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"Centering" in Pilates – A Practice of Presence

There are six fundamental principles of the Pilates exercise method – Breathing, Centering, Concentration, Control, Flow and Precision.

Centering represents the act of drawing your own mental and physical focus during each exercise to the core or center often called ‘the powerhouse’, of your body. This is roughly the area between your lower ribs and hips, although it also includes the lower and upper back muscles.

Pilates, Joseph H. and Miller, William John. Pilates’ Return to Life Through Contrology: 1998, Print

Centering, the pre-curser to Concentration, cues us to place specific attention to these muscles. Once we focus intently on the core work of a specific exercise we can move on to adding legs, arms and other points of focus in the body but we always begin with energizing the core. It is from our center that the energy of the remaining movements radiate throughout the body.

The word “Centering” might also conjure references to meditation and/or having a sense of presence within ourselves on a more spiritual level. When comparing Yoga and Pilates, the spiritual aspect of yoga is salient by means of rich and plentiful Hindi imagery as well as incorporated meditation. The spiritual aspect of Pilates is a bit more subtle and pragmatic. The connection of mind and body is intended in each Pilates exercise as it is in yoga poses, however Pilates has a definite and continuous focus on the body's physical center as the axis of our entire Pilates practice. As we develop our Pilates practice we are able to focus more and more on deepening into the core to develop awareness of the power of that centrally located energy. By developing awareness in our bodies we intrinsically develop more awareness in the mind. Accomplishing this requires presence.

When you enter the studio, try to leave your worries, stressors, and general distractions at the door and focus solely on being present and centered during the hour of practice you are about to embark upon. Fully embrace your own body-mind connection – use your breath consciously when performing each exercise, focus and connect into your Powerhouse and acknowledge the energy that radiates from your core out into the legs, arms, neck and head. By giving your mind time to re-connect with your body during your Pilates session you give it a break from all of those thoughts waiting for you at the door where you left them. However, when you and your thoughts met up again at the end of your session you may find that you can control them instead of them controlling you! 

“By reawakening thousands and thousands of otherwise ordinarily dormant muscle cells, Contrology (Pilates) correspondingly reawakens thousands and thousands of dormant brain cells, thus activating new areas and stimulating further the functioning of the mind.”
- Joseph Pilates

Presence is a practice unto itself. By practicing deliberate presence in Pilates we begin to automatically have more presence in all of our activities and interactions thus making life not only less stressful but the rich, beautiful experience we are intended to have!

Pilates Breathing - Why is it so important?

Pilates focuses acutely on strengthening our core or "powerhouse". Pilates exercises include breathing patterns and techniques that further activate the core muscles while performing an exercise.  In Pilates we use 3 types of controlled breathing – Lateral Breathing, Active Breathing and Set Breath Patterns.

Lateral Breathing:

Lateral Breathing refers to the expansion of the lungs from the center of the chest and out left and right as opposed to diaphragmatic breathing which focuses on the expansion of the belly. 

During Lateral Breathing we focus on the expansion of the rib cage while maintaining a consistent inward pull of the deep abdominal muscles during both inhalation and exhalation. By breathing laterally we can keep our “corset” engaged while taking a deep breath. Lateral breathing engages the intercostal muscles – or muscles between each of the ribs. Just like any other muscle of the body, the intercostal muscles can become tense and rigid without regular stretching. Over time this breathing practice will provide more space for the lungs to expand within the rib cage. Deeper, fuller breaths means more oxygen can enter the body to nourish all of our living cells.

Active Breathing:

An early student of Joseph Pilates named Ron Fletcher developed an approach called Percussive Breathing. Percussive breathing further engages the core by putting emphasis on a contraction of the intercostal muscles of the ribs during exhalation. This type of breathing is not meant to be forceful necessarily, but rhythmic. An excellent example of the use of this breath is during the Hundred exercise. By adding a rhythmic pump of the arms and a percussive exhale to an ab curl, the entire core is activated with the effort of the breath. Ron Fletcher explains: “The breath shapes the movement and defines its dynamic.”

Set Breath Patterns:

Many Pilates exercises have breathing patterns that are integral to the exercise being performed correctly. As with Active Breathing, the exhale is often used at the rhythmic point of most exertion. Sometimes the breath is used to set a certain pace – a deep, slow inhale and long exhale with cues such as “squeeze out all of the air...” are used with exercises requiring more attention to control. Shorter bursts of breath such as those used in Percussive Breathing are used in exercises requiring quick contractions of the muscles being strengthened.

