The Gift of Presence

“Inhale 2,3,4,5 exhale 2,3,4,5…”

Hundred time…float my head up using my hollow abs, legs stretched and engaged…ooh, I like her shirt…right, pick up dry cleaning after grocery shopping…OK, come back to the breath…press my low back to the mat, keep scooping…sometime I think the Hundred is such a strange exercise…I wonder when the next season of Stranger Things is coming to Netflix?

Sound familiar?

We’ve all been there. Trying to really focus but the power of the mind wanders elsewhere. You’re not alone and you’re only human. And Stranger Things is a really good show.

Whether you’re a Pilates newbie or veteran, you’ve likely realized Pilates is a sophisticated system of movement where the actual 500+ physical exercises alone hold a challenge. But it’s uniqueness lies in that there’s no summit to your Pilates practice – the breath could always be deeper, range of motion increases over time, your legs could go a bit lower during your Hundred. It is truly a thinking person’s exercise. This is the good stuff, the real meat of Pilates, but  it’s often the ignored aspect of Pilates, as for some it’s less alluring than the physical promise Pilates makes. Yes, when performed correctly, Pilates will give you a stronger center. Let’s now think beyond the muscles, the superb gift Pilates gives us is the gift of presence.

“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 brain.”

                                                                                 -Joseph Pilates, Return to Life Through Contrology

Joseph Pilates intended his work to be mindful, a meditation in movement. Movement itself originates in the brain, which sends messages through nerves and muscles of what you’re trying to accomplish. If the focus is not with you during Pilates, it is mindless movement. But taking note mentally how your body is moving in space during a session creates new patterns outside the studio door. Suddenly you catch yourself when you’re slouching in your office chair or consistently holding baby Zoe on your left hip. This is the real subtle magic of Pilates. Genuinely embracing the whole bundle of a true Pilates practice, means utilizing both the physical and the mental. Ever have a Pilates session and just feel the dots connect within your body? Then walk outside noticing the air smells a bit sweeter since you’re now conscious of your breath? That nagging ache in your lumbar spine feels freed now that you’re conscious of your posture? BOOM – Presence.

Two essential elements of Pilates are breath and quality vs. quantity. The act of breathing is both unconscious and conscious. You unconsciously breath during everyday tasks like driving or sleeping. You consciously breathe when your attention is called to it. From a muscular standpoint, the way to truly connect to deep abdominal muscles is through a deep exhalation. But from a mental standpoint, the breath serves as the link between mind and body. Quality vs. quantity is a point in Pilates that also addresses presence. Rather than forcing 200 reps of a movement, Pilates encourages laser-like focus on fewer reps which is safer for the body and promotes physical and mental awareness.

When I was pregnant with Avery, I had already lived a life as a professional dancer and had 6 years as a Pilates instructor under my belt. Being conscious about how my body felt and moved was embedded in my bones, but feeling those wacky shifts of growing a human was an experience. What I was not prepared for was the raging dose of hormones that attacked my usually calm mind. Screaming, tears, and laughter could happen at a moments notice. At twenty weeks pregnant, my husband suggested we learn Transcendental Meditation with an instructor. TM is a meditation practice through one-on-one sessions with an instructor, where you learn the technique and are assigned a mantra. The practice is a 20  minute meditation reciting your mantra in the morning and afternoon. We signed up, and soon enough, I felt someone had written a prescription for my sanity. Sitting quietly in TM takes you out of the choppy, stressful waves and sinks you down to the calm silence of the ocean’s bottom. One misinterpretation of meditating is that you must absolutely stop your mind from thinking. This is impossible – I’ve heard instructors say so. But it’s the craft of repeating your mantra…mind goes to groceries and kids…and bringing yourself back to the mantra. You just became present to the fact you checked out. No judgment, just come back. After becoming a mom, a steady practice is challenging. But I truly notice a difference in the ease of life and a difference in presence when I buckle down and commit.

During your next Pilates session, try incorporating a sense of presence in your movement. Are you truly staying deep in your core during a non-obvious ab exercise like Footwork? Are you really moving with breath? If you check out, you’re human, as it’s all a practice in a mediation of movement.

Megan Gelabert-McGee, PMA-CPT