Note: This blog originally published in February 2011.
Pilates is all about keeping the spine in good health, which means being able to properly engage your core muscles. This doesn’t mean squeezing your ab muscles as hard as you can. It means using your ab muscles to lengthen and support your spine so gravity doesn’t compact it over the course of your life. Most people do crunches to work their core, but crunches actually shorten your ab muscles and thus make your waistline thicker and shorter. Think of a dancer, how long and tall they look.
Pilates teaches us to be able to move around while keeping the core muscles lightly engaged. When the spine is long, the vertebrae and disks are able to move and rotate. This means we are able to move pain free and avoid degeneration.
There is a set number of exercises in Pilates, all aimed at practicing how to use our abs, low back, and thigh muscles to keep our spinal column long and flexible. Think of a spring and stretch it gently so there’s a little space between each coil. This length will greatly reduce the wear and tear on our disks and bones.
Like I mentioned earlier, it’s not about contracting muscles as hard as we can, it’s about getting more coordinated with that contraction. While writing with a pen, pushing the pen into the paper harder will not make the ink come out any easier. Neither will tightening our grip and squeezing the pen.
Writing with a pen takes that exact amount of pressure from our fingers to make the ink trail out on the paper. Our ab muscles are the same way. Contract ‘down’ (trying to get our ribs to meet our hips) and we get shorter and our spine compresses. Contract ‘up’ (as if to float the ribcage above the hips, making the waist long) and we greatly reduce the stress of gravity on our spine.
Yoga is also about flexibility, but in our muscles. A lot of people automatically think of being able to do the splits or twist into a pretzel, that’s the extreme and not everyone will be able to do those poses. Just like not all of us are able to run a marathon or throw a wicked curve ball.
Yoga helps maintain a level of flexibility that allows us to be pain free and able to move easily. Every job that exists creates some amount of tension in the body. If we don’t make the effort to undo that tension, it will slowly build up and one day we wake up and it’s not so easy to bend over to tie our shoes, or we find ourselves rubbing our own necks hoping to relieve the pain.
Yoga helps us balance stress in our lives. Yes, we have to work and yes, we will create some tension. Then we go to a yoga class and we make the effort to gently undo that tension and feel our muscles release.
In addition, yoga helps balance the stress in our minds. During class, focusing on your body and breath allows the mind to relax and let go of daily stress. And yoga definitely adds strength. It’s a different kind of strength. Weight training teaches our muscles to be strong for just a few seconds at a time, while yoga teaches the muscles to be gently strong for a longer period of time. It’s up to us to make sure we don’t push to that point of straining to struggling to stay in a pose.
Which one should you practice?
Now you are probably wondering which one if for you. I practice both, and if I had to give up one, I really don’t know which one that would be! Start with a class that is close to home (or work) and easy to get to and hang in there. For some people, these classes offer a very different way of working out. I suggest taking the class once a week for 2 months and see what differences you feel.
What’s funny for me is I don’t realize how much these classes are helping me until I miss a few and my muscles are all stiff and achy. Don’t think of these classes as something you ‘should do because it’s healthy.’ Think of them as ways you can really take care of yourself. Taking a little time for yourself to get away from the daily grind and rejuvenate yourself.
Remember, you will not have energy to take good care of your loved ones if you do not first take good care of yourself!