Today I’ve given over the blog for a guest post from my good friend Katrina Niesitka. Katrina established KN Pilates in 2014 and I have been taught by her since 2016.
Here are Katrina’s fascinating and insightful thoughts on how mindfulness and Pilates are linked.
When we’re practicing mindfulness, we’re bringing our awareness to the present moment by observing the ebb and flow of our breath or by tuning into our senses and observing what they can detect. This draws attention away from our memories of the past and our projections of possible future events and directs us towards the here and now; our surroundings and our place within them.
When we exercise, we often seek distraction through external input such as music, tv / computer/ mobile screens, magazines, podcasts etc. This can be for many reasons. It might be to disconnect from the discomfort of putting ourselves out of our comfort zone, it might be to motivate us to work longer or push ourselves harder, it might be to get the workout over and done with without having to be really present.
The last point is an intriguing concept; we want to strengthen, tone, relax the body whilst being disconnected from it. What would happen if you allowed yourself instead to add your mindfulness practice to your workout? What would happen if you tuned into what exactly it is your body is doing? How would your workout be different if you observed all the details that come with moving or stilling your body?
There are a number of exercise types that are designed with mindfulness in mind. In Pilates for example, we don’t hold the plank position for the sake of staying there for as long as we can, and certainly not for as long as the person next to us can, instead we focus on every bit of our body as each is part of the whole, rather than just “the core”. We focus on our breath, on correct technique, and on our self-talk or state of mind. If you try this, you might notice that it is much easier when reminding yourself of the many benefits of the exercise rather than concentrating on how much you dislike it.
A big part of practicing exercise mindfully is to be aware of how the body feels, how it responds, detect where we’re holding unnecessary tension and where we need to create a bit more support. If you’ve ever done a workout you’ll know that it can feel easier on some days than on others, and mindful movement takes that into account and works with the body rather than beating it into submission. One side effect of this is that it could help with injury prevention as we become more aware of our body’s state, limits and needs.
Moving mindfully also brings into awareness how everything is connected. When we move the arms in circles, we can observe how the spine wants to join in and then decide whether that is what we want during this exercise or not. When we do a curl up, we focus on releasing any tension around the neck and shoulders, on stabilising the pelvis to protect the lower back, on the flexion of the upper spine, and on our breath that accompanies the movement.
Speaking of the breath. If I ask you to “Take a deep breath” you probably just did. Breathing is healthy, indeed vital. How long can you survive without breathing? A few seconds? A few minutes? And yet so often we “forget” to breath. When exercising, we often hold our breath either because we’re concentrating on getting the movement right or because we’re under a lot of pressure. And there’s a good reason for it in some cases. However, our muscles and brain need oxygen to function, so using our breath mindfully is going to support our workout and is likely to make it more effective.
When observing my students performing an exercise, I can see who is going through the motions whilst letting the brain zone out or thinking about things outside of the studio, compared to a student who is synchronising the breath with the movement and the centring aspects or the exercise. There is focus on what the body is doing, awareness of where self-corrections are needed and an attention to detail that vastly improves the quality of movement and with it its results.
I remind my students to carefully explore their range of movement, to allow themselves to approach a new exercise with curiosity and playfulness, experience what happens without judgement, and in time and with practice, refine the exercise towards its best version. That way, our minds stay busy on focussing on the present task and therefore is less likely to wander off. I like to say that if you have space in your brain to think about anything else than the exercise, you’re not doing Pilates.
You might have heard of the saying “Where attention goes, energy flows.” If we apply that to our workout routine, it would imply that if we’re staying present and mindfully observe what we’re doing and how we’re feeling, it might more effectively lead to the results we had in mind.
There have been many studies on the benefits on our physical and mental health in regards to exercise, and in regards to mindfulness, alas less so on the combination of these two as far as I’m aware.
You could try this right now; notice how your body feels as you’re reading this (try not to change positions immediately and observe instead); are you comfortable? Are you tense or relaxed? What are your limbs doing? Is your jaw tense? Is your brow furrowed? What is your breathing like? And when you get up to make yourself a cup of tea, how does that feel? What is moving? And how does your body achieve this? How does your breathing change during that movement?
Next time you find yourself in the gym, in an exercise class or walking the dog, give mindful movement a go. You might even enjoy it!
If you can get to one of Katrina’s Pilate classes around southeast London then do! Or why not register your interest for her online postnatal course which will be available soon.
Her aim is to allow her students to explore the Pilates exercises with curiosity, kindness and self-awareness. Her vision is for her students to reclaim some of their time to reap the benefits of self-care, recharge their batteries and feel better in their bodies. You can find Katrina at KN-Pilates.com or on Facebook.