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Posted by on Oct 3, 2013 in Anatomy & Physiology, Body & Mind, Featured, Pilates | 0 comments

Pilates For the Mind? A Requisite For Happiness?

Pilates For the Mind? A Requisite For Happiness?

Developmental movement patterns 2: the yield-and-push-reach-and-pull cycle

by Katharina Hesse ©

As we head into winter, spare a little thought for those affected by SAD – seasonal affective disorder – a form of depression linked to a change in seasons, often linked to the lack of light.

Exercise, particularly aerobic outdoor activity, is often recommended for SAD – as well as for other forms of depression. For SAD in particular the combination of exercise and natural light seems a logical intervention. And yet, in my experience, many people affected by SAD also seem to enjoy Pilates. Why? Could Pilates possibly help this and/or other conditions of the mind? Joseph Pilates was certainly particularly interested in the link between mind and body, particularly in how exercise and his method might affect the mind. “A sound mind in a healthy body” and “physical fitness is the first requisites of happiness” are two of his statements.

And Joseph Pilates was right of course. We know these days that exercise in general seems to benefit our state of mind. Exercise releases endorphins and does much else to benefit our bodies and minds. Is that what makes Pilates so popular?

I personally feel there might be more. But that’s just a hypothesis. Nevertheless, let me explain why I think Pilates might be helpful:

Pilates is a very mindful practice. The emphasis on precision and “flow” are experienced by many as a kind of mindful meditation, however energetic or slow their personal practice. There is also the strong focus on breathing which, as Ruth Baker has pointed out in her recent blog “Just Breathe”, powerfully affects our mind in numerous ways. And then there are the actual Pilates exercises. To my mind, they merit a closer look because many Pilates moves are reminiscent of the first movements experienced by us in infancy and early childhood – the developmental movement patterns.

What are developmental movement patterns and why might they affect the mind?

In infancy and childhood the developmental movement patterns develop our bodies (see my blog on the Curves of the Spine, for example) and, at the same time, also inform our nervous system and brain. They form the basis for our relationship with gravity and space. They also seem to awaken our sense of self and “the other”. The developmental movement patterns form a base line for much of who and what we become as adults – the way we stand and move, the way we relax and maybe even trust (or not!), possibly even the way we interact and react – to stress and love, whether we enjoy new experiences or prefer to hold on to old habits… The foundations are laid in our infancy and childhood. Time of the developmental movement patterns.

So, many of the Pilates moves remind me of the developmental movement patterns. Could Pilates therefore help us to re-engage with these developmental patterns, maybe even potentiate change and rehabilitation?

I can’t answer that for sure but let me explain some of the developmental movement patterns in more detail. They are, of course, much more complex but this little introduction to one of them, the yield-and-push, reach-and-pull cycle, might give you an idea of how they might relate to Pilates.

Our first movements in infancy are based on reflexes: reflexes that allow babies to respond without using intellect or an awareness of self. Reflexes are plentiful: they initially underlie the movements of the head, tail, spine, arms and legs, extension and flexion, sideways, rotation. All initiated by reflexes.

Babies also respond to gravity – they yield. This yielding brings a sense of safety and of being one with the world. In Pilates, if we let it happen, our first contact with the mat is a yielding.

Soon (I’m back to infants now), babies start to move – but not like adults.

Babies push into the floor and their bodies respond by lifting away from that floor. They develop their bodies and muscles this way: Yield and push develops the muscles of stabilisation. By informing our pressure receptors in the extremities yield-and-push triggers the reflex activation of our muscles of stabilisation even in later life. It is the basis of closed-chain exercises, used in rehabilitation and found in Pilates and Yoga (see footnote).

Yield and push also develops our brain: initially in babies there is no awareness of self versus the other. Babies are still one with the world. They might already respond to stimulation from others, say their mothers and fathers. The push, however, is starting to inform their brains and nervous systems that there is a difference between them and the floor. Babies push the floor and their bodies move as a result of that push. This establishes a sense of self versus the other: an understanding that the floor is a different entity from “self”. Yield and push – the comfort of being at ease with the other but at the same time also being different: your own person, separate, establishing boundaries.

