Many people who are unfamiliar with Pilates often ask, “what is Pilates? Isn’t it just a lot of stretching, like Yoga?” Well, they are partially right – but missing oh-such-a-big piece of the puzzle. Pilates is stretching, but with strength and control. Lots of strength, and lots of control. As the saying goes, “if Pilates feels easy, you’re doing it wrong.” Much of the focus of Pilates is on posture and how the entire body works, or not (Pilates can often point out imbalances and areas that need to work better).
As I will say to anyone who will listen, Pilates makes everything better - from running to hiking to horseback riding to carrying in the groceries. Pilates strengthens and trains your body to work from “the center,” or from your trunk – you learn how to use deep abdominal muscles to stabilize and protect your spine against the force of your moving limbs. You learn to control your movement. You become aware of and focused on your alignment and trying to keep things balanced. Sometimes you’re lengthening, sometimes you’re contracting. All of these things apply to real life. Here are just a couple of examples:
Sitting: Ideally, you don’t sit too often, and if you do, you get up frequently to give your shoulders, neck, back, legs and hips a break. But when you are sitting, the first key to sitting properly is to be aware of how you’re sitting in the first place. Where are your shoulders? Where is your head in relation to your shoulders? Where are your feet? What’s your stomach doing (or not doing)? You’ll hear us ask these things constantly in class – and these same questions (and their answers) apply equally in real life. So, next time you’re sitting at your desk, ask yourself the questions above and remember the following – keep your head on top of your neck, above and between your shoulders (not forward, in front of your shoulders); keep your shoulders down “in your back, away from your ears,” and pull in your stomach (draw the navel to the spine). Sometimes, it can help to sit on the edge of your seat instead of collapsing into the back of the seat. And keep both feet on the ground, hip distance apart. Ahhh, that feels better!
Standing: Standing is usually better than sitting, but most of could still use some work here. One thing to watch for when standing is the “lean.” We often lean to one side or the other, sometimes as a result of carrying too much in one hand or putting a bag on one shoulder. This can take conscious effort to change—and, of course, awareness of what’s happening in the first place. Whenever you’re standing, make sure you are standing tall. Visualize that you are growing taller, and that your head is lifting toward the sky. This imagery will help to lengthen the spine. Gently pull your tummy muscles in. Aim to have your ears above your shoulders and your shoulders above your hips. Do these cues sound familiar? If you are carrying more than one bag, distribute the weight across hands as evenly as possible and engage your abdominals. If you have a big box to lift and carry, hold it in front of your chest to keep the weight in the middle of your frame. If you only need one bag, where possible use one that can be put across both shoulders. Try to stand with even weight on each foot. Practice by standing in front of the mirror! Think about it the next time you’re brushing your teeth or standing in line at the store!
So as you go about your weekly Pilates classes, start thinking about how you will apply what you have learned in class. Hear our voices in your head, reminding you to relax your shoulders and pull your abdominals in. Start to visualize yourself sitting and standing better. Check in with yourself often (you’ll find that your body often reminds you to do this with its little aches and pains), and ask yourself how you can sit and stand more like the way you do in class? What can you do to avoid the bad habits in the first place?
This will require persistence, but if you commit to being mindful of your posture and habits during the week and correcting things as you go, your neck, shoulders, back and hips will thank you.