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Engaging the Mind

How many of you played the "Concentration" game when you were little? I remember playing with my grandmother, on the floor in her living room. with just a regular deck of cards. Turning over one card and trying to remember, now where was that queen I just saw? It was challenging and fun and fully engaged my mind, which is why the game is called "concentration".

The next Pilates principle our "Great Start" clients are focusing on is Concentration. After understanding the concept of Control, and how to connect the Breathing to the movement, we start to pay more attention to the movements. For me, the principle of Concentration embodies the "Be Here Now" mantra. At our Studio, we encourage our clients to dedicate their practice to focusing all their attention on the work, and tuning out everything else - the kids, the grocery list, what to make for dinner, the big presentation coming up - whatever thoughts & ideas fill their minds. Concentration in Pilates means focusing your attention on your body and on the quality of movement. Which muscles are engaging? Where are you feeling tension? How can you go deeper? Focus deeply and inwardly and temporarily let go of the distractions of daily life.

In Return to Life, Joseph PIlates encourages the reader to "Concentrate on the correct movements EACH TIME YOU EXERCISE, lest you do them improperly and thus lose all the vital benefits of their value". (The emphasis with capitalization is straight from the book.) If you're new to Pilates, it's easy to become overwhelmed because it seems like there is a lot to focus on! There is a lot of new information to take in initially. After a few sessions, however, you will start to become comfortable with the basic movements and then you can focus your attention on specifics. Become aware of the nuances of the movements to determine what should be working and what you can let go of. Focus on your instructor's cues to make sure you're doing the exercises correctly, and to help you go deeper. Listen to the images your instructor uses to engage your imagination. Memorize the order of the exercises so that you know what's coming next and can set up properly for the next exercise. Pilates allows us to fully engage all parts of our mind - intelligence, memory, imagination, intuition, and will/desire.

Concentration during Pilates is about focusing on the specifics of the movement, while also having an awareness of the whole. Set yourself up properly to start the exercise, get moving, then fine tune based on what you notice. Once you start pumping your arms in the Hundred, mentally scan your body. Are you reaching long through both legs? Is your seat wrapped? Are your shoulder blades gliding down your back? Are you funneling your ribs down and together? Can you release tension in your neck and shoulders? Be aware of the specifics, but also how your body is working together as a whole. In the Hundred, the reach out through the legs allows you to pull in more with your abdominals. Concentrating on the specifics of the movement also allows you to notice how your body is feeling today. It's not about what you did yesterday or what you want to do tomorrow, but how you are feeling right now. If you did a long run yesterday, notice how your legs are feeling. Notice if one hamstring seems to be tighter than the other. Concentrate on the feedback your body is giving you so that you can give your body what it needs.

Like any new skill, the ability to Concentrate improves with practice. One of my first yoga teachers taught me about "monkey brain". The "monkey brain" jumps around from thought to thought, refusing to focus on any one idea. If you find your "monkey brain" taking over during your Pilates practice ("what was the name of that actress who played in the movie with Hugh Grant?"), don't scold yourself, just bring your attention back to whatever you're doing . The more you train your brain to focus on your body during Pilates, the easier it will become to concentrate for the duration of your workout. And the more you learn to concentrate on the specifics of the movements, while being aware of the way your body works as a whole, the more benefit you will get from your Pilates practice. With Pilates, practice doesn't make perfect, but practice does make progress.

Concentration and fully engaging all parts of your mind are key differentiators between Pilates and other forms of exercise. Concentration is closely related to our next principle, "Centering", which we'll explore next week. In the meantime, take a break for a quick game of Concentration to hone your skills!

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