Yield and push. In Pilates much of our work is based on this. It is very obvious in the apparatus work, in particular the work with the reformer: we push our legs into the bar and our body on the movable platform moves! It is less obvious in our mat classes unless the teacher cues this well – but it is definitely there, underlying our movements.

The next pattern is reach and pull. This pattern is linked to the urge to fulfil our desires and needs. This pattern/intention leads babies to creep and crawl and eventually even walk. It is also a pattern of risk-taking: the more we reach out the more we risk losing our balance. But that’s all part of our experience.

In Pilates many of our moves have “a reach” intention, think of the extensions for our legs and arm on the abdominal “series of five”, for example. For a more obvious reach-and-pull, think of the work with ropes, slings or straps on the reformer or even more so the work on the Cadillac. In Pilates this reach is well supported so we can reach safely without risking loss of balance.

Yield-and-push and reach-and-pull together form a cycle. A cycle that informs our bodies, our muscles of stabilisation and our connective tissue and ligaments. A cycle that also informs our minds: Reach-and-pull feels energizing and expanding, yield-and-push more calming, supportive and strengthening. Together they form a complete cycle. Reach-and-pull without the yield-and-push feels unsupported and can be exhausting in the long term whilst the yield-and-push without the reach-and-pull can feel heavy and lack energy. Together it’s a complete cycle – a cycle of fulfilment. A cycle we can re-discover and re-explore in Pilates. Maybe the suggested requisite to happiness…


This piece, like my last blog on the Curves of the Spine, was strongly informed by my training in Body Mind Centering®, especially the modules on infant development. 

I am also grateful to all those other teachers who are so generously sharing their knowledge on Pilates and the mind: Ruth Baker whose blogs regularly appear on this website; Christine Rutter, a psychologist and Pilates instructor, who is sharing her insights on client communication skills in workshops and finally the inspirational Karin Locher who opened my eyes to the first generation teacher Mary Bowen, a psychologist and Pilates instructor who developed “Pilates plus psyche”.

If you are interested in finding out more about Body Mind Centering®, including their trainings which happen all over the world, look at For the UK, look at Kat is also am running regular short workshops and classes for qualified movement teachers (Pilates, Yoga, gym instructors etc). You can also book her for workshops directly. Contact her to find out more or for any questions.

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Posted by on Sep 18, 2013 in Anatomy & Physiology, Featured, Pilates | 0 comments

Pilates – Method For a Healthy Spine, a Healthy Nervous System and a Fulfilled Life

Pilates – Method For a Healthy Spine, a Healthy Nervous System and a Fulfilled Life

Pilates and developmental movement – the curvatures of the spine from birth to walking by Katharina Hesse ©

This piece is really just another look at Pilates and the spine. And yet it is also a piece about much more than that.

You might wonder whether there is really anything else that can be shared on this topic. Well, there is Joseph’s rather controversial sentence about bringing us back to “the straight spine” found in a baby.

Now this is controversial. These days we know that the curves of the spine are vital for standing and for locomotion. Those curves support us perfectly when sitting, standing, walking or running. And I am not arguing with that.

But here are my thoughts: Joseph had a point when he suggested we should look at the spine of a baby. Of course he wasn’t quite spot on with his comment that a baby’s spine is straight. Far from it: a baby’s spine is actually flexed. We are reminded of that fact in anatomy books as those parts of the spine that remain in flexion throughout our lives – the thoracic, sacral and coccyx – are generally referred to as primary curves, whilst those parts of the spine that are extended – the lumbar and cervical spines – are referred to as secondary curves. They are the curves that develop after birth.

