Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Pilates notes

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For those coming in late, I started Pilates last November. I recently took an enforced month off (sprained ankle) and for the past couple of weeks have been doing 3 sessions a week (one joint session with The Wife, two private sessions) at Lighthouse Pilates. “Pilates” classes are available inexpensively at the Monterey Sports Center, but they are classes of 20-30 and use none of the Pilates equipment.

While Joe Pilates said that everything can be done with mat exercises, he also spent considerable time, effort, and ingenuity in creating various apparatuses to isolate various muscle groups and/or enforce certain postures. As you can see at the link, LIghthouse Pilates is a fully equipped studio.

Moreover, form is everything, and the first few months I did my exercises the instructor would correct my form when that was needed. So I did my exercises accompanied by a more or less constant stream of corrections.

But lately that has changed, and more and more I’m starting to get it.

For one thing, as William James observed, we develop our habits and skills during fallow times—as he said, we learn to ice skate in the summer and to bicycle in the winter. After working hard to master a skill, taking a few weeks off and then resuming is highly enlightening. It’s as though the time off allows the movements and motions to be digested and integrated, so that when you return, things are better.

For another: Sometimes a chance remark will open a door, as it were, so through that small remark you enter into a vast new understanding. I blogged earlier that my instructor told me that, on ending an exercise, you do not simply relax and go loose: you instead maintain the control, muscle activation, and posture from the exercise. The point of the exercise is to teach you/your body something about how it should move and stand in daily life—that’s the point. The exercise is just a way to get there. So as you end the exercise, you enter the Real Deal: daily life. So use what you’ve just been exercising.

Man, those two things—the time off and the new understanding about the exercise (gained through the simple statement, “Don’t just relax when the exercise is over. Keep using it.”) have made a huge difference. Today I kept doing things right.

Not that I didn’t require correction. On the contrary, I still needed a lot of help. The big difference is that (a) I now understand the help, and (b) I can actually do some of the things the instructor tells me to do.

So: If you’re interested in Pilates, my advice is to find a highly qualified instructor with a well-equipped studio, take lessons at least twice a week, and better thrice a week for the first month or so, and after about 10 months, take four weeks off (spraining ankle is optional, and I advise against it) and then return to thrice a week for a while. And, from the outset, attempt to end each exercise with a continuing sense of control.

That’s my experience, at any rate. Amazing discipline. It’s not exactly fitness, but I don’t know what to call it. Pilates called it “Contrology.”

UPDATE: After writing the above, I continued to putter about the apartment, made dinner, and so on—always consciously trying to move and stand with posture and movement as learned on the equipment. I could really distinctly feel the difference when I was standing or moving correctly, in good alignment, with my spine stacked, arms hanging relaxed, shoulders relaxed instead of tense. (Like one huge category of people, I focus a lot on my upper body, keeping my shoulders tense, my chest raised, and so on—difficult to describe and difficult to feel until you feel an alternative through something like Pilates.)

So I sort of played with it, of course, slumping into my usual posture, then standing straight in good Pilates form. The differences in how it felt were, as I indicate, remarkable.

Later, sitting in my chair, I repeated a move from one of the exercises today: turning my head slowly from one side to the other without moving my shoulders: just turning my head on my spine.

I was able to do it, and I was observing how smooth the movement is. The idea is that the skull simply turns in its position atop the spin, with the neck turning but nothing else: no shoulder movement.

As I said, very smooth from side to side, so I added tilting it down and then back, then side to side, then sort of rolling it, visualizing still shoulders, skull moving at the top of the stacked spine.

And then I suddenly felt, in a strange, novel way, my skeletal structure: I could sort of feel (internally) the rigidity of the bones in there—skull, spine, clavicle, scapula, arms simply hanging at the sides. I was aware of the way I pulled, using muscle attachments, to move the framework.

I tell you, it was pretty weird. Once I had the feeling and could focus in on it, it became more distinct. I got up, stood, walked some—all while feeling this skeletal structure and how my muscles/ligaments would pull this way and that to keep the framework aligned and doing what I wanted.

I admit that it freaked me out a bit. A totally novel body sensation, a body awareness of a type I had not experienced. I called The Wife to report this in case someone should be keeping an eye on me, and I was reassured to learn that she had had the same experience from time to time while doing Feldenkrais exercises: as you pay attention to posture and movement, doing specific exercises and working toward good form, you naturally strengthen and increase your awareness of what you’re doing as you bring your consciousness to bear on what normally are actions taken unconsciously. Doing this frequently seems to sort of expand the range of consciousness, to include some body control options that previously were handled totally by the unconscious, with no conscious awareness.

People who are more involved with their bodies and have practiced control may well be familiar with these sensations, and doubtless their consciousness has long since expanded to allow more conscious control of movement—I’m thinking here of dancers, athletes, practitioners of things like yoga, Feldenkreis, and (apparently) Pilates. But I’m not one of those people—at least I haven’t been. I’m bookish. Marching band rather than football. In fact, no sports participation at all until college, where I did some fencing. But, let’s face it, St. John’s is a bookish college.

So all this is highly novel to me. People experienced in this sort of thing are doubtless amused by the newcomer’s delight in things that have become common to them: I’m like the city boy on his first trip to a farm. “My God!” I shout, “That bird! It’s enormous!” The farmers turn to look and see a chicken. But I do want to report my journey and discoveries.

I feel a little embarrassed at how long it took me to grasp that the exercises are supposed to be put into practice. Obviously, in my daily life, I don’t lie on my back on a little carriage held in place by springs and push it back and forth using my arms pulling straps through pulleys, or my legs pushing on a bar. But that position and apparaturs is just to allow me to pay attention to (and develop) muscles and ligaments moving my body in a particular posture. Though I won’t have carriage, spring, and straps as I go about my daily life, I certainly will be using muscles and ligaments to arrange my body in particular postures, and part of the point of Pilates is to learn to do these correctly—all of it: muscles, movement, and posture.

I suppose I was viewing the sessions like band practice: go in, do it, and then you’re through until the next session. (I wasn’t much for practicing at home, even then.) But in fact, I finally realize, that sessions are instructions and all non-session time is practice time. When I’m not in sessions, I should be paying attention, with instructor corrections in mind, to my posture, movement, and body. I’m finally starting to do that, apparently, just by the accumulation of awareness from the sessions. Now that I grasp I can do this on purpose, as it were, things should improve faster.

[Update: I had a little insight this morning: My previous exercise routines in search of fitness included many exercises that were NOT directly related to daily activity: I don’t occasionally find in my daily routine that it’s necessary to do jumping jacks, push-ups, burpees, or the like. But the Pilates exercises all involve movements and movement patterns that occur in daily life: standing, bending, squatting, leaning, and the like. – LG]

If this catches your interest, I highly recommend A Pilates Primer: The Millenium Edition, by Joseph Pilates and William Miller. It includes a complete set of mat exercises and also discusses awareness of the sort I’m gradually developing.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 September 2011 at 3:22 pm

Posted in Democrats, Fitness, Pilates

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