One of the first concepts to successfully master Pilates is understandingcentering.
In correct centering we start with the deepest, intrinsic muscles of the spine, such the multifidus. The multifidus is a series of muscles connected to the spine. We lengthen and strengthen the spinal muscles through flexion, extension, rotation and lateral flexion. Our natural curves of the spine are supported and we stack our vertebrae correctly in order to achieve our neutral spine.
Once we have neutral spine, we engage our pelvic floor. Our pelvic floor is exactly that – a boundary that supports the muscles and organs contained within our abdominal cavity. If our pelvic floor is weak, gravity and poor posture strains the muscles and organs in the abdominal cavity.
The diaphragm separates the thoracic cavity from the abdominal cavity. It has many uses, such as enabling thoracic breathing. It also connects to the ribcage and lumbar spine. These connections are essential to stabilising the torso.
And finally we have the transverse, rectus, and oblique abdominals which form the “external sheath” or major muscles of the torso. Now that the muscles for centering have been introduced, what happens next?
Our diaphragm and thoracic cavity expand and fill with air. As we exhale we gradually engage our pelvic floor and then our abdominals. This gives us a stable base for our set-up positions and to perform Pilates exercises. But how much do we engage these muscles? It depends upon the student level and the difficulty of the exercise.
Pilates Teachers sometimes teach correct muscle recruitment with the “elevator” or “lift” exercise. The pelvic floor is the basement, and the gradual increase of the abdominals is similar to moving upwards (or downwards) through floor levels, such as the ground, first and second floors. A good instructor guides students as to how low or high the recruitment should be for each exercise.
I prefer using a “dimmer switch,” with a gradual heightening or lowering of muscular recruitment. I guide students by referring to a dim to full light and the stages in between. But that’s not the only reason why I prefer using a dimmer switch.
Discovering and managing our centre is not just about muscular control. Sometimes students have little body awareness or none at all. Mastering the breath, pelvic floor and abdominal muscles requires concentration, which in turn will assist relaxation, even during the earliest and initial Pilates classes. As students become more proficient at centering and in the exercises, their minds and bodies become fully engaged.
This mind and body alignment is truest light of awareness, at the highest setting of our innermost dimmer switch.