Babies are curled up in the womb and are born with a flexed spine. So this is our primary curvature: flexion! Babies cuddle their heads and tailbones and bodies into their mothers, the floor, blankets… Flexion is cosy. Flexion is really our first experience of being in the world and it’s a good one. It gives a sense of comfort, of being at one with ourselves. It allows us to sink into the floor, into gravity and be completely relaxed and at ease. Babies that don’t experience this state tend not to be healthy babies. A lot of Pilates is about flexion. And the majority of our clients (I am excluding those with a herniated disc that bulges out at the back and a few other conditions) really enjoy flexion.

Flexion allows us to withdraw into our selves. It is relaxing. Flexion seems to activate the parasympathetic nervous – so we feel calm. Have you ever noticed how people can arrive all stressed out to a Pilates session and then find themselves feel calm and relaxed in no time at all?

So flexion – the spinal curvature of the baby – is nice. However, in flexion, we don’t interact with our environment very much. Think again of a baby, lying on its stomach in flexion. It can’t see anything. When it hears something and it wants to find out what it is, it will need to react by lifting its head. So this is the beginning of the first secondary curve, that of the cervical spine, our necks.

Interest in the outside world inspires this first extension.

There are many more steps before we fully develop the lumbar curve: we start to play with gravity: we push our arms into the floor which builds up the muscles of the thorax – that is the upper spine that supports the ribcage – and arms. Then we push our legs into the floor which helps us build the muscles of the lower spine, the pelvis and the legs. Then we become more interested in things further away from us and, if we have enough intention to get to them, we start to creep and then to crawl – important steps in developing the spinal curves and to develop the muscles that support movement. We come to sitting – our range of interaction is now much bigger. We can now see well beyond what we could see when we lay on the floor! And then, finally we rise up and walk. At first we still fall a lot on our bums (they are big and padded, no problem for us at that stage!) but then our spine becomes more stable and its curves and the muscles of the whole body support our explorations of the world!

So those curves of the spine that are extended – the cervical and the lumbar spine, the secondary curves – result from outside stimulation, from interest in what is happening and a wish to interact with the outside environment and from our deep urge and intention to move. Movement not for its own sake, to be fit or slim – but a real urge to see, hear or smell and to get somewhere, to reach out for something we want or need.

Many of the Pilates exercises work through these developmental stages. Pilates is a great way of experiencing flexion and extension, of reconnecting with the development of the spine and of reconnecting with a healthy spine and a healthy nervous system (our central nervous system is located in the spine). Most of all, however, Pilates suggested that his method was just a way to ensure we could engage with life. To live! Hence the title of his book “Return to Life through Contrology”. To me that really fits well with the development of the curves of our spine. So Pilates, combined with developmental movement patterns, really seems like a great way to reconnect with life.

There is obviously a lot more to be said about Pilates, the spine and about developmental movement patterns but this is just a little taster into how our spine develops from birth. Next time you see a baby have a look. It’s worth it. And it might be your next generation of clients – or your next Pilates teacher!

This piece was strongly informed by my studies of Body Mind Centering ®, especially the trainings on infant development. I am running regular workshops for qualified movement teachers (Pilates, Yoga, gym instructors etc). You can also book me for workshops directly. Contact me to find out more.

If you are interested in finding out more about Body Mind Centering, including their trainings which happen all over the world, look at For the UK, look at

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Posted by on Sep 6, 2013 in Anatomy & Physiology, Featured, Pilates | 0 comments

Pilates and the Lymphatic System – Boosting Immunity

Pilates and the Lymphatic System – Boosting Immunity

Legend has it that Joseph Pilates invented some of his machines when he was interned on the Isle of Man where he is said to have exercised his fellow prisoners. Health conditions were bad and yet – according to Pilates legend – none of the prisoners fell sick during the infamous flu epidemic. So could taking a Pilates class improve immunity? Is this yet another reason for starting regular classes before all those autumn and winter infections?

