Alignment is one of the key principles of Pilates, and correct alignment is not only fundamental to gaining results from your Pilates class or other exercise routine, but is essential to the optimal functioning of all of the systems of the body.
You might wonder if you are new to Pilates why so much emphasis is put on checking your alignment before and during an exercise? Why don’t you just start moving as quickly as possible?
But, the thing is, there isn’t a rough, approximate, “that will sort of do” alignment. Anatomically, our joints are designed to be positioned in relation to each other in one precise way only, whether we are still or moving. This enables the muscles to work efficiently in the sequence and manner they are meant to. A helpful way to think of it is like the alignment of a wheel and axle on a car – it only needs to be a tiny bit out to affect the movement quality of the wheel, which then causes damage to the surrounding metal, and finally malfunction.
What does ideal alignment look like? When standing, you need to be aware of the three major masses of weight in the body – the head, ribcage and pelvis; the effect gravity has on them, and the spine which connects them together. And don’t forget your feet, your foundation, as what goes on there impacts all the way back up your body. You are aiming to position these three masses of weight so that the force of gravity is evenly distributed down the body, and undue stress isn’t put on the spine. If you stand sideways, imagine drawing a plumb-line from head to toe. This line should pass through the ear, shoulder, pelvis, knee and ankle.
So, why aren’t we all in perfect alignment already if that is how we are designed to be? Well, all sorts of reasons. Our alignment is affected and altered by many factors, such as repetitive movements, a sedentary lifestyle, injuries and illness, stress and other psychological factors, genetics, mimicking our parents postures and movements as young children, and our culture and environment. Our posture can actually be a big part of our identity and can often be an easy way to recognise someone from afar, just from the way they move or hold themselves.
When these factors take us out of good alignment, we alter the length and tension of our muscles, ligaments, tendons and connective tissue. This puts a strain on our joints and affects our movement, taking us further out of alignment – a kind of vicious circle. As this happens over a long period of time, our poor alignment and faulty movement patterns feel normal, until eventually the body alerts us by sending us pain signals.
To see how a daily habit might affect our alignment and therefore our muscle function, here is an example:
Wearing heels (even low ones!) can cause the whole body to deviate from correct alignment to compensate for the change in angle to the ground. This can result in constant slight knee flexion, pull the pelvis into a posterior tilt, flexing the lower back, which can then trigger knee, hip and lower back issues. Not to mention tight hamstrings and calves and the effect on the feet!
But you can’t look at a picture of correct alignment and then force or brace yourself to fit that image, as you will only set yourself up to create more tension, tightness and dysfunction.
So, to improve our alignment, we need to start by addressing the underlying issues – our daily habits, for example sitting. No one boasts “I’m off to practise and perfect my sitting technique for 8 hours today. I’ll do it at work, then in my car, and then I’ll even do some more in the evening on my sofa. And you know what, I do that routine 5 x per week!” So that’s 40 hours per week working on tightening your hamstrings and hip flexors – quite a schedule. By making sitting your daily default position, your tissues have adapted to this shape, with some muscle fibres shortening and others lengthening. So see how you can make some new habits – for example break up the sitting with standing, walking, squatting and simply changing your position throughout the day. If not sitting, have a think about what your most common daily activity or movement is? What position or repetitive action does it encourage? And how do these show up as areas of tension or tightness in your body?
Finally, we come to the role Pilates plays in all of this. It is the precise adjustments to encourage good alignment that make it such a unique form of exercise. Pilates always looks at the body as a whole, not as separate parts, with one part the “problem”, and that is why the alignment of the entire body is of prime importance. If your deep postural stabilising muscles have become weak, and you are now holding tension in other muscles, it might be hard for you to stand upright in good alignment, or to lie in Relaxation Position and find a comfortable “neutral” position for your pelvis. Pilates exercises focus on strengthening the deep stabilising muscles, and releasing the accumulated tension in other muscles. In time, this will help them to regain their ideal balance and length, which improves movement quality, and alignment of the joints, avoiding wear and tear and the risk of injury.
This process also improves your proprioception – your innate awareness of where your joints and your body are in space. Often clients new to Pilates say they feel squint when put into correct alignment, as the new position is so unfamiliar to their body. But with repetition, in time good alignment will become your new default position.