Go with the Flow...
Our Fall "Great Start" six week series ended last week, and the participants are now flowing into our Level 1 Group Equipment classes, so it seems appropriate that we end our review of the six Pilates Principles with "Flowing Movement". Over the last six weeks, our newbies learned about controlling movement, concentrating and engaging all parts of their mind, moving from their center, breathing properly, and moving with precision. The final step is to put all that together into a workout that flows seamlessly from one movement to the next, staying physically and mentally engaged the entire time. That's when the true magic of Pilates occurs!
"Flowing Movement" in Pilates means linking the breath to the movement, and having the transitions link each movement to the next. Ideally from the moment you step onto your mat or sit on your reformer, your mind and your body are fully engaged. You flow seamlessly from one exercise the next, moving with grace and fluidity, and without unnecessary stress or strain.
Any time you learn something new, you go through a learning cycle. There are many different models for this, and the one I like describes moving from "unconscious incompetence" (you don't know what you don't know) to "conscious incompetence" (you know what you don't know") to "conscious competence" (you know what you know) to "unconscious competence" (you don't know what you know). As you progress (and btw, it's not always a linear progression, sometimes there are two steps forward and one step back!), you become more comfortable with the basic movements and don't have to concentrate so hard on them. You can shift your focus to what's coming next and how to connect the movements through the transitions.
Through regular practice and discipline, your body begins to develop muscle memory. As Joseph Pilates states in Return to Life, "Correctly executed and mastered to the point of subconscious reaction, these exercises will reflect grace and balance in your routine activities." One of the key benefits of Pilates is that it is truly functional fitness that translates into your everyday movements. Your body learns how to stabilize without any conscious effort on your part, improving posture, balance, and preventing injuries. Pilates reduces stress and strain in all your movements.
As I wrote about in the post about Concentration, your mental focus also becomes stronger as you practice, allowing you to go deeper and get more out of even the most basic exercises. Once your deep abdominals, pelvic floor and lower back muscles know "automagically" how to stabilize your pelvis during mat work, you can shift your focus to leg position, foot position, arm position, etc. The repetition and order in Pilates is specifically designed to create changes in the neuromuscular system.
I want to emphasize, however, that muscle memory does NOT equal auto-pilot. I used to spend a lot of hours on my elliptical trainer either reading a magazine or watching TV. I'm sure I was getting some cardio benefit, but without mental focus, I was missing something. And I'm sure you've all seen people in the gym doing 100's of ab crunches with no concern for form. I love to get those people and show them how to do 5-6 reps of Criss-Cross correctly! A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to do a workshop with Lolita San Miguel, one of the Pilates elders who studied directly with Joseph Pilates. She was very clear that there is no "auto-pilot" in Pilates, and took great pleasure in catching us mindlessly moving through an exercise! Even if you know the exercise order and the transitions, it's still important to make sure that you're moving with intent, listening to the cues of the instructor, and focusing all of your mind in order to get the most out of your session. Can you maintain all your critical connections (inner thigh to sitz bones, heel to seat, and rib to scapula) during the Hundred?
One of the concepts that relates to Flowing Movement is "effort with ease". To me, this means finding what's "just enough" effort required to do a movement properly. This is definitely something that I'm working on in my own practice, and something that's hard for people who've never done Pilates to understand. Isn't a workout supposed to be hard? Shouldn't I be working as hard as I possibly can to get the most out of it? The fact is that you do work hard in Pilates, however the trick is finding the balance between working hard and letting go of tension in muscles that don't need to be working right then. When doing the Hundred, can you release your neck muscles and let your abdominals support your head? Can you release your quads and let the abs hold your legs? This is a skill that takes a long time to master! That's why we call Pilates a "practice." ;-)
Congratulations to all of our clients who completed their Great Start sessions! You've come a long way since the first week, and are ready to challenge yourselves in new ways, working on flow and transitions. One of the really great things about Pilates is that there is always more to learn. Once you've mastered a certain set of exercises, there is always a way to provide even more challenge! As I like to say "Practice makes progress, not perfect."