The rise in popularity of Pilates as a form of exercise for fitness and rehabilitation has been largely due to reports that it can help to improve posture and strengthen the ‘core’ muscles to help support and protect the spine.
So how can you reap some of the benefits of a Pilates practice and make it part of your daily routine without attending a Pilates class?
First, it is important to understand the six basic Pilates principles to the original Pilates Method as developed by Joseph Pilates—concentration, control, precision, centering, fluidity and breathing.
In general, the emphasis is placed on mindful, focused, intentional movement.
The centering principle reminds one to activate through their core muscles (known as the “powerhouse” in Pilates) before moving.
These muscles include:
1) the transverse abdominals, the deepest layer of abdominal muscles that wrap around the torso like a girdle and work to stabilize the spine while allowing flexibility of movement;
2) the multifidus muscles, small muscles that connect and stabilize the vertebrae (bones that make up the spine); and
3) the pelvic floor muscles (otherwise known as your Kegel muscles).
Breathing is also included in this list. Breathing is used in Pilates to activate the powerhouse or core muscles in preparation for movement. It also helps to facilitate and control the speed of movement.
Next, try to see if you can find and practice the following, lying on your back. Keep your knees bent with your feet flat on the floor.
Step 1: Find your breathing principle. Focus on finding your breath, breathing in (inhaling) through your nose and breathing out (exhaling) through your mouth.
Inhale deeply, thinking of taking air in all the way down to the sides and bottom of your lungs.
Most people breathe using shallow breaths, with their chest moving up and down.
In Pilates, breathing is taught so that the ribcage moves laterally, or in and out like an accordion.
Step 2: Try to maintain the rhythm of the breath (avoid holding your breath) and see if you can activate your transverse abdominals by gently pulling your bellybutton in and holding it there.
Step 3: Maintain the breath and the gentle transverse abdominal activation and see if you can add in a gentle activation of the pelvic floor muscles.
Most people relate to their pelvic floor muscles as the muscles they would use to stop the flow of urine.
In this case, you want to achieve a subtle activation as though you are aiming to “slow the flow” instead of stopping it entirely.
Once you had a general sense of trying to activate your transverse abdominals and pelvic floor muscles while maintaining your breathing, try to see if you can practice this in different positions, such as sitting and standing.
Many people find it very effective to try to find their muscle activations kneeling on hands and knees.
Try taking a 30-second break at frequent intervals throughout your day. Find your breath, your core muscle activations and maintain for five breaths.
Gradually increase the number of breaths and the length of time you maintain the muscle activation.
Also see if you can keep the rest of the body relaxed, trying to avoid creating new tension in other areas, such as your neck and shoulders.
Remember that this will take practice; like learning to ride a bike, it may take some time to master.
The goal is to work towards being able to maintain the breathing and gentle activation of the core muscles before layering in other movements, such your daily activities (e.g. lifting a bag of groceries or placing dishes in the dishwasher).
You can also try to incorporate these ideas into your recreational activities as well.
For example, see if you can find your breath and your core muscle activation before your next set of bicep curls at the gym.
See if you can do the same while biking, running or kayaking.
Over time, the breath will flow easier and the muscle activations more automatic. Then you can stand a little taller and tell your friends, “I do Pilates!”
If you have an injury, dysfunction or problem, your physiotherapist can develop a specific exercise routine that is specific for you and your condition.
An assessment by your physiotherapist will usually reveal which areas need to be addressed.
Yun Cheung is a registered physiotherapist and kinesiologist at Sun City Physiotherapy.