Joseph Pilates emphasised blood circulation (for “bodily house cleaning”) and breath (squeezing out “every atom of old air”). This certainly goes well with our modern understanding of the immune system:

Part of our immune system is the lymphatic system. Understanding this system is becoming increasingly important, not just for your normal immune system but also for autoimmune diseases and especially if you work in post-surgery rehabilitation, say post breast cancer, where there is a risk of lymphoedema, that is, swelling of a limb caused by problems in lymphatic drainage. So I’ll explain this system in a little more detail for those who are interested.

Lymph is a fluid, like blood or interstitial fluid. As a matter of fact, these fluids are all related. Blood is simply fluid that contains red blood cells and circulates through our arteries and veins. The red blood cells are designed to bind and then slowly release oxygen which our cells need for their metabolism. Apart from oxygen, cells also need other nutrients. This is delivered via the interstitial fluid. Interstitial fluid is just a colourless fluid that is part of blood but at some stage seeps out of the same arteries that carries the blood – as a matter of fact, you can think of interstitial fluid as blood without the red blood cells and a fluid that is full of nutrients for the cells. This fluid is found all over the body, bathing the cells in nutrients – imagine it like a bath with nourishing oil for the skin. And like bathwater, this fluid gets “dirty” after a while. This “dirt” is produced by the cells during their normal metabolism. It is potentially toxic and needs to be removed to keep the cells healthy and also to allow fresh interstitial fluid – the stuff full of nutrients – to re-enter the space. The “old” fluid – the fluid that is now full of toxins – is lymph. So lymph needs to be removed and ideally cleaned of toxins. So how does that happen?

Lymph gets transported away through a network of lymphatic vessels that run parallel to the arteries and veins. These vessels transport the lymph back to the thoracic ducts (situated by the collarbones) where the cleaned up lymph – the toxins are filtered out in the lymphatic nodes which are found all over the body and the lymph passes through on its way back to the thoracic ducts – is released back into the blood stream. This is important – imagine if this fluid just stayed put: swollen areas full of lymph but also blood that became less and less fluid. The filtration though the lymph nodes is also important as otherwise the toxins would just re-enter the blood stream.shutterstock_52099303-270x300

So lymph is transported in the lymphatic vessels.But here lies a potential problem –  but also the reason why Pilates might be a good therapeutic intervention for the lymphatic system: unlike the cardiovascular system, the lymphatic system hasn’t got a pump (the heart is the pump for the cardiovascular system) so it relies on two things to move lymph: movement of muscles and breath. Can you see how Pilates had a point when he talked about circulation and breathing to “clear the bodily house”?

And there is more: The lymphatic flow can also be inhibited by tight tissue or scarring. Pilates generally emphasises stretching and elongation, creating space rather than building dense muscle tissue. Pilates also mobilises joints where most of the lymph nodes are situated and moves the “core”, especially the area around the navel where the cysterna chyli, an important collection point for lymph, is situated. Most importantly for me, Pilates is also largely carried out lying down – now I am not saying that we should lie down all day long. In real life the lymphatic system also functions when we are standing – but in a rehabilitation setting it means that lymph can flow back easier without having to work against gravity.

There is a lot more to be said about this but I shall leave it at this. Remember also that Pilates isn’t the only movement therapy that can help the lymphatic system: walking, Yoga and, in fact, all gentle movement is beneficial. Gentle is really quite important for anyone with a compromised lymphatic system – not a normal healthy person but anyone post-surgery, for example: increased blood flow also means increased lymph, so if the lymphatic system is already overburdened exercises that brings more blood to an area might just overload the lymphatic system and cause more swelling. The same applies to heavy weights – so leave off those extra springs for anyone with a compromised lymphatic system!

So any gentle movement that works muscles and improves breathing is good for your lymph – a walk to the pub might do it, minus the alcohol which unfortunately is toxin for the lymphatic system! But maybe this article has inspired you to take a Pilates class before you make your way to the pub. It might just be the thing you need to help your lymphatic flow and stimulate your immune system. Let’s hope you survive this winter without a sniffle…..

