Pilates is not the soft exercise option it is sometimes portrayed as. Although suitable for people of just about any ability, Pilates Plus have a lot of experience of working with top athletes, and a host of rugby players, marathon runners and club swimmers will tell you it’s a challenging workout!
Having said that, Pilates is also a great way of relaxing.
Is this having our cake and eating it – how can an exercise modality be both challenging and relaxing?
Many of us have jobs sitting still for hours at a time, expending minimal energy. And yet at the end of the day we still feel sluggish. When this feeling of ‘can’t be bothered’ overcomes us, it’s too easy to slump into another chair for the rest of the day and eventually trudge off to bed, exhausted but not sleepy.
However, I’m sure we can all remember one time we decided not to be ruled by the slug and just got up and did something… and then felt so much better afterwards. There are many ways to be tired – much like Inuit have many different words for snow – but it’s easy to see that the satisfied, ’emptied out’ feeling you get at the end of being active is much preferable to feeling ‘meh’.
Your body is designed to move; it responds to muscles working and joints moving through range in exactly the way a Pilates class encourages. If you want to read more, there is a great book called Spark which explores the inseparable connection between mind and body.
Your mind knows that the body has to move in order to survive and thrive, so it gives you the carrot of serotonin and endorphins when you do… and the stick of higher stress levels and irritability when you don’t.
If someone gets wound up, we all know they should take a deep breath. Breathing is one of the key principles of Pilates practice, refreshing the air in the lungs by breathing deep and wide, right into the corner of the lungs. Just as important is letting that breath go, sighing it out, letting any tension flood away with it. Go on, try two super deep breaths in and out right now, no one will notice!
Just last week, the TUC published a report stating that stress is the biggest health and safety concern in the modern workplace.
The stressy fight or flight response – appropriate when facing an elephant stampede or escaping a burning building, but counter-productive when on hold to the car insurance people – is calmed by deep breathing, the movement of the diaphragm in itself sends a message to the brain that everything is alright and the brain can get on with rebalancing your hormones.
When doing a Pilates exercise that challenges your balance, or trying to active the right muscles, simply the act of directing your consciousness 100% onto getting it right can have a relaxing effect – the worries of the day can be pushed out by something more immediate, more controllable. Watch gymnasts about to perform their routine, or an athlete about to throw the javelin; their concentration is total, but they are also in an almost zen like state of relaxation.
Leading psychologist Ruby Wax (!) has contributed to the already extensive literature on the benefits of being ‘mindful’, and the role that activity can play in mastering your worries in her book Sane World.
When you come to Pilates the class will start with a focus on one area of the body or on one or two simple movements. This helps you bring your focus into the class, and into your body, leaving the stresses of the day behind. Of course these issues will still be there once you step out of the door – but by taking a bit of time to service your body and mind and not stewing over problems, you return to real life better equipped to handle things and to put them into perspective. The problems may also not be as end-of-the-world as your cabin-fever brain has magnified them to be.
The end of the class is a process of stretching / slowing down. If appropriate, it may involve a period of guided relaxation, sometimes known as a body scan. This is a great way of heightening your body awareness, and offers a great opportunity to really ensure you relax completely. Of course, this can be done at home as well as in a Pilates class; the video below is just one of many excellent ones you can find online.
So Pilates can benefit both extremes of activity and relaxation – so enjoy some variety instead of staying in the slug zone!