This is an excerpt from Pilates Illustrated by Portia Page.
Pilates is a method of exercise that connects the mind and the body as one and allows the body to move in a more efficient way. This form of exercise uses your body to its greatest advantage, utilizing your own strength, flexibility, and coordination, and requires that you pay attention to your body throughout each movement. To help achieve this powerful mind-body connection, the following six principles should be kept in mind.
- Breathing. Controlling the breath and breathing correctly are extremely important to understanding Pilates and obtaining the fullest benefits from the exercise. Breathing properly is the first thing you should focus on, and you should maintain this focus throughout the movement. Focused, controlled breathing will help you maintain proper alignment as well as allow you to contract the muscles that need to be contracted and release those that don’t need to be used. Breathing fully and correctly will also help with the flow of the exercise and movements and allow you to continue a program all the way through. Breathing brings in oxygen to your system and clears the head, thus facilitating movement.
- Concentration. This involves the important connection between the mind and the body. Paying attention to what you are doing is critical for moving correctly and easily. Concentration allows the mind to control and move the body efficiently and appropriately.
- Control. Each movement in Pilates is controlled and should never be wasted. Keeping the movement within your capabilities is important for maintaining alignment and stability throughout the body during the exercises.
- Centering. Everything in Pilates is initiated from the center of the body, called the powerhouse or core. To perform the movements correctly, begin from the center. Building a strong, stable, and flexible center is one of the best outcomes of doing Pilates on a regular basis. A strong center makes for a strong body overall.
- Precision. Practicing concentration, control, and centering will make each movement precise and totally correct. Be conscious and aware of every part of your body, and continually check your alignment and form to ensure that you are performing each exercise with precision.
- Flowing movement or rhythm. Having all your muscles working together with precision from your center and with concentration and control as well as correct breathing creates a rhythmic and flowing movement pattern. This means you are moving with extreme efficiency and flow and with just the right amount of effort. Be patient with yourself. Allow yourself the time needed for your body and mind to work together to produce flowing movement.
The importance of breathing and the fact that we do it without thinking is summed up in this quote from Joseph Pilates: “Breathing is the first act of life, and the last.” Even so, simply knowing that you are breathing is not enough. Breathing correctly and fully will make all the difference in your Pilates practice. Pilates exercises require you to breathe fully and deeply, using every inhale to take in lots of fresh air and every exhale to get rid of stale air. This process oxygenates the blood and gets the circulation going. Breathing fully and deeply can energize your every move. Breath is the very foundation of Pilates movement, and the exercises in this book are outlined with specific breathing instructions that coordinate with specific movements. The breath will be used to initiate and support movements as well as facilitate and energize the movements.
The breathing technique to use is called lateral breathing. Lateral breathing means breathing deeply and fully into the sides and back, or the lower lobes of the lungs. With this type of breath, you can keep the abdominal muscles contracted, providing support for the lower spine and back. To make this process smoother, inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth, as if you were blowing out a candle. As you inhale through the nose, imagine your rib cage expanding out to the sides like an umbrella opening or an accordion playing. As you exhale through the mouth, imagine the rib cage drawing inward like a corset being tightened, bringing the rib cage toward the hip bones.
Proper lateral breathing is critical for achieving the correct alignment and focus in your Pilates practice. You might want to practice this type of breathing every day in front of a mirror so you can note the rib cage moving outward on the inhale and inward on the exhale, thereby making the actual exercises easier to follow and execute.
Pelvic Floor Engagement
What is the pelvic floor and why do you need to know how to engage it? Pilates instructors are often asked this question as this is a common mystery to most beginners. The pelvic floor is the support structure for the bladder, rectum, uterus in women, and prostate in men. The pelvic floor is the bottom layer of the deepest core musculature and the lower support of the abdominal cavity. It helps you breath and provides support for the spine.
Contraction of the deep pelvic floor muscles will help you engage the transversus abdominis, the natural girdle that lies roughly between the belly button and the pubic bone and wraps around the waist. The transversus abdominis is an important stabilizer for the lower back and the spine. Contracting the pelvic floor not only provides support it also aids in Pilates practice and improves posture in general.
Think of the pelvic floor as a hammock made of muscle that lies between the sit bones and the pubic bone and between the thighs. To engage this group of muscles, inhale and then as you exhale try to lift and tighten the pelvic floor. It should feel as if you are trying to stop the flow of urine or as if it were an elevator floor moving up. Try to not use any other muscles, such as the buttocks or abdominals, in this process. The movement will be small and mostly internal, unseen by others. Engaging the pelvic floor is something you can practice anytime during the day. As you practice, it should start to feel easy and automatic as you breathe.
Read more about Pilates Illustrated.