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.