Sunday 22 January 2017

Pilates - what is it?

Pilates - An Introduction

I have been teaching Pilates for well over ten years now, to individuals, groups of friends and
colleagues and large leisure centre classes. Some of these sessions have been to athletes (amateur, semi- and professional), others to physiotherapy clients. I have taught at hen weekends, to fitness addicts, newbies to activity and covered ages ranging from Girl
Guides to Great Grandparents, and, of course, to both men and women.

But a recurring theme across all of these groups, levels, abilities and inclinations is an enthusiasm for regularly “going back to basics”. So, that’s where I am going to start.

I will give you an overview of what Pilates is, to me at least, and then take a look at some of the basic exercises from which so many variations can come. But as a cautionary note before we go on this journey I need to remind you that this is my take on Pilates. The purists out there may well consider some of this a distortion of the true ethos of the practice. If you do, then I do understand. In no way do I intend to belittle or deride any of that, it has been the backbone of my teaching for all these years, but my experiences and the
people I have had the privilege to teach have naturally affected my interpretation of the original Joseph Pilates teaching and that is what I will share with you here.

Posture and Lifestyle

For those of us lucky enough to not suffer with debilitating illnesses, injuries or disabilities, many of the aches and pains we routinely struggle with come from poor posture and imbalances in the body. These have their roots in many causes but more often than not it is our lifestyle that lies behind them. 20th and 21st century living, and the ordinary, daily activities that we all carry out do not lend themselves to a balanced body and good posture.
We put pillows under our babies’ heads and shoes on their feet. We make our children sit at school and we drive, use computers, read books, do the ironing, sit on the sofa and a whole myriad of other small, habitual things that shape the way our body develops. And all this is before we add extra-curricular activities – sports, hobbies and, of course, work.
As the body becomes more physically imbalanced it starts to affect other aspects of life. It can have an effect on mood and the efficiency to carry out every day mental and physical tasks and to be able to cope with stressful or challenging situations.

Developing Body Awareness

Using visualisation queues to enhance slow, gentle, controlled movements to encourage correct posture in everyday life, and in more challenging activities such as exercise, Pilates strengthens and tones individual muscle groups providing natural protection for the whole length of the spine.

Pilates is not a “mindless” repetition of movements, but neither is it a spiritual practice. It is more of an understanding of the body’s actions and reactions to movement, connecting our mind with the way we move, giving us the opportunity to think about how we breathe and how to isolate movements while adding stability from supporting muscle groups.

Pilates helps overcome posture related back pain such as sciatica, stiff neck and shoulder and hip discomfort, by increasing the strength of the deep core and pelvic floor muscles. Fundamentals of Pilates are used for sports specific training by top athletes and national sports squads to increase core strength and improve muscle balance to reduce recovery time and risk of injury.

But to me, Pilates is much more than this. It develops body awareness so we understand our imbalances, those we can address and those we have to live with, and it builds mobility through the whole body. 
Even with the sports clubs and athletes I have worked with, I have never taught a Pilates exercise with the goal of the client getting better at that exercise. I teach an exercise to enable them to feel how their body moves, and to understand which muscles they need to use, which work instinctively and which they have to cajole into action when they make that movement.

Think of a squat for instance. Now unless you were a professional squatting competitor, then just being good at squats is, arguably, of not much use. However, being able to get on and off the toilet unaided determines everyone’s quality of life. So, understanding how to do a Pilates squat, being able to support your body weight as you do it and being able to do it well, is suddenly much, much more important.

Core Principles

The practice of Pilates is based around 8 core principles:

The art of being able to focus on the movements and remove all other thoughts, to bring together the body and mind through a continuous flow.
Lateral Thoracic Breathing: breathing into the sides of the lungs and the ribcage rather than the abdomen or raising the shoulders, allowing engagement of the deep abdominal muscles for the duration of the exercise and beyond.
Bringing all the movement from a strong “core” or “Power House” by controlling and strengthening the deep core muscles – transversus abdominis, pelvic floor and lumbar mutlifidis.
Recognising and working to relieve areas of tension within the body so that it can relax and move in a natural and flowing way.
Correct alignment of the body to master the techniques and increase the effectiveness of the exercises.
Flowing Movement:
Slow and controlled movement through the concentric and eccentric phases giving a balanced flowing exercise program.
Learning the body’s individual strengths and weaknesses, where the body is within its own space, to allow the smooth flowing exercises and to take the movements beyond and into everyday life.
Repetition, frequency and practice will allow the skill levels and effectiveness to increase until the correct posture becomes natural, subconscious and automatic.

The 34 original Pilates Exercises:

Joseph Pilates was the founder of Pilates (take a look at Joseph Pilates - a brief hello for a very cursory biography) as an exercise programme and developed the eight core philosophies into a series of 34 mat based exercises designed to smoothly progress from one to the other.

The hundred
Criss cross
The scissors
The leg pull-down
The roll up
Spine stretch forward
The bicycle
The leg pull-up
The roll over
Open leg rocker
Shoulder bridge
Kneeling sidekicks
Leg circles
The corkscrew
Spine twist
Mermaid/side bend
Rolling like a ball
The saw
The jack knife
The boomerang
Singe leg stretch
Swan dive
Side kicks
The seal
Double leg stretch
Single leg kicks
Push ups
Single straight leg stretch
Double leg kicks
Hip circles

Double straight leg stretch
Neck pull

In my teaching, I have never taught all 34 exercises in this way, there is much overlap in them in terms of muscle groups being worked, and it would take longer than most people have at their disposal to go through them all, and, to be honest, they can become somewhat tedious.

However, these 34 exercises, and the variations that they have led to, provide a wealth of alternatives, whether it be to simply ring the changes or to offer to a client to address specific restrictions.

For that reason, I am not going to go through each of these in turn, some of these are very advanced. Instead I will focus on the basics which allow us to consider at least some of the 8 core principles and to start to develop or enhance our body awareness. But, I will show the connectivity between them and the relevant exercises from Joseph’s list of 34.

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Pilates set up for an online live class