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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 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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Posted by on Apr 21, 2013 in Body & Mind, Pilates | 0 comments

Modifying Pilates: Pilates for Your Type

Modifying Pilates: Pilates for Your Type

Modifying Pilates: Pilates for your Type by Katharina (Kat) Hesse ©

Tailoring Pilates to our clients’ needs is not a new idea. But is this just a matter of looking at their postural and muscular deviations, or can we tailor a programme to suit their individual personalities?

Reading Sharon’s blog on Astrology and Pilates (Astrolates), I was reminded of the Galenic humoral system. This system was developed by Galen, a doctor in ancient Greece, and was widely used by the medical profession. It suggests that everyone is different so treatment for any disease has to be adjusted accordingly in order to be effective. This is not unique — we find similar systems in Chinese medicine and Ayurveda. Yoga therapists use the “doshas” with success – why don’t we?

I must admit I do – to an extent. But I wouldn’t have dared to admit it until I read Sharon’s light-hearted blog. It’s funny how we are so conditioned to be “medical”. But the idea that everyone is different and one-size-doesn’t-fit-all sits well with Pilates and also increasingly within a biomedical context. Think of the increased focus on genetics, for example. One-size-doesn’t-fit-all: We use this approach when treating muscular-skeletal problems but what about energy levels and emotional health? The same applies. I have found differentiation is vital when working with any illness or tension caused by stress, for example, where people tend to respond automatically without thinking, responding according to habit, pattern or type.

So what is the Galenic humoral system? It is based on fluids (the humours) and four elements – fire, earth, water and air. I will ignore the fluids and just concentrate on the elements to keep this brief:

A Fire person is said to be short and muscular, with a steady, firm stance, has a strong digestion, an extroverted, “fire-y” personality and gets bored quickly. As far as sport is concerned, this person is competitive, loves speed but also really appreciates discipline. Joseph Pilates a fire person? Sounds about right!

A Water person, on the other hand, is short and often pear-shaped, with a soft, slow and dragging stance. They tend to be a bit lethargic, sluggish and tend to dislike exercise – although they do like walking (or if you find a way of engaging them by understanding their personality!). Water people are completely the opposite of Fire people who want to achieve results fast. Instead, if you tell a Water person that a treatment will take a very long time they will immediately trust you and engage with you. So none of that “In 10 sessions you’ll feel the difference, in 20 sessions you’ll see the difference, and in 30 sessions you’ll have a different body” for them! I must be a bit of a Water person as I am still happily plodding along with Pilates after all those years.

An Earth person is slender and of medium height, often with a drooping neck and possibly a little melancholic. They are quite bony people and often have problems with the skeletal system. They tend to like their own company which means the inner focus of a Pilates class – possibly especially the equipment work – suits them well. Earth people are excellent at evaluating (although, like Water people, they take their time), so they will really understand the depth of our work. Try and work with the skeletal system with an Earth person and they will blossom and teach you.

The Air person tends to be slender and supple, is often tall and well proportioned. Their stance is light and restless with a springy step. They are very quick and change track a lot. An Air person needs a fixed point in their life which might be their regular Pilates slot with some predictable work. As they like change, however, make sure you change speed, emphasis or sequencing regularly to keep them engaged otherwise you’ll lose them through no fault of your own. They like sport to be sociable and entertaining, so they are the person who will organise your Christmas get-togethers.

These are obviously very brief simplifications. Also we are rarely just one type and we change somewhat with age, season and in different environments – so nothing is completely fixed. But whether you believe in this system or not, “one-size-doesn’t-fit-all” can help us to become better practitioners, helping us to create programmes truly tailored to the individual, often just by changing rhythm, focus and sequencing. Also, the more we engage with people on their terms, allow them to be who and what they are, and tailor our programmes accordingly, the more we can help them to find their own way to health and happiness. And I think that’s what we are all trying to do.

I’d like to thank Christopher Hedley, the wonderful herbalist who taught me about the humours. He runs regular workshops on the humours for herbalists, as does Tim Lane. My own workshop on stress introduces techniques for modulating personal energy levels, including rhythm and sequencing that can be applied to the Galenic system.

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Posted by on Apr 14, 2013 in Anatomy & Physiology, Body & Mind, Featured, Health, Pilates, Stress | 0 comments

Stress – A Pain In The Neck

Stress – A Pain In The Neck

Stress and discomfort seem to affect the neck more immediately than any other area. This is one of the key insights of the Alexander Technique. An important insight for Pilates teachers too as neck tension creates tension in every part of the spine. Theodore Dimon suggests that the level of tension in the sub-occipital muscles, a set of deep postural muscles at the base of the skull, informs all the extensor muscles of the spine. So a tense neck suggests a tense back.

A tense neck might also affect our mood, at least according to Doug Keller. In Ayurveda, “Kritatika” are two marma points just underneath the occipital bone on either side of the spine. Doug Keller suggests that apart from a postural role, these points bring “contentment and lubrication to the brain”. I can certainly vouch for the fact that they “bring contentment”. Whenever I work with these points in class, my clients seem to release tension almost immediately, not just in that area but also in the rest of their bodies – and possibly their minds, too, judging by the blissful look on their faces.

Lying down on their backs, I often start class by asking my clients to gently massage these points on their own necks. I then ask them to keep their thumbs on these points whilst placing their other fingers on top of their heads: A perfect position to gently move the skin of the scalp. They gently slide the skin forward, like a hood, towards their foreheads and noses, and then massage it back in a circular move, as if washing their hair. Remind them that this same skin is also covering their necks and back. This focus on the whole body usually immediately relaxes everyone’s shoulders and backs. We follow this self-massage with slow, active movement of the necks. Slow – moving like lava – so that we can still focus on the skin stretching. We flex and extend front to back and sideways. At the end we finish with some free movement, as if “untangling a delicate gold chain that is stuck between the bones”, an exercise from Anita Boser’s excellent book on undulation. I often repeat this whole sequence at the end of class and finish by letting my clients imagine that their eyes are gazing backwards at the Marma points as Doug Keller points out that some muscles in this area are also involved in the movement of the eyes.

For my clients I can certainly say that this sequence brings instant contentment – everyone relaxes immediately, however tense and stressed they were! And it affects the spine, abdominal muscles and posture so is a great preparation for class. A great sequence to release stress after teaching a class too – even for us teachers!

Recommended books: Theodore Dimon: The Body in Motion, Its Evolution and Design; Doug Keller: Yoga as Therapy, Vol One; Anita Boser: Relieve Stiffness and Feel Young again with Undulation.

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