20 July 2010

Posture-perfect with Pilates

Health24's Carine van Rooyen finds that staying on the ball has more benefits than meets the eye.


Signing up for Pilates wasn't something I planned.

I was happily going about my couch-potato existence when my path crossed with a Pilates instructor early in 2007. While interviewing her for an article on the subject, it hit me that a good posture really could be the key to a healthier lifestyle.

The instructor explained that it's all about feeling comfortable in your body – and when head, shoulders and hips are in alignment, this is easily achieved. Pilates, she said, is one of the best ways of reaching this goal.

Up to that point I hadn’t given my posture much thought. But on my way back home, I became acutely aware of the fact that I was slouching in my car seat. Later, as I was preparing dinner, I realised that I arched my back to the point where it became painful when standing. When I finally sank into an armchair with a glass of Merlot, I had to rub my neck and shoulders because they hurt after a long day at my computer.

With every sip of wine I took, the idea of joining a Pilates class sounded better and better. By bedtime, I was convinced.

Off to class
At the Lisa Thomas Studio in Cape Town where I started training, the emphasis is on Body Control Pilates. This form of Pilates has relaxation, correct breathing, flowing movements, alignment of the head, shoulders and hips, good co-ordination and stamina at its core.

That is certainly quite a mouthful, but fortunately achieving these goals was a step-by-step process that started with a few private orientation sessions.

The first thing I had to learn was to get a feeling for where my pelvic-floor muscles were. Surprisingly, this turned out to be more of a mental exercise than a physical one. I had to concentrate hard on controlling those specialised muscles that you pull tight when you urgently need the loo. Then I had to find the connection between these muscles and my deep abdominal muscles (also known as "core" muscles because of their central and powerful role in the body).

After three sessions, I had a pretty good idea of what to focus on and Lisa, the instructor, gave me the green light to join a group class (I was happy to learn that the group consisted of only five people).

At first it was pretty tough to achieve the correct balance. Some of the exercises simply felt too easy; others were really tough. However, I soon learnt that I wasn't doing the "easy" exercises correctly (they were hell once I learnt how to do them properly), and others felt difficult because I was mobilising bits of my body that haven't worked in years.

I was surprised at how I totally lost track of time while working my way through different exercises on the mat, using Pilates balls and different types of therabands. I learnt how to really breathe and it felt wonderful to stretch muscles that were clearly tight from sitting all day.

Small miracles
At first, I didn't notice much difference. But I was surprised one day to realise that, when standing, I could actually stretch down and touch my toes – something I couldn't do a few months before. Previously my hands could merely reach the middle of my calves. It was clear that my flexibility had improved.

Another small miracle was the fact that my shoulder and neck muscles didn't hurt as often anymore. The muscle tension I felt in this area was mostly due to poor posture. The Pilates, it seemed, had helped to iron out my posture mistakes.

The third thing I noticed was that I now permanently, and subconsciously, tucked in those core muscles. This also came as a surprise, as the whole core-muscle concept was totally foreign to me when I first started. I was sure that this positive change was also at the root of my better posture.

The verdict
If all this is possible just by doing Pilates once a week, imagine what the benefits could be if you do it twice, or even three times per week. Judging by the amazingly toned bodies of my Pilates instructors, I'm guessing that the benefits could be enormous.

- (Carine van Rooyen, Health24, May 2008)

Keen to try Pilates? Click here to find an instructor in your area.


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