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 onkat@rhythmoflife.org.uk 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 athttp://www.bodymindcentering.com. For the UK, look at www.embody-move.co.uk

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.