I am running regular workshops for qualified movement teachers (Pilates, Yoga, gym instructors etc) on working with anyone affected by cancer and a compromised lymphatic system (independent teachers as well as those working for the NHS). If you are interested to find out more, contact me

by Katharina (Kat) Hesse ©

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Posted by on Jun 10, 2013 in Body & Mind, Featured, Health, Pilates, Stress | 0 comments

Worry Line Between Your Brows? Try Pilates Instead of Botox

Worry Line Between Your Brows? Try Pilates Instead of Botox

By Katharina Hesse ©

Ever noticed how Pilates teachers are quite obsessed with the pelvic floor? (Yes, this blog is about wrinkles, just read on and I’ll get to them eventually….)

An active pelvic floor helps posture and posturally-related pains, such as back and even shoulder pain, improves continence and – dare I say it? – can help sexual pleasure (and performance in men – if a study published some years ago in the British Medical Journal is anything to go by). However, an overly tight pelvic floor over long periods of time can lead to tension in the hips and other parts of the body, negatively affect posture and walking patterns, distort breathing, possibly cause pelvic pain and pain during intercourse, digestive problems and, in the long term, might even lead to a prolapse. Much of this is documented by people such as Leon Chaitow, a highly respected body worker and researcher, and is generally well-known in the world of Pilates. Personally, I would like to add that a chronically contracted pelvic floor might also cause wrinkles, especially that nasty diagonal one between the eye brows and possibly those gentler ones around the eyes and mouth.

How come? One of the reflex points for the pelvic floor is the area between the eyebrows, just above the bridge of your nose. The muscles around the eyes are also said to be affected by the pelvic floor action, whilst those around the mouth are supposed to be affected by the anal sphincter muscles. So working mindfully with the pelvic floor, allowing it to release as well as engage and also engaging it at only at a fraction of its capacity, say 10 or 20% instead of 100%, for most of the time might just replace that Botox treatment!

Stress, too, affects the pelvic floor (and causes worry lines in your face). In most cases stress causes the pelvic floor and the anus to contract. In cases of chronic stress this might even become a chronic contraction. However, this is not always the case. In my experience, a highly stressful situation can also evoke the opposite – a kind of collapse. So it is important to bring the pelvic floor back to its natural rhythm that supports movement and the intention to move, rather than just trying to “will” it to engage or to relax.

How can that be done?

The easiest way is through breathing. The natural movement of the pelvic floor is strongly linked to the breath. Therefore my first approach for a client with pelvic floor problems would be to teach diaphragmatic breathing, that is, let the belly expand on inhalation and the navel fall back to the spine on exhalation. I know this is not the “traditional” Pilates breath but the pelvic floor will thank you for this – and you are also getting an abdominal workout at the same time. The pelvic floor naturally contracts on the exhalation when we let the stomach fall back towards the spine and widens on the inhalation if you let the air fill the belly and the pelvic area. This last part might be a little harder for most of us but if you use your imagination you will over time notice a difference. Explore this connection by mindfully working with diaphragmatic breathing as described above. A seated position is easiest – or try it lying down if you prefer, although that is a bit harder. Apart from affecting the pelvic floor, diaphragmatic breathing with an emphasis on the exhalation is also a great way to calm down the nervous system which, in turn, should also help to release stress-related tension in the pelvic floor. Follow on by combining the diaphragmatic breath with a little movement, say a cat stretch (flexing the spine on the exhalation and extend it on the inhalation), and you’ve got a perfect workout for the pelvic floor – and might even prevent that nasty line between the eyebrows….

For more thoughts on the effects of stress on the body and how to work with it, read my blogs on the effect of stress on the neck and on stress-related eating.  Or join one of my teacher training workshops which are scheduled to run in London, Yorkshire and Suffolk throughout 2013. For more details look at my website

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Posted by on May 8, 2013 in Anatomy & Physiology, Body & Mind, Featured, Health, Pilates, Stress | 0 comments

Stress Eating? Try Pilates instead!

