, women, the young, the elderly, athletes, the injured, etc. Pilates is ageless, genderless, and colorless.
2. It’s a mind-body exercise, and therefore spiritual like yoga
Pilates requires concentration, control, and great precision. To preform the exercises correctly, the mind must be fully engaged and aligned with the body. Joseph Pilates created his method so that people could move through this world—the here and now—with a strong, supple, and healthy body. There is no spiritual doctrine.
Joseph did, however, believe in developing the relationship between body, mind, and spirit. He saw the physical art of Pilates—the strengthening and stretching of the body—as a practice that could invigorate people mentally and renew their spirit. He believed his method led to true balance in the individual, which encompasses all realms—the physical, mental, and spiritual.
Personally, I believe the breath has a huge role to play in taking the physical practice of Pilates into a deeper mental, and perhaps even spiritual, sphere. When the mind is linked with the body and breath, it becomes possible to be captivated by the present moment. During the practice, there is potential to enter into a flow and discover a kind of zone—this magical state; this one moment in time where there is only your body, only your breath. However, this is not unique to Pilates. Any kind of movement and art form can do this.
3. It’s mostly about flexibility, not strength
Firstly, flexibility is essential to a healthy, balanced body. An ideal body is one that is both strong and flexible. A strong body without any flexibility is limited in what it can do and also more prone to injury; as is a flexible body without strength.
Pilates does indeed work on flexibility, but it works just as much on strength. As cited above, Pilates is challenging—plain and simple. It focuses on building core strength, (the deep muscles of the abdominals and back), and there is no easy way to do this. You must work hard. In fact, if you find the exercises easy, you probably are not doing them properly.
Pilates has become very popular in the last twenty years, but the deeper side of the practice is still quite unknown, possibly even to those who attend classes.
Pilates is often thought of as something similar to yoga, or a system for dancers and rehabilitation, or even more simply, a lot of stretching exercises. These are all gravely inaccurate definitions. Pilates is a unique system of specific exercises that builds a uniformly developed body—a body that is both strong and flexible, so that it is able to move through all of life’s activities with grace and ease.
I know for those readers who have never tried Pilates, this general definition provides little insight into what the practice actually entails. But it is not the extensive series of exercises on which I wish to concentrate here. Rather, I want to focus on the part of Pilates that happens outside the classes. Pilates is an entire theory and method of movement that should be practiced both on and off the mat. The “off the mat” aspect is key; and when you begin to incorporate Pilates into your daily life, you are truly reaching its potential depths and profound intelligence.
As a child, Joseph Pilates—the creator of Pilates, used to spend hours in the woods, observing animals. He watched their effortless movements, their body control, and their ability to stay injury free. Animals have an innate intelligence for movement. Pilates designed his method to help people develop this same kind of intuition for intelligent movement.
So how is this accomplished? First, Pilates teaches body awareness. When you practice consistently, you become deeply conscious of, even hyper sensitive, to how your body feels. Where are my areas of tightness and constriction? Which parts of me are flexible and move freely? Which muscles are weak and how is this affecting my alignment?
You notice your breath--Am I breathing shallow or deeply? Where am I sending my breath? To my upper chest; to my stomach; or out to my sides and back? How does the way I breathe affect how I feel and my energy?
You continuously observe how you move; for example, the manner in which you stand still--do I put my weight into one leg? Or the way you walk up the stairs--do I lean forward and grip into my thighs, or do I stay tall? Or how you sit at your desk--do I round my shoulders forward and stick out my neck? You notice evenness and balance, or lack there of, in your body--am I always using the right side of my body to accomplish tasks?
Pilates teaches you to work your body naturally throughout the day. You develop an understanding of how to use your deepest muscles—your core muscles—to sit, stand, and walk, so that you continuously move with true strength and agility. Moreover, Pilates trains your mind to wander through your body as you move, checking in on each area to perfect your form and alignment.
Pilates on the mat is great; but if you don’t translate what your body learns there into your daily life, then the benefits of the practice remain limited. When it becomes second nature to move from your deepest muscles and align your body, it is then that you’ve reached the depth and heart of Pilates, as well as attained true health and fitness.