Melissa is often asked why a lot of Pilates classes are taught without reference to, or with little emphasis on the navel-to-spine and lateral breathing and the pelvic floor engagement. It’s a good question. The lateral inhale into the sides of the ribcage, the sucking in of the tummy on the exhale and the engagement of the pelvic floor between each exhale and inhale, are fundamental to Joseph Pilates’ method. So why do a lot of Pilates classes ignore or underemphasise these fundamentals? Two reasons. Firstly, poor teacher training. A lot of Pilates classes, particularly those run by large gyms or leisure centres, are often taught by fitness instructors who have completed little more than a short course to qualify to teach a Pilates class.
The second reason is because the lateral inhale, the navel-to-spine exhale and the pelvic floor engagement are difficult to do, especially for beginners. That is no justification for not teaching them though of course. The lateral inhale keeps the air out of the belly thus avoiding the abdominal muscles relaxing. The navel-to-spine exhale powers the movements and is a very effective way of strengthening the abdominals quickly. Strong stomach muscles help to keep the pelvis and lower spine stable, which avoids the back muscles and vertebral discs overworking. This strengthening of the abdominals is perhaps the main reason why health professionals recommend Pilates to patients suffering with lower back pain as a key part of their rehabilitation. The engagement of the pelvic floor fires up (a bit like pressing the ignition on a gas hob) the deep muscles in and around the lower spine, e.g. the transversus abdominis, which are hard to activate. It also strengthens the pelvic floor muscles of course, which is highly beneficial for post-natal women and the millions of people who have problems with incontinence.
Not teaching or placing little emphasis on the lateral inhale, the navel-to-spine exhale and pelvic floor engagement in a Pilates class is like going to your first tennis lesson and the instructor saying, “Serving and lobbing are really hard to do, so we won’t bother with those. We’ll just play the game without those two strokes.” For beginners attending their first Pilates class, our recommendation is to think of Pilates as a sport with a number of skills you need to master. Like any sport, Pilates takes time and practice to become good at it. You wouldn’t expect to serve and volley perfectly the first time you play tennis. In the same way, the lateral inhale, navel-to-spine exhale and the pelvic floor engagement, will take more than one Pilates class to get to grips with. Usually after around five or six classes, the fundamentals of Pilates start to become a little less challenging, which means you can focus more on the exercises.
Finally, last week Melissa was asked to describe Pilates in a sentence. Her tongue-in-cheek answer – “It’s like Twister only less improvised.”