In the beginnings of our practice it can be challenge enough to keep up with our form and alignment during class! We can start giving more attention to the level of incorporation we give our breath as we grow stronger. A stronger core with supple intercostal muscles improves the respiratory system which in turn improves the condition of the entire body, including the mind.

“Contrology (Pilates) is complete coordination of body, mind, and spirit. Through Contrology you first purposefully acquire complete control of your own body and then through proper repetition of its exercises you gradually and progressively acquire that natural rhythm and coordination associated with all your subconscious activities.”

- Joseph Pilates

Aligned Living Success Story - Carlie Maridakis

Carlie formerly lived out of state and maintained fitness by traditional, main stream methods such as personal trainers and TRX suspension training which she enjoyed and found effective. However, when she moved back to Georgia her routines started to fail due to the stressors experienced during a big life change - such as relocating. Her motivation dwindled and she suddenly found herself struggling in daily activities such as simply climbing stairs. She did some research on Pilates and decided it was a good fit for her.

She started at another Pilates studio with our own Melinda Wright.
“When I met Melinda I knew that she'd be the perfect fit for my somewhat cantankerous personality. She not only pushed me, but encouraged me to push myself, even when I knew - or thought I knew I couldn't do something. When I started a year ago I could barely hold my legs up in table top for an extended period of time. I'm proud to say that now I can get through an entire intermediate class with other clients much more advanced than myself. Pilates is unlike any other workout I've done because I focus more on how my body feels as I'm doing the exercise, rather than just getting the rep done. My strength is returning as is my confidence. It's weird - when I'm at home I find myself staring at my knees, making sure they are tracking over my feet, and practicing my "attitude" position in the mirror...Pilates has done all of that.. 

I feel like it's important to mention that we are only as strong as the teachers who give us the tools to succeed. Melinda is that teacher who has been such a consistent source of strength and encouragement, and for this I'm truly grateful.”

There’s something to be said about bonding with your Pilates instructor! The changes we notice through the method of Pilates not only strengthens the body but strengthens our entire being. When the body is aligned properly so is the mind and soul. We as instructors gain so much from taking our clients on a journey to a better self. The instructor / client relationship is so much more than just teaching, it’s a mutually beneficial process of personal growth. It’s truly why we do what we do!

Aligned Living Success Story - Bess Shriver

Bess' neck was seriously injured in a car accident in 2008 resulting in a cervical disk fusion. The fusion alleviated some pain but left her with limited mobility. Before the accident she was an avid rock climber but had to give it up entirely due to the weakened structure of her cervical spine. As a Graphic Designer she spends long hours in front of a computer which also aggravated her condition. "When I started taking Pilates Cory literally had to hold my head in her hand just to hold a simple ab crunch position, after a little more than a year I can do any Pilates exercise thrown at me!" Strengthening her core and shifting her posture into a better alignment has given the weak muscles in her neck the support they needed to activate and strengthen too. The focus on spinal mobility in Pilates keeps the musculature in her upper thoracic area from becoming stiff and the painful muscle spasms she was having are gone. Work has become easier on her body by developing a deeper awareness."I've become conscious of my posture while sitting in front of the computer and I've learned to not hold my neck in compromising positions. I can catch myself doing it and correct it whereas before I didn't recognize it at all." She has also begun some easy climbing at indoor rock climbing gyms recently with success! "I'm so grateful for Cory and Melinda at the Aligned Living studio - they've helped me change my body so that I can live the way I did before the accident, I thought I'd never experience that again." Watching our clients grow and succeed is one of the greatest pleasures of teaching Pilates. Bess' success story is a perfect example of the power of this beautiful system of changing the body to live a better life. 

Aligned Living Success Story - Hope Boynton

Hope experienced some difficulty with the birth of her first child which caused permanent damage to her lower back resulting in chronic pain. Having been a competitive cheerleader and used to living an active lifestyle, this obstacle was troubling both physically and mentally. Most of the popular approaches to fitness that her friends were into - such as the currently trendy high-intensity interval fitness programs - weren’t an option for her. Frustrated with limited options and back pain, she found Pilates. 

She’s one of our more advanced clients now! By strengthening her core and focusing on spinal flexibility her back pain has decreased significantly, but perhaps more notable are the effects it’s had on her serenity in the everyday. She’s able to live in a strong, fit body alleviating the frustrations of being hindered by back pain. 

“The peaceful environment at the Aligned Living Pilates Studio is me-time. I get a break from being a mother, a business owner and all the other stresses of everyday life and focus on myself for a little while. Pilates has made a huge difference in my quality of life.”

And as you can see here, she looks AMAZING!

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