by Tara Gibson
Let’s blame it on laptops, plasma TVs, and free delivery. Lifestyles today have become sedentary. We use our minds, our words, and our fingertips to accomplish most daily tasks, leaving our underused – or misused – bodies at the wayside. This causes a disconnection between the body and the mind, resulting in a lack of awareness for our body’s need for healthy activity – the less we exercise, the less we want to exercise. This mind-body disjunction often leads to poor posture, muscular imbalance and weakness, chronic discomfort or pain, and even psychological struggles with depression. Though maintaining any type of physical fitness is beneficial to the body and mind, it is important to find an exercise system that requires mental concentration as the source of movement, forming a mind-body connection. Pilates, though known primarily for its core-based and toning benefits, is an effective and healthy exercise system because it is practiced with mindful precision and deep concentration.
- Strength from the inside, out: The Pilates technique teaches the mind to recognize and understand the deep framework of the body, how to feel muscular and structural imbalances, and finally how to correct them and become aligned, supple, and strong. Using the mind to carefully guide the movements, the exercises themselves teach us how to visualize the relationship between the muscular and skeletal system. For instance, how many people are aware of the “space” between their hip bones and their ribcage? And how many know the importance of maximizing that space by toning and lengthening the deep abdominals and back muscles found there – with every movement? With mindful precision, the internal structure of the body can be subtly manipulated. If we can manipulate our bodies with our minds, we can correct misalignments and unhealthy posture, balance muscle groups making sports or daily activities easier, safer, and more enjoyable, and we can remember how to feel the strength of our body and all that it’s capable of doing.
- Reduced physical stress: One of the benefits experienced first when learning Pilates is that we start to notice where we carry our stress, which is the first step toward releasing it. Commonly held in the shoulders, neck, and lower back, that unnecessary tension is a burden to bear. And apart from eliminating the root causes for that stress (unfortunately often things we cannot live without – work, family, relationships, money), the next best thing is to change our relationship to how we move and feel our bodies. The deep concentration involved with Pilates teaches us to become aware of our unconscious tensions in a way that allows us to consciously release them. People begin to recognize these tensions as a lifetime of bad habits. They also may notice the tension has roots beyond the obvious – in such places like the ankles or feet, the throat, the stomach or buttocks area, even the knees! People can in fact hold tensions that restrict even the joints of the body. Pilates builds a consciousness that, through fluid careful movements, teaches you to use only the muscles you need. This means minimizing unnecessary tension while maximizing body efficiency. That adds up to reduced physical stress.
- Active meditation: There are different ways to meditate with the intention of quieting and calming the mind. We mostly think of lying still, eyes closed, and breathing slowly and deeply, allowing our thoughts to pass freely through our minds and then peacefully away from our consciousness. This is an excellent form of mind-clearing! And here is another. Pilates becomes what I call an active meditation, achieved through focusing only on the body and how it is moving – for an hour at a time. Beyond the visualization of the body’s internal structure, beyond the careful precision of activating only the muscles we need to move efficiently, we add the focus of breathing. In order to breathe deeply and fluidly during Pilates, the mind must be active and focused, allowing for long, calming breaths while still maintaining a strong core and correct movement. In time, the breath becomes a very natural part of the exercise, supporting the body by bringing oxygen to the blood, the muscles, and the joints, thus maintaining healthy circulation. Conscious breathing also helps the body relax the muscles that aren’t needed, while maximizing the energy level of the body as it moves through the Pilates system. Connecting the mind to the breath through the movements becomes a self-activated massage, while relaxing the joints and tension points, lengthening muscles, maximizing energy levels, and clearing out mental stress. Clients often feel invigorated and calmed after a lesson and gain a clear, quieter mind.
Pilates is an enjoyable and uniquely beneficial form of exercise that develops a strong mind-body connection. How we use and feel our bodies is within our conscious control, and finding a type of exercise that builds that mind-body connection is truly important for so many reasons. Whether or not you choose Pilates, take some time to remember your body and the healthy movement it needs. After all, it’s the only one you’ve got.