1 Feb 2013

Upright Pilates

A student of mine once put it perfectly: “It’s incredible how you can practice standing better while lying down. Quite convenient.” And yes, properly training the body in a horizontal position, if done right, can make us better at anything we do – standing included. In Joseph Pilates’ own words:

“Contrology is designed to give you suppleness, natural grace, and skill that will be unmistakably reflected in the way you walk, in the way you play, and in the way you work.”

In the developmental sequence, we learn almost any movement skill in the horizontal plane first. With gravity quite literally holding us down, as infants we have no other choose than to cultivate movement in supine, side lying, and prone positions first. We have to earn the strength to eventually crawl, sit, kneel, and stand – slowly lifting the body’s center of gravity away from the ground. The Pilates method adheres to the principles of developmental motor learning, which is why the majority of the exercises is done lying down. Ultimately, however, the work we do lying down has to transfer to the vertically aligned world we live in.

Although Joseph Pilates promoted the fact that his work decidedly omits standing work, there is a lot of traditional repertoire that has you up on your feet. As it should! If you never or rarely incorporate the standing repertoire in your practice or teaching, here is why it’s important that you do:

For one, standing is a weight-bearing activity and requires greater degrees of strength, proprioception, center-of-gravity control and postural stability. Moving while upright automatically turns on more muscle groups and brings the full-body-effort to life that we look for in movement. It also greatly improves balance, and further stimulates the cardiovascular and lymphatic system. Not to mention the immense benefit of letting our feet do their actual job of supporting us. But most importantly, working our ‘powerhouse’ and all movement concepts in more than just the horizontal plane largely increases the work’s functionality.

‘Functionality’ can be interpreted in many different ways, but in essence, I am talking about ‘functionality’ in terms of improved quality in everyday movement. Movement quality is the result of a properly working (and timed) relationship between the nervous and muscular systems. Since Pilates requires full concentration and always encourages awareness of all structures and systems involved in movement, Pilates could already qualifies as a ‘functional’ form of exercise. However, progressing the work into the vertical plane further improves transference into our lives in that it better mimics the challenge of keeping ourselves “up”, and offsets some of the damage done by sitting too much.

(By the way, this article is written at my standing desk.)

The standing repertoire in Pilates’ body of work covers dynamic movement preparations, progressions of exercises done on Mat and Reformer, as well as specific exercises done upright. Of course they are consistent with the motor skills learned and practiced all throughout the method – they are upright in both meanings of the word:

up·right [ˈʌpˌraɪt]

1. Being in a vertical position or direction
2. Adhering strictly to principles; honest