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.