Mindfulness meditation is a way of paying attention to what is happening in the present moment by observing what is going on. This isn’t just watching the cars go past or listening to a conversation on the train….this is about what is going on with you on the inside (thoughts, feelings and sensations) and the outside (surroundings and interactions) and being able to simply observe with and open mind and without getting hung up on anything in particular.
Mindful meditation can help to re wire the brain in a positive light, considering our brain structure changes based on how it is used. Looking at it from a physiological perspective, we know that every time you have a thought, neurons within your brain connect like a tent pole…linking the different areas within your brain together and creating emotions, feelings, memories and maybe even physical responses. When these neurons connect, and in the same way over and over again, your brain grows thicker and stronger in certain places which create stronger neural pathways. Just like how a body builder lifts weights to build stronger muscle, the more you think in a certain way (positive or negative), the stronger that part of the brain becomes.
The stress response
Many of the body’s processes happen automatically (breathing, blood pressure, pupil dilation, digestion) and are hence controlled by the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). Within the ANS, processes such as blood pressure can be affected by a stress response (fight or flight) or a calm response (rest and digest). If you become stressed, your adrenalin kicks in, breathing rate increases, your pupils dilate, and your muscles tighten. This is your fight or flight reaction and is your body’s natural response during emergency situations….but is sometimes triggered during every day stress such as work or social situations. It’s not as if you are running from a crazy bull in a paddock every day, but that can be what your body is feeling…..and it makes you feel horrible!!!
We can practice mindfulness meditation to turn off this fight or flight response and turn on our rest and digest response, which helps us to calm ourselves down and relax. Our blood pressure drops, pupils shrink, breathing rate reduces and deepens and our muscles relax. When we practice this regularly, not only does our digestion and immune response increase, but it begins to become our default response in everyday situations …..and we begin to feel great!
So…how does this tie in with pilates??
As the originally founder of pilates, Sir Joseph Pilates, once highlighted: “the goal of physical fitness is the attainment and maintenance of a well-developed body with attachment to the mind, allowing us to perform many tasks naturally, with zest and pleasure”. Pilates found that in order for correcting movement to occur, the neural connection from the brain to the muscle needed to be optimal, thereby enhancing the body’s ability to undertake correct motor sequencing. To achieve this, Pilates developed a series of movements around 5 key principles;
1. Relaxation : Undertaking exercise in a relaxed state helps to relieve stress, lower blood pressure and heart rate and lower chances potential injury whilst undertaking exercise
2. Concentration: Increased focus on movement helps to perform the movement correctly and aids in proprioception for movement sequencing.
3. Alignment: Correct alignment is required when the body is in motion to promote efficient motor patterning. Poor motor control can lead to potential injury and compensatory patterns to occur
4. Breathing: Breathing correctly can be the difference between straining to complete the exercise and completing it easily. Correct breath to movement patterning helps to reduce unnecessary tension within the body and takes pressure off key supporting structures such as the pelvic floor and diaphragm.
5. Centring: The centre of our bodies, our core, is the foundation of our movement. