Joseph Pilates based his method on key principles, from which Body Control Pilates include Alignment, Breathing, Relaxation, Centring, Concentration, Co-ordination, Flowing Movement and Stamina, and I will be exploring some of these in more detail over the next few blogs.
This month, I’m starting with one of my favourites, Relaxation. Pretty obvious why I might favour this, as who doesn’t like to relax, but when you look at it more closely it may not be relaxation as you know it, and you will see how it can help you to build strength and allow your muscles to function optimally.
So many of us spend our days in a state of hyper alertness, switched on and constantly stimulated with information, images and sound. Then, we continue in the same way when we flop at the end of the day, often using distraction to relax, watching tv, checking phones and laptops, still replying to emails and absorbed in social media. Then, we go from this alert and distracted state to try and sleep, and often this causes problems in getting to sleep, or disturbed sleep patterns.
Holidays therefore might seem like the only way to truly relax and allow the mind to become calmer, but for most of us holidays don’t happen that frequently, and anyway, when you think about it, it is quite a drastic solution if the only way you can relax and recharge is to completely remove yourself from your everyday life. If we can start to build in a few minutes of relaxation to our daily or weekly routine, this would be far more beneficial to our health.
By relaxation though, I mean actively focusing your full attention on how your body and mind are feeling at that precise moment. For this reason, I frequently begin my classes in the Relaxation Position, where you lie on your back, with knees bent, knees and feet hip width apart, pelvis and spine in neutral. You feel supported by the floor in this position and it gives you the chance to check in with yourself and take note of how you are feeling – tired or energised, alert or foggy, and whether your body feels aligned or not. As you settle, you can start to notice areas of tension, and focus on allowing that area to release and drop. Then you can notice your breathing and how that feels. This is the exact opposite of mindlessly “switching off” to relax and it is worth considering how often you actually take the time to stop and focus on yourself – your mind, your breathing, your muscles, your bones, and the effect of gravity on your position?
When I talk my clients through the Relaxation Position, I can see jaws unclenching, shoulders widening and unhunching, and lots of other subtle signs of people letting go of the tension from their day.
One of the first big advantages of the Relaxation Position is how this focusing of the mind on your body prepares it for the focus that you will keep throughout your class. Whether you are doing an advanced, dynamic flowing class or are a beginner, you are constantly thinking about which part of your body is moving, and in what direction, and what part isn’t moving, and how your breathing can help you move more easily, with more control, or help your stamina. It is a lot to be aware of, and so there is no space for the mind to wander and engage in endless chatter and worry, which allows you to relax and feel free from stress.
The second advantage of the Relaxation Position relates to the body. It is absolutely essential to release areas of tension before and during a Pilates exercise as it is only by doing this that constructive change can take place.
Many of us are very busy, and our Pilates class or exercise session is squeezed into a hectic day. But if you have been rushing around or sitting at a desk all day, then dash to your class and expect to leap straight into “working your core” or whatever else your goal might be, you are in danger of causing an injury in the case of sport or a demanding workout, or just not really using your muscles in an optimal and functional way. Instead you may end up causing further tension and strain in areas that are already problematic. And it is often the people who are keenest to get going who are in most need of allowing things to release! If you are busy and distracted, you may end up constantly contracting the muscles that are already overactive and tight, increasing tension and reinforcing their dominance in your movements in day to day life.
By taking some time to become aware of where you are holding onto tension, you are then more able to focus on letting that area release. Then, when you start to move, it is easier to take your attention to areas that need to engage – the ones that habitually underwork. And tight, overactive muscles occur with underused ones, just as areas of greater mobility in the body are next to ones with restricted mobility. Over time, we are aiming to even all of this out.
So if you have been thinking of doing some practice at home, but are not quite sure where to start, I highly recommend the Relaxation position, even if you don’t do anything else.