Most of us spend our days walking around in our heads. Right now, as you’re reading this piece, you’re likely wholly unaware of your body. You might have some vague, back-of-your-mind sense of your hands on your electronic device or the stiffness in your legs, but for the most part your mind is separated entirely from your body.
Living your life with a weak mind-body connection is a recipe for missing out. There is a richness to living with awareness that is difficult to articulate, but marvelous to experience. When we are fully present in our bodies, with our minds fully engaged and in sync, the world opens up, with stress and strife melting away into the distance. When people talk about being happy, about feeling fulfilled, they are most often talking about times when they lived in a state of full mind-body integration.
Pilates offers a system of not just physical exercises, but mental ones as well that push forward the connection between the physical self and the mental self. Here’s how:
Mindfulness starts with breath. Breath control is seen in mind-body exercises in all forms and across disciplines. What’s wonderful about the breath, and what’s so important about it, is that it’s both a voluntary and an involuntary muscle movement. When you’re not thinking about it, this necessary bodily function happens on its own. When you are thinking about it, you have the ability to control the rate and depth of it.
The flow of air in and out of the lungs has a powerful effect in a wide variety of other bodily functions, from blood pressure to digestion. Breathing with intention is something that not everyone does on their own, but it’s a central pillar to Pilates instruction. By learning to manipulate the breath, those who practice Pilates can learn to take control of their physical bodies through mental discipline. With each and every exercise on both mat and machine, Pilates is designed to be integrated with precise breath control.
Breathing with intention takes a great deal of practice to master; it’s not something you just learn to control in a day. However, it’s also something literally everyone can do, no matter what other limitations they might face.
So often, we move around without even thinking about it. We instinctively open doors, drive cars and type on keyboards. Though these movements are often precise in nature by demand, they are rarely executed with any intention. Learning to control movements with more intention is a central pillar in Pilates. Each movement in Pilates is intended to be not only correct, but carried out with control.
Again, this is something that’s developed through practice, and that kind of repetitive practice is wonderfully experienced through Pilates. The more controlled and precise those bodily movements are, the more integrated the mind and the body become. Pilates exercises are slow, with significant attention to detail, versus other similar forms of exercise.
Isolation of movement and mind
Just as we tend to walk around with our minds and bodies separated, so too do we tend to walk around with a sense that our bodies are just one blob of motion that’s moving around without much consciousness. We aren’t engaged with our bodies. Pilates focuses on is teaching us to isolate parts of our bodies, pulling them apart and sensing exactly what’s going on.
Pulling that awareness down to just one small section of the body is an important step in learning how to integrate the body and the mind. Trying to be aware of every sensation and motion within the entire body at once is a tall order, and one that can prove to be a challenge that’s just too much. By bringing the focus down to a small sliver of the body, we’re able to increase the connection between the physical and mental selves. Pilates walks practitioners through the process of isolating one precise part of the body, allowing the mind to experience the connection, even if only for a moment. That isolation comes in many forms in Pilates – from articulating the spine during a head roll to the unique movement of lateral breathing.
Mental and physical focus
Learning how to focus is a skill that can be taught, and Pilates offers a solid teaching tool. More than turning on a laser light, learning to focus is about letting go of all of the things that are weighing down and distracting the mind. That letting go and keeping the mind in one place is important to the mind-body connection as well – allowing the body and mind to align for the same purpose instead of going off in divergent directions.
Pilates pulls focus right down to the forefront through physical activity. This method of learning focus through movement is extraordinarily helpful for many people who have struggled with focus and connection in the past. That’s because the body isn’t offering the kinds of distraction that it normally does. Rather than focusing on something external, Pilates lets practitioners work with the body so that it’s not a distraction but a gateway into better focus.
It’s important to understand that, unless you’re enlightened, you’re not going to live in a perfectly aware state. That’s a great goal perhaps, a distant ideal, but it’s not where even the best of us are. Living with a strong mind-body connection means that you have the ability to pull yourself into that state of awareness when you want to, and that above all you are able to create within yourself a consistent state of at least partial integration.
It’s this level of awareness that Pilates brings to people who practice it. That strong sense of empowerment through integration, the control and the focus as the mind and the body come together through the breath, all work together to build the mind body connection.
Practicing the mind-body connection
Do you think you can bring your focus to that intense mind-body connection for five minutes or less, every day for 100 days? Then download our app and try our 100s to Happiness challenge – and let us know how you feel!