sport 360 – november 2013 – enriching pilates by going back to basics natural way to get fit
Joseph Pilates, the founder of Pilates, was much inspired by the way animals move and often went to zoos to watch them in their natural habitat, believing them to be wonderful teachers.
Cats, for example, he observed, move with grace and power, accomplishing what they need to do without overly-developed muscles just as balanced and efficient muscular development is one of the priorities of the Pilates method.
His book ‘Return to Life through Contrology’ has a section where he talks about how the cat’s back muscles ripple as it stretches and relaxes itself, and about how felines are so utterly relaxed when they sleep. In fact, cats, large or small, seem to be the embodiment of the Pilates principles: centering, concentration, control, precision, breath and flow.
The Hundred Pilates over here in Dubai want to shift the focus from just using Pilates as a quick-fix toner and encourage clients to delve deeper and explore that link between Pilates and animals, and instructor Walid Tebarki invited me to see for myself why it pays to get back closer to ground level.
“Joe Pilates is using animals’ and kids’ images to bring us back to the original shape,” explained Tebarki.
“They move effortlessly because they have the perfect balance between the inside and outside world.
“The moves of animals stimulate their fascia (the sheet of connective tissue surrounding muscles, blood vessels, and nerves, binding some structures together, while permitting others to slide smoothly over each other). And they never work out by tiring one or two muscle groups as some fitness trainings do.
“When animals move they use their entire body – the perfect example for a balanced body.
“Pilates said ‘you are as young as your spine is flexible’, and so most of the movements [in Pilates] strengthen the core muscles and stimulate the deep muscles of the back by keeping the spine flexible and strong.”
One of the gentlest and simplest ways to stretch your back, and a move which aids in strengthening and making more flexible both the abdomen and the back muscles. It improves body posture, balance and core strength.
On all fours, align your hands beneath your shoulders and your knees beneath your hips, then inhale as you arch your back by raising your head and allowing your butt to stick up and out. The counter pose is to then exhale and pull the navel in towards the spine as you curve your lower back into a C while rounding into the upper back. Your back should ultimately be rounded to the greatest extent possible as you push your hands into the mat and gaze at the navel with a lowered head.
This squatting position can be done on the ground, mat, with springs and equipment (to help imitate a frog leaping), and Tebarki says many Asians often squat over sitting or standing as it is a healthy, natural resting position.
Over time many Western adults are not able to place their heels flat on the ground when squatting because of shortened Achilles tendons caused by sitting on chairs, and wearing high heels, for extended periods, he has observed.
He explains: “’The Frog’ stretches the spine, hamstrings, tendons, and releases the deep pelvic floor.
“The movement should be dynamic. Vizualise the frog in movement – it is energetic!”
Similar to yoga’s cobra or sphinx poses, in this case visualise an elegant, long-necked swan. Walid says if you put a drop of water on the top of its head, it should slither all the way down the neck and back to the tail and into the water.
“The long spine of the swan looks soft and long, one piece, one spine. The swan in Pilates is an extension of the back but the extension should be long, up and forward, not up to the ceiling – that will help to strengthen the deep muscles (multifidus, rotators) and to turn off superficial muscles (erector spinae).”
“When we do a full back extension we can use the equipment like the push through bar (right) to help to release superficial muscles of the back too.”
What’s interesting is each of these moves feels completely different when translated onto other Pilates equipment, the reason Tebarki encourages going beyond the mat and experimenting with other Pilates tools.
“All these props – mat, Reformer, Chair, Cadillac, pole – are interconnected with each other, we cannot separate them. To get the benefits of Pilates you must use and explore all of them.”
This exercise also taught me that there are still so many other smaller muscles that I didn’t know existed, and that need work. “Strengthening the small muscles helps the big muscles to work better,” says Tebarki. “We also work the big muscles in Pilates but we try to focus on what our human culture turned off.”