Pumped for Pilates

Published on: July 22, 2022

Focusing on women’s health, Emma Lawrence practices and teaches Pilates daily, and shares how you can strengthen your core and overall well-being using focused movements and controlled breathing.

By Emma Lawrence

Pilates is a series of calisthenics, developed by Joseph Pilates, and his wife, Clara, from the mid 1920s onward. Joseph shared his movement craft with everyone from fellow inmates to New York’s police force. He began a teaching career that spanned his lifetime. Elements of strength, control and precision were keys in Pilates. Pilates, or contrology, to Joseph was a refusal to accept the poor bone and respiratory health of his early years and it earned him a long, active life and an amazing legacy (1).

His methods and philosophy remain relevant: our lives are fast and chaotic with mind-body disconnect being the norm. As a sedentary society, it’s a fact that our spines pay the price.  In pre-COVID-19 times, back pain was statistically the second highest cause of workplace absenteeism in the UK (2).

Why Pilates? The man himself said, “Change happens through movement and movement heals” (3). As a women’s health physiotherapist, prescribing rehabilitation exercises, I’ll always find what the patient needs somewhere in the basic 34 mat-work moves of Pilates.

I practice the Australian Physiotherapy and Pilates Institute (APPI) method of Pilates, modified for inclusion, meaning anyone can learn to do it.  Strength work happens in a neutral spine position for back protection and functional strength. It suits those with pain, those recovering from birth or surgery, and those who infrequently exercise, all of whom often present with poor quality movement and progressive body changes.

At points relative to her reproductive life, a woman’s optimal physical and mental well-being are disturbed. Bodies that transform in pregnancy rarely ‘spring back’ to their previously aligned forms. Consumed with the task at hand, awareness for healthy body restoration is stifled and posture control drifts away (4). Misalignment and discomfort are ignored until the pain demands attention.

Have you ever tried a class? It may be unlike any workout you’ve done before. Focus on the cues of the instructor and keep aware of the physical sensations and placement of the body as you work. Tuning the core forms the foundation of body control, as gentle but persistent maintenance of a neutral spine or ‘neutral” is partnered with precise repetition of movement to give an optimal full body strengthening effect.

In its design, four main muscle sets or ‘slings’ are targeted and performance in various positions boosts support of major joints. Common visualizations make it easier to understand the relationship between body parts and aid correct performance. For example, a pelvis, or ‘water bowl’, is kept level beneath the rib cage opening or ‘hanging bell’.

After body positioning, using light lower core activity, or centering, further aids control and is seen in the abdominal area. Remember to never grip, lock or bulge this soft tissue area. These actions signal overpowering of the ‘outer’ core and remove inner core involvement. Repetition of this exercise further commits sound response patterns to the nervous system which, in time, produces an optimal automatic reaction of the body for all movements.

You’ll continue through sessions where certain maneuvers feel incorrect, until you notice an awareness that wasn’t apparent before. Joseph is often quoted as saying: “You will feel better in ten sessions, look better in twenty and have a completely new body in thirty” (5). This evolution in movement control will prevent you from just ‘pushing through’ when that first ripple of discomfort appears.

Joseph Pilates applied his movement practice as a form of stress relief, which in part, can be linked to breathing awareness, as practiced throughout his work. Controlled anxiety, improved pelvic floor flexibility, and decreased blood pressure are a few things attributed to a conscious breathing practice. At the heart of Pilates, you’ll find breathing control: the rib cage is exercised to maximal expansion in warm-up; both to oxygenate the body and mobilize any unhealthy gripping of the core. During the main exercises, when limbs move away from the body, they are accompanied with an exhalation, to enable automatic inner core activation, and then inhalation when the limbs return to the start position. Breath holding, a subconscious pattern seen during strength training, is therefore avoided.

This piece was written to present a case for learning Pilates as an approach to holistically boosting health. Personally, I benefit from my practice daily. Testimony of its value is apparent when I take a break from it; my body starts to feel less supported and I feel weaker!

Sharing my practice with others has enabled women with soft tissue weakness after birth to return to their sport, individuals postoperative to regain confidence and comfort in their movement, and for many to wake up, reclaimed and start to comprehend their own bodies.

As a takeaway message for mothers everywhere I recommend the following advice:

  • choose an exercise that fosters gentle body alignment awareness
  • learn to practice breathing control
  • lose the habit of sucking in of the abdominal or pelvic floor muscles.

I hope these words present the efficacy and authenticity of the concept, sparks some curiosity in Pilates and inspires you to get to know yourself through movement a little better. 

Photos from Canva


References

  1. Pilates, J. and Robbins, J. (2012) Pilates Evolution: The 21st Century. Presentation Dynamics.
  2. Health and Safety Executives (2017) Health and Safety at work. hse.gov.uk/statistics/overall/hssh1617.pdf
  3. Inspiring Quotes (2022) Joseph Pilates Quotes and Sayings. inspiringquotes.us/quotes/NzWU_7umpVlFf
  4. See reference (3)
  5. Cedars Sinai (2022). Overcoming Postpartum Pain. cedars-sinai.org/blog/overcoming-postpartum-pain.html.

About the Author

Emma is a British chartered physiotherapist, with a clinical special interest in women’s health. She has a passion for Pilates and mindful movement. Originally from London, she lived in Bangkok with her partner and children until June 2022. During her time in Bangkok, she volunteered for BAMBI between 2013 and 2016.


The views expressed in the articles in this magazine are not necessarily those of BAMBI committee members and we assume no responsibility for them or their effects. BAMBI Magazine welcomes volunteer contributors to our magazine. Please contact editor@bambiweb.org.

 

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