Pilates has a rep as a girly exercise form that attracts ladies who lunch. Private sessions can be pricey, but mat classes will work your entire body. Originally called Contrology, the practice was actually developed to rehab injured soldiers after WWI—talk about functional fitness! After teaching the method for years (and rehabbing my own chronic back injury with it), I have decided Pilates makes everything better, from life's basics, like sitting, to things more extreme, like CrossFit. Here are four Pilates fundamentals that everyone can benefit from learning.
The most basic human function, breathing supports life–and a fit life, too. A proper inhale fuels your muscles with oxygen, and a powerful exhale helps you engage your deep abs to protect your spine and support your torso. The conscious and studied breathing in Pilates might feel tedious at first, but learning how to breathe into your lower lungs, rather than just your chest, helps makes you a more efficient cardio machine. The Pilates method of inhaling wide through the ribs and exhaling by contracting the deep abs to push the diaphragm into the lungs also means you can keep your upper body and neck relaxed as you take in air.
In my experience, bad posture makes everything hurt, from my knees to my neck. Proper alignment of the spine is an essential element of the Pilates practice whether you're lying on your back, sitting, or standing in an exercise. The emphasis on working with a neutral spine, maintaining the natural curves of your back, helps strengthen the supportive muscles around the spine and reinforces the sensation of how the pelvis, spine, and skull stack on top of each other. Drilling good posture in mat classes and private sessions allows you to take your understanding of a lengthened and supported spine into all aspects of your life from sitting behind a steering wheel or lunging into Warrior 3.
While Pilates seems like it's all about the abs, it's really core-centric—training the abs and the back to work in conjunction to protect and align the spine. In Pilates, the concept of the core extends to other important–though often neglected–muscle groups like the inner thighs and pelvic floor (learn how to find and work your pelvic floor here). Think of a Pilates session, be it a mat class or a private one, like a movement laboratory for learning how to stabilize the torso against a wide variety of forces, namely your limbs. Engaging the core to support the torso and spine is central to almost every Pilates exercise, and repeating this action ingrains the concept into your body. When out on a run or the gym floor, you can start to access this connection.
Practicing a mind-body exercise form like Pilates is a little like meditation, but rather than clearing your thoughts, you focus on feeling your body in motion. This connection helps you better understand how your body works and where it is in space, which in turn helps you perform all kinds of actions more efficiently later, from twisting to reach your purse in the back seat of the car to doing a roundhouse kick. Body awareness also means mindfully working the necessary muscles without tensing other parts of your body, and this action helps you find the deeper, supportive muscles. The mind-body fitness connection also improves your coordination, which can help prevent injury.