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 athttp://www.bodymindcentering.com. For the UK, look at www.embody-move.co.uk. 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 onkat@rhythmoflife.org.uk to find out more or for any questions.

Post Author: Katharina Hesse

Katharina (Kat) Hesse teaches Pilates, Yoga and Somatics and is also a medical herbalist. Kat started her movement teaching career as a Pilates instructor. Early on she realized that she needed to adapt the work quite extensively to suit her clients’ needs. Working extensively with cancer at that time, she co-developed programmes for post-surgery rehabilitation that she taught to Pilates instructors and NHS exercise referral instructors amongst others. She then became increasingly interested in the benefits of movement in emotional recovery and has recently developed a teacher training workshop on stress. Kat enjoys the playful and creative nature of working with movement to support healing on many levels. Kat divides her time between Suffolk and London. Her website is www.rhythmoflife.org.uk. You can contact her on kat@rhythmoflife.org.uk or telephone 01728 638604.