In the early 20th century, Joseph Pilates developed a unique system of exercise that has only recently become popular and well known. It was designed to bring about an increase in overall flexibility, full-body strength, movement coordination, balance and energy for daily activities.
There are two primary methods for working with Pilates: Mat Pilates and Reformer Pilates. Mat Pilates is usually a group activity which, as the name implies, takes place on a mat. There is a series of exercises which the group performs together, under the watchful eye of the instructor. It involves stretching and strengthening in a variety of positions, some static, some moving, some lying on the mat, some seated, some standing.
Reformer Pilates uses a machine called a Reformer, which is a complex piece of machinery consisting of a framework of wood or metal and a sliding platform (which can be converted to a flat "bed"), a collection of springs, straps and bars used to challenge and support the client in any one of several hundred basic exercises. These sessions are led by a Pilates trained instructor and usually are considered private personal training, though sometimes the session takes the form of small group (with 2-5 people) classes.
Sessions of reformer pilates are put together with great attention to detail. Every joint, every breath, every movement and postural adjustment is directed by the instructor with certain principles in mind. These principles are as follows:
1. Breathing: This is a vital part of Pilates training and serves to connect mind to body. Each movement is joined to the breath, either exhaling or inhaling, depending on the movement. The abdominal muscles are trained - re-educated - to stay active throughout the length of the breath. Participants are instructed to time their movements along with the breath so the movement ceases when the breath ceases. It is a primary method for experiencing mindfulness - the ability to put your mind where you want it, and to keep that attention focused and awake.
2. Concentration: Another way of saying mindfulness, concentration is paying attention. Paying attention to what? What you are feeling and where you are feeling it when you perform a Pilates movement. Which muscles are involved, are your hips/shoulders/etc stable, is there any tightness, does one side feel equal to the other interms of fatigue, tension, coordination?
3. Control: Can you attain proper positioning and movement form? It's not enough to get from "A" to "B", it's not enough to move some big weight and impress everybody in the gym with your "strength". If you can't maintain form and make it look good, if you can't make it look and feel "easy", then you have to ask whether you have mastered that movement.
4. Centering: All Pilates movement initiates from the center, from a strong, stable, mobile center. Dancers, athletes, martial artists all experience their center of gravity (called "Tan Tien" in Kung Fu, "Hara" in Yoga) as the foundation of all movement.
5. Precision: Performing Pilates exercises and all movement and postural adjustments with optimum efficiency. No wasted motion, no "extra" movement, and all of that a product of practice over days, months and years. Pilates is a long-term committment, and it's a committment that grows naturally out of the experience of a truly enjoyable activity. Pilates feels good. The more you practice it the better you feel.
6. Balanced Muscle Development: Alignment, posture, efficient and precise movement all lead to a neuromuscular balance. Balance leads to optimum function without the wear and tear of long-term musculoskeletal malfunction.
7. Rhythm/Flow: You will learn to move like a dancer moves. I've seen it over and over. Clients come in believing the dancers are from somewhere else, that a "non-dancer" can't do what a dancer does, that the average person is generally clumsy and uncoordinated and thats that. I'm here to tell you its not true. Start small. Find a good teacher. Practice. You will dance. Maybe not on stage, but through your life. It is so worth it, please don't miss the chance.
8. Whole Body Movement: You will learn that it's all important. Every part of you, every part of a specific movement is connected to every other part. You can't leave anything out because it's connected. When you reach overhead, your feet are part of that because they are your foundation. When you reach behind you, your hips are part of it, your ribs and low back move and stabilize, your knees, neck and shoulders can't be left behind, they go with you and you go with them. Pilates unifies the body, it re-organizes all the body systems so you can take advantage of all of it. It's all important, why not use it?
9. Relaxation: Experience effort and intensity. Then experience non-doing. If a movement recruits muscles in the proper pattern and with the proper timing, it becomes effortless and relaxed. Watch a great athlete leap through the air - if they push too hard or add tension where it's not needed, they look clumsy and can't perform. A relaxed athlete moves like the trees move when a wind comes. There's energy in every movement, and intention, but there's nothing extra. There is an ease that comes from doing just enough, while also doing it all-out. No excess, no lack, just the right amount.
So try a Pilates session and get to know your body. Relearn what it means to be connected, to relearn life's possibilities, to expand your mind-body boundaries.