(Today's post is taken from a paper I wrote for Pilates training.)
The Pilates experience, by design, goes beyond exercises to create a holistic experience. A Pilates student does not simply wave body parts around in space or move heavy objects, but instead thoughtfully engages multiple body systems in a cooperative process of movement. Because of this, Pilates exercises offer a unique pathway to communicate with the body.
Perhaps the most basic way in which Pilates exercises create a new relationship in the body is through the breath. Ample evidence for the influence of breath on body systems practically bombards anyone who reads about body and fitness issues. Not only do the Pilates exercises use breath to facilitate the actual motions (exhaling, for example, to encourage abdominal concentric contraction), but also as an actual element of the experience (as in the pulsing breaths of the Hundred). The conscious use of the breath informs the bodymind that the work is not all about muscles, but about an entire system, or even system of systems.
That same breath links the respiratory system with the cardiovascular. Efficient use of breath enables the cardiovascular system to promote traffic and communication throughout the body. Obviously, oxygen needs to be moved through the body and carbon dioxide needs to be expelled, but the circulatory system moves more than the blood cells that carry that particular cargo.
The same channels that carry the oxygen carry the white blood cells, the body’s first line of defense against pathogens. Proper breathing influences how well the body can react to disease generators; the better the circulatory system works, the more effectively the defenses work. In other words, breath promotes proper immune function.
Further, the breath plays an important role in managing stress in the body. Of course breathing becomes more shallow and rapid under stress—anyone who has had to slam on the brakes to avoid an accident knows this. That accelerated breath correlates to an accelerated heart rate and a rush of stress hormones. In a crisis, that is what is needed. However, in our stress-junkie culture, it is useful to use the breath to relax the heart rate and stem the flow (overflow, really) of stress hormones, freeing up body energy for other uses.
The Pilates instructor has tremendous influence on how the breath works in the exercises. Cuing breathing helps link the movement of muscle and bone to the flow of breath and blood, engaging the nervous system in a conscious dance. Further, the intention of the instructor and his or her energy interact with the same elements of the client, allowing the client to synchronize his or her rhythms with the instructor. The breath links each system within the body into a more coherent, larger system. Then the breath of one individual links him or her to another into yet another larger, more coherent system of relationship.
Breathing, of course, is only one of the Pilates principles. Each of the other principles has similar unifying effects on the body systems starting from its own unique space. Pilates exercises, then, offer a multitude of ways to build something more wonderful from the already wonderful systems of the body.