Observing people in the Pilates environment gives us a marvelous visual and touch-and-feel
opportunity to explore and understand what we humans - and westerners especially - do wrong
Here is what we do wrong!
First Error: we do not perceive ourselves.
- We do not perceive ourselves.
We cannot therefore know when we position our body parts wrongly, and tension our muscles
- We emphasize reaching our goals rather than feeling comfortable in our bodies.
Consider some different ways of perceiving:
(1) Consider a dog sniffing at a rabbit hole.
The nose tells him that a rabbit is in residence, and
that dinner is there if only he can dig down deep enough. We will never know what it is to have the
nose of a dog, but we can at least comprehend that a large part of a dog's perceiving is tied up in
(2) Consider a baby.
She sees something new, and crawls over and puts it in her mouth. Her
conscious awareness is more tuned to the mouth than ours. She does her perceiving with her
(3) Now consider ourselves.
A very large component of our conscious attention is allocated to the
"landscape" in front of our organs of sight. That is, most of our perceiving is done with our eyes
and the visual centers of the brain immediately behind the eyes. We allocate very little of our
attention to our bodily "inscape". (Ask yourself
right now if you had been paying the slightest attention to your body - I bet the answer is no!)
This is not surprising! - Humans are in fact very visual creatures.
But modern life makes us even more visual. For most of the day, we read, or sit in front of a TV or
a computer. We are engrossed in the visual input and become unaware of the feel of our bodies.
We don't have to do arduous walking, so we never have to pay attention to leg pain or foot
blisters. We rarely go hungry, so we don't have the "inscape" perception of hunger forced upon
us. And if the body is rude enough to intrude some pain into our visual awareness, well there is
always a pain killer tablet, or some sort of medical/surgical/physiotherapeutic quick fix.
The Results of not Paying Attention...
We are not good at perceiving ourselves! Indeed we mostly don't do it at all! What are the
results of not paying attention?
Supposing we have tight shoulders and forearms as our heads and necks lean into our computer
screens. The muscles are held short and contracted as we hunch forward and focus ever deeper
on the screen and getting our productivity up. We fail to perceive the problem muscles, though
they may be screaming out their message of discomfort! What are the results? - Tension
headaches! Feeling of work related pressure! "RSI", "OOS", "overuse": "carpal tunnel"!
We can change for the better, but how?...
Supposing we had moment by moment perception of tight muscles and scrunched up body parts.
We might not immediately know how to make it right, but we would immediately start
experimenting with different body positioning and patterns of muscle tensioning, and we would over time get
better, and feel much more comfortable.
How do we get our minds away from the landscape in front of our eyes and back into the
"inscape" of our bodies? Simply "paying attention" won't cut the mustard. It doesn't work! We
have to devote real time and real effort within a controled environment to learning this single very
important skill. Once we realise it is going to take dedicated time to do it, we can get on with it.
Pilates workouts performed under quality supervision are a good way to spend that time
(but see note).
The Pilates Mind-Body Workout, a Great way to Learn...
The great thing about Pilates (and many other "mind body" disciplines) is that we practice
awareness of the bodily "inscape": Watch a Pilates class and note how often people's eyes are
closed! We do not need our eyes as we re-awaken bodily perceptions. The instructor cues us to
"concentrate" on our bodies (that's one of the Pilates principles isn't it?), and strive for the
"precision" (that's another Pilates principle!). By listening to our "breathing" and by "centering",
(two more principles - are you getting this message?) we improve our bodily awareness even
further. The remaining Pilates principle (flow) makes the bodily inscape feelings more enjoyable.
We can luxuriate in the movement, as we enjoy more and more the sensations of getting into our
bodies, and away from our visual organs. The perceptions of muscle tension, of end range, of
what is comfortable and what is not, are repeatedly experienced as we perform the exercise
sequence day by day and week by week. We gradually learn to find the most graceful and pain
free way to use our bodies to complete these movement patterns.
With the help of the right instruction and cueing, we apply our new awareness to rediscovering the
art of being comfortable in our bodies! Letting go of bad patterns of posture and muscle tension
becomes an exciting possibility!
But it goes deeper than just "posture" and "muscle tension". The other thing we do wrong is:-
(2) We emphasize reaching our goals rather than feeling comfortable in our bodies.
This is best explained with examples:
(a) A computer operator explained to his Pilates instructor that he had severe neck pain and
difficulty writing clearly due to long hours of working the computer mouse. The instructor was
kindly enough, but emphatic in his reply. "Is the goal that you are achieving really worth the
damage that you are doing to yourself?". The question found its mark, and the computer operator
immediately started to work on ways to work more comfortably. His relearning task was not easy.
He did not have any ready made answers or instructors standing by his computer. His Pilates
developed "inscape awareness" did however make the task possible. After a number of months
and a number of unsuccessfull attempts, he was able to report that he had found a better degree
of comfort on the job. And his neck was significantly better.
(b) A goal may be to pick a dollar note off the floor. There is an uncomfortable way to do that
(which we will recognize as a twinge of low back pain), and there is a comfortable way (no pain).
(c) A goal may be to run and complete a race getting a best time at any cost. There is an
uncomfortable way to run a race, (which we recognize as joint or muscle pain caused by incorrect
technique), and there is a more comfortable way to run the race (which we recognize as the
pleasure of finishing exhausted but basically injury free).
(d) Other goals may be to prove that we are right at any costs; to convince ourselves that people
are not to be trusted and that life is hard (even if these things are not true), or to finish the
contract on time and up to standard.
The Uncomfortable Way and the Comfortable Way...
There is an uncomfortable way to reach these goals. You can "pull out the stops" "burn the
midnight oil", work long hours and pay no attention to stopping to unwind, rethink, and stretch (it's
called the more haste less speed phenomenon). Or you can make feeling comfortable in your
body a parallel goal. If you are comfortable in your body, you will be comfortable with other
people, and you will be comfortable with your goals. If you are relaxed and loose in your muscles,
it is absolutely impossible to be tense and uptight about a situation (think deeply on this - your
experiences will tell you this is true). What sort of person would you rather be? - A tense, scrunched up
battler with his
body and mind breaking down as he struggles to achieve his ambitions? Or someone that listens
to his bodily inscape, achieves better use of himself, and still achieves reasonable goals but in a
more comfortable fashion?
- We need to be more aware of ourselves.
- We need to emphasize feeling
comfortable in ourselves and de-emphasizing the goal at any cost mentality.
- The Pilates Workout is an excellent way to practice these things!
- FM Alexander: The Use of the Self; Orion Paper Backs, Reissued 2001 ISBN 0 75284 391 5
- John E. Sarno: Healing Back Pain : The Mind-Body Connection
- B & W Conarble: How to Learn the Alexander Technique,
3rd ed. Publ. Andover Press, PO Box 6838 OH 43205 ISBN 0-9622595-4-3
- Philip Goddard: THE ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE
A brief guide to the basics
- See also book recommendations, above right.
Pilates is just one of many mind-body awareness disciplines:
Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais technique, Tai Chi and Yoga are some of the others that will help
you develop your "inscape" awareness. Some physiotherapists and are very good at this too.
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Pilates Solutions - What we do Wrong with Ourselves
© Bruce Thomson, EasyVigour Project
Joseph Pilates, age 59, "comfortable in his body"