I’ve been engineering my physical body for 53 years, first as a ballerina, and then as a certified Pilates instructor. That’s a lot of thought and effort yet I continue to be challenged with training myself appropriately. So much of my early training was focused on forcing my limbs to do unnatural tricks and then it migrated into acts of brute strength. It wasn’t until the COVID-19 quarantine that I began to think about training myself to move organically. What does it take to integrate one’s strength into a healthy, happy body?
We’ve all heard, many times, that having a STRONG CORE is the answer to a host of physical challenges. I teach Pilates for goodness sakes, I teach “CORE.” I do believe that strengthening one’s core is an important aspect of fitness, but it’s not enough. A great analogy is that of a car. If you put a big souped-up engine in a Smart Car body, you’re going to have issues with the imbalance. Conversely, if you put a Smart Car engine in a Hummer body, again you’re going to have issues. What one needs is a core that is strong but one that’s integrated into one’s movement patterns. What?
In my 20-plus years of teaching Pilates, I’ve realized that there is so much more to helping people feel better in their bodies than just giving them exercises (in my dance language I call that “giving them choreography”). One needs to train the brain to use or depend on the strength one is building.
Let’s delineate Pilates. Joseph Pilates was born in Germany in 1883; he was a sickly child with asthma and rickets. He dedicated his life to improving his body and then made his living improving other bodies. After being interned in England during WWI, he immigrated to New York City where he opened his gym. He developed a reputation for teaching his concept of an integrated, comprehensive system of physical exercise, which he himself called “Contrology.” He attracted George Balanchine, Martha Graham, their dancers and soon many others. Joe died in 1968 after a fire in his gym, but his method of exercise lives on, now called “Pilates.”
The Pilates syllabus of exercises strengthens the entire body, but the primary focus is related to encouraging the use of the mind to control muscles, focusing attention on core postural muscles that help keep the body balanced and provide support for the spine. In particular, Pilates exercises teach awareness of breath and of alignment of the spine and strengthen the deep torso and abdominal muscles. That is a great deal more than doing some fancy crunches.
To me, Pilates is the vehicle that helps one become more mindful of just how your body functions in movement. It’s great if you have six-pack abs, but if your brain hasn’t integrated that strength into your movement patterns, you are still at risk for a back injury from some thoughtless movement. One must think about the muscles you are strengthening, their function, and know how to access that strength. And you need to know how to breathe!
Remember Joe was an asthmatic kid; he was obsessed with building his own pulmonary system through his exercises. In a good Pilates lesson, you are encouraged to breathe through your nose, fully exhale, and not breathe into the front of your body. By keeping your stomach and shoulders out of the inhalation, you are breathing into your back, which is an efficient use of your body. Think how often you breathe, approximately 25,000 times a day; efficiency is important. Try it, put your hands on your belly, really exhale through your nose and then let an inhale happen, keeping your stomach in. I promise it IS possible, but if your habit is to breathe with your stomach pushing forward this will take practice.
Related: “New ‘Twists’ On Yoga”
The next thing you’ll get from having a strong, efficient core is improved balance. Managing balance from your center outward is one of the biggest benefits of understanding how to use one’s core. Balance is everywhere, from walking, to getting up out of a chair, standing on the subway, going up or down a flight of stairs, and anywhere else you take your body. To really get that improvement, you need to bring your mind to the act of balance and your core. Try standing on one leg and balance, when you begin to wobble try engaging your core muscles. Do you stay longer?
Another wonderful aspect of integrating your core into movement is that you are off-loading some of the fragile joints in your body. I have a corny joke that I offer in my classes, “Do you know anyone that has needed a stomach muscle replacement?” There’s a giggle, but then we list all the joints that are being replaced in today’s medical world (hips, knees, shoulders, ankles). When your core is strong, and your brain is trained to use it, maybe some of the hard work of moving your body happens in your core and not in your, pick a cranky joint to put here (mine is my left knee).
I tore my left ACL 27 years ago, I didn’t have it repaired because my daughter was 6 weeks old. I was told that I would have terrible knee arthritis and would need it replaced. I have worked very hard to keep my knee happy, by focusing on using my core to do things like climbing stairs or the rocks on a hike. Here I am 27 years later with no knee pain and doing physical things I love to do (except skiing which is too risky).
Then there are nice aspects of having an integrated core; you can be more coordinated, your movement is more fluid and you look better because your posture is better, naturally. All of these aspects make you look and feel better. Which in turn might make you more likely to move more, which everyone knows is good for your health.
Finding a way to integrate your core isn’t hard. It takes focus and a commitment to think about how and why you are performing an exercise and then taking that developed strength into your everyday life. Find a teacher or studio that gives you a quiet atmosphere that allows you to focus, a class that isn’t so complicated that all you are thinking about is where your limbs are going, and finally a class where you are reminded to breathe appropriately (through your nose and into your back). Then you too will be on the journey of moving organically which feels great!
Image: Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man”