Pilates and Mindfulness

There seems to be something of a mindfulness craze sweeping the UK at the moment.

It’s cropping up on the radio, in the print and online media and the NHS is considering rolling out Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction as a form of intervention for patients with mild to moderate depression or anxiety.  There are academic departments devoted to the research and development of mindfulness and practitioners teaching individuals and groups how to use it.   The origins are found in ancient Buddhist meditation practice but  its modern form can be traced back to Burma at the turn of the 20th century. Fom the 1970s it was gradually brought to mainstream Western attention, initially through the work or Jon Kabat- Zinn in the US.

I think that all of this interest is entirely justified .  Practicing mindfulness can be tremendously helpful and valuable in helping to alleviate anxiety or insomnia or to detach oneself  from all of that (often unhelpful) internal dialogue we have going on all of the time.   It reminds us that life is about what’s happening right now – spring sun on our face (and to hell with the wrinkles), an enjoyable meal, sitting down even if it’s for just ten minutes and reading a book, the school talent show – warts and all…..!

For most of us mindfulness practice is in the form of simple, short exercises which might only take a few minutes.  They are reasonably simple to grasp but not necessarily easy to stick to!

As I have learnt more about Mindfulness and practised, albeit intermittently, I have begun to realise something about Pilates – it lends itself tremendously well to mindfulness practice.

So for anyone who wants to start practicing mindfulness read on…

Quite often, exercise is done mindlessly, not that is not necessarily a bad thing.  You may go to a class, or out on the bike or for a run in order to have time not thinking about work, family, domestic tasks, money, to-do lists.    It is the point in the day to “be” in your body and not “be” in your mind.   A Pilates session is a great opportunity for getting away from all of those things as well, but to do Pilates really well, and more importantly, to learn to  move really well, you need to  move mindfully not mindlessly.

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To do a Pilates exercise really well you need to:

  • start by relaxing and softening the body.   This is one of the reasons why it can be helpful to start a class lying on your back – it is an easier position to do this in.   Feel what it is like to actually let the body go and sink down into the mat.
  • be aware of your breathing. An entire meditation could be (and indeed is)  based upon breathing, but in the context of doing Pilates, it is sufficient to simply notice it happening, gently in the background and then being aware of how the breath assists each move, depending upon what you are doing
  • be aware of your alignment and position.  Is the spine gently lengthened? Can you drop the breastbone back into the chest?  Are the collar bones wide?  Are the buttocks relaxed?  Do you have the right rib-pelvis connection? And this is just before you start…..
  • be aware of how you move.   To do this it is helpful to understand what you’re doing and why.  That might need clarification from the instructor. Mostly though, it’s about feeling.
  • be non judgmental.  Congratulate your body.  Even if a muscle is being a bit naughty, doing what it shouldn’t, it’s only trying to be helpful.  Sometimes a muscle isn’t doing what it should.  Thomas Hanna, originator of Somatics refers to this as Sensory Motor Amnesia – the muscle/nerve unit has forgotten how to work properly.  But it can be coaxed and encouraged back to correct function.

All of this is mindful movement and hopefully better movement with a more relaxed body.  I have emphasised gentleness but this doesn’t have to be at the expense of strength.    Notice the body, feel where it is in space – which is another way of saying check your alignment, be aware of using the right muscles at the right time, stop when it feels like the right time.  (Fatigue will cause bad habits to resurface.)   Over time make the exercise harder – more repetitions, more load (on the reformer), more slowly, longer levers.  All of this will lead to significant strength gains.

Mindfulness teaches us to be in the moment, but suppose your mind wanders back to thoughts of daily chores that need doing, or the weekly shop or what you might wear on the upcoming night out….. Well our minds are thought generators.

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They never stop coming, and it is entirely normal for them to err on the negative.         During the class though, can you let them pass,  like a cloud scudding through the sky and return to your bodily focus?

So, whatever your level, Pilates done mindfully is good Pilates.  You are acknowledging the body, giving it some me time and helping it to work better. You are learning to relax and recognising the value of proper breathing.

So Mindfulness can help Pilates, but what about the other way around?  Well, Mindfulness is often described in terms something like this: being fully aware, non judgmentally, in the present moment.   To give yourself over to the Pilates session is to be in the moment.  That is not to say that you have to be all deep and meaningful and serious – we can still laugh and joke – that is, after all being present in the moment.      Remember that is important to be non judgmental.  try to experience the movement without assessing it or reacting to it emotionally, without thinking “I’m no good at this”, “i think the person next to me is doing so much better”, “I don’t like this exercise”

One of the many mindfulness exercises that we can practice daily, or regularly, is to cultivate a real awareness of the task you are are doing.   Look at it with new eyes, treat it as if it’s a new experience.  Remember that enthusiasm and  curiossity that children display when doing new things. Mindfulness teachers suggest a basic task like brushing your teeth or washing up, but it could just as easily be Pilates – be in the exercise fully, both physically and mentally, resist the temptation to think about what you’re doing afterwards.  Here is a idea; rather than “be in the exercise”, how about “be the exercise”.

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Another task is a senses task.   This is probably easiest when sitting or lying down but could be done standing up.  Take each sense in turn: smell, taste, touch, hearing and sight.   Tune in and notice everything that each sense is picking up.    Pilates is really taking the touch aspect of that task and expanding it massively, and there is no reason why you couldn’t add in the senses during a class.  Sound during one exercise, taste and smell during another and so on.

These two disciplines absolutely stand alone but nevertheless, combine them and you can create something of a virtuous circle  with each enhancing another.

So, what are you waiting for?

For more info on mindfulness try http://www.pocketmindfulness.com/

 

 

 


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