Stress Eating? Try Pilates instead!

Stress 2: Stress Eating? by Katharina (Kat) Hesse ©

Many of us claim that Pilates is good for stress. But is this really true?

I certainly feel it is – for quite a few reasons. One of these is our focus on the abdominal area. In Pilates we tend to focus on the muscles in this area, but spare a thought for the organs that lie beneath those muscles – the digestive system or, if you want another term, the gut.

Stress affects our gut. Ever experienced butterflies in your gut when you’ve been worried (or excited) about something? Or had a “gut feeling”about something or someone? Our gut informs us whether something feels safe or not. So it’s not surprising that stress affects our appetite. In serious situations of stress – like a wild animal chasing us – the body is programmed to stop digestive activity and focus on running away instead. No point sitting down for a picnic when you’re about to be eaten by a tiger! However, many of us crave rich foods when we are stressed. How come?

This is usually a sign of chronic, long-term stress and there are three reasons for this: one is the link of our digestive system to our nervous system, the other is the reward centre in our brain, and the third is the need for sustaining our energy levels in these long-term situations of perceived danger. Pilates can address the first two.

Our gut is closely linked to the nervous system. The nervous system has two basic states – the parasympathetic and the sympathetic state. The parasympathetic nervous system is often described as our “rest-and-digest” system and is generally equated with a relaxed state. The sympathetic nervous system is commonly described as our “fight-and-flight” system and is generally equated with a stress reaction. During extremely stressful situations, the body focuses its efforts on pure survival reactions, running away or fighting. So the blood is diverted from our gut to our muscles, enabling us to act and run or fight physically – no point arguing verbally with that tiger, although some of us are programmed to try…

Diverting blood back to the gut, on the other hand, can signal safety and comfort to the brain. A possible reason for stress eating: once there is food to digest, blood has to be diverted back to the gut. The gut becomes active and signals to the brain that it is digesting. This is done via the vagus nerve – a bi-directional communication system between the brain, heart, gut and lungs. So a happy (busy) gut tends to signal happy thoughts to the brain which in turn signals happy thoughts to the body. The gut also produces serotonin, a neurotransmitter that many of us know from all those pharmaceutical drugs promising never-ending happiness. So there are many reasons for focusing on our gut during our Pilates session. It might just signal happiness to our brain.

Now you’d be right in thinking that exercise diverts blood to the muscles. However, when we work mindfully and focus on the digestive tract instead of the muscles, we can also activate the organs that underlie our abdominal muscles. And that can take most of us into a parasympathetic state.

Try something like this: In a semi-supine position (lying on your back, knees bent), hands on your gut, start with either with slow and deep breaths into this area or a gentle self massage. Hands still on that area, proceed to very slow pelvic rocks (rocking the pelvis to your nose and away) and curls (small “bridges”: curling the spine up from the floor, feeling each bone moving away and releasing back down on the floor) – all with a heightened awareness of the gut moving (the gut is also attached to the spine via connective tissue so moving the spine also moves the gut). This work often already starts a happy gurgling noise in our guts – great, now the digestive system is signalling that it is active! Proceed to slow and gentle (!!!) abdominal work, still with your hands on your navel. Your awareness still needs to be on the gut moving rather than the muscles – so not too much of that “neutral spine” focus at this stage please as that immobilises this area and can (although doesn’t always have to) signal tension. And that’s what we are trying to avoid. Once the gut is active and happy, you can proceed to bigger and more energising abdominal work which will activate the reward centre in the brain. Now everything is signalling contentment and happiness in your body, from your gut to your brain and from your brain to your gut.

The fridge can wait!

I cover the above and much else in my stress workshop training. If you want to know more about stress and the neck, read my blog Stress – a Pain in the Neck. For a great article about food and stress, read

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