Anyone who knows me has heard me say this more than once: Pilates is like learning a foreign language. Just as you wouldn’t expect to know German or Chinese after just one class, you can’t expect to have mastered the Pilates method after only one or two sessions. It sometimes takes several sessions to just get the hang of it. When people ask me “What is Pilates?” I explain that it is a method of stretching and strengthening muscles at the same time, that it works the entire body and that Pilates is something anyone can do. This is true, but for most people doing Pilates for the first time it’s sometimes difficult for them to feel graceful and fluid right away. I often hear them say, “Where should I feel this?” and “I’m not sure if I’m doing it right.” As Joe Pilates said, the key is to get the mind to tell the body what to do. Easier said than done!
I have been doing Pilates for 10 years and I still feel challenged by the exercises. Having not been a dancer the exercises seemed easy at first, but to do them correctly was a challenge. When I discovered Pilates, I was curious to see if it would help my back pain. A client of mine who was taking Pilates lessons told me about a studio and I scraped together enough cash to commit to a few sessions. I remember during one of my first Pilates sessions my instructor told me to use my stomach, and relax the muscles in front of my thighs to do Leg Circles, one of the beginner exercises. I thought she was crazy! “How am I supposed to hold my leg up in the air without clenching my entire thigh?” I thought. She kept moving through the exercises without stopping, which was great teaching, I now realize….because had she sat and tried to explain to me intellectually how to use certain muscles and not others, we would have wasted half the session. Thankfully, I stuck with Pilates. Why? Not because I found it easy. Not because I felt like I was good at it. Not because I felt like an acrobat in Cirque du Soliel hanging upside down off the Cadillac with my feet hooked into fuzzy straps. It was because I had fun and felt so great after each session- energized, invigorated, focused, and calm. I always looked forward to my next session. I never bought into the “it can change your body” claim. I didn’t really think my body was changeable. Plus, I didn’t really mind my body too much before Pilates, so I didn’t think much about that part. But, after a while my body really did change, clothes fit better and I felt better; pain free, more flexible, more fluid.
One of the things I truly believe is that changing your body with exercise (Pilates in particular) is absolutely within your control. But it needs to start in your mind. Not the way you might be thinking, in terms of motivation, which, of course, is important to keep you interested. By “in your mind” I mean that you need to develop awareness in your brain about your body, with real focus on what you are doing. This happens by waking up muscles that you never even knew you had (literally) and making them strong. It also happens by simply paying attention. By taking note of the subtleties of the movements you make with your body. By using imagery to place and position your body correctly so that normal movements feel effortless. By quieting your brain, listening to your own breath, noticing your habits, tendencies and weaknesses and working on them. This is what Joe Pilates had in mind when he came up with his principles, Concentration, Centering, Control, Precision, Fluidity, Breath. All of these principles are what make a Pilates exercise. Performing exercises with all of these qualities in mind is the challenge and also what separates Pilates from other types of exercises that address “core strength”. For instance, you can do the (relatively short) stomach series using all of the seven principles (no matter what your level, by the way) and still get more out of it than doing one hundred crunches without focus or control.
When you watch an experienced Pilates practitioner do a workout they make it look effortless. I can understand how many people think that Pilates is meant to be relaxing, like a massage or a soak in a Jacuzzi. After all, it’s known as a “spa”-ish exercise. The word “gentle” is often used to describe Pilates. You might even be able to get a pedicure, facial, buy organic cotton slippers and do Pilates at the same place! So it’s not a wonder I have clients who have said to me at the first session, “I actually have to do something? I thought it was something that was done to me!” One of my favorite mentors, Bob Leikens, used to joke about this all the time. He used to say, “Yes, that’s why they call it a WORK-out!”
But the reason it looks so effortless is because he or she is a) using muscle strength but not to the point of exhaustion b) doing no more than 8-10 repetitions of each exercise, c) breathing and d) probably having fun too! The truth is, you don’t need to feel a “burn” or pain every time you exercise in order to get benefit from it. That is a myth. Certain training methods, like bodybuilding, heavy weight lifting, and/or strength training, require that the muscles work until failure. This is because the goal is for the muscle to break down and rebuild itself and hypertrophy, or grow bigger in size. The people who do these types of training programs could probably benefit greatly from Pilates too. (Really!) There is really no physical activity that can’t be improved by the mind/body connection that Pilates develops. From horseback riding to swimming to simply walking, by changing the way you carry your body, Pilates makes your movements easier, more comfortable, and more efficient. I often have the opportunity to work with clients who are already clearly very fit, strong, agile and athletic. They might even have six-pack abs on the surface. That doesn’t always necessarily mean they have deep, inner strength or awareness or even control. You will find that although you might not feel pain or discomfort during your session, a Pilates workout is challenging. However, you can’t space out or talk on your cell or read a magazine while you are doing Pilates either. The exercises only REALLY begin to work when you can concentrate enough to do them as correctly as you can. So much of the “work” is just as much in your brain, and takes time, patience, learning from mistakes, and persistence. The results are well worth the effort. Just check out anyone who does Pilates regularly and watch how they move, what physical activities they enjoy, and how much time they don’t spend in pain!
There really is no end to what you can learn in Pilates….it is a practice that you can build your whole life. The deep core strength and control that you develop in Pilates are not just simply for the sake of learning more exercises and becoming a more advanced Pilates student. What you learn in Pilates should and will carry into every aspect and activity of your life. Even sitting in a chair working on a computer will feel better, easier and more efficient to you. Having more energy and feeling good and moving with ease can’t be bad for your confidence, self-esteem, even relationships. You will feel more positive about your body, and you will have more fun. All reasons why it’s worth the extra time put in, even if in the beginning you don’t know if you’re “doing it right!” So if you are one of those students who asks themselves if Pilates is really working, know that you are teaching yourself skills that you will be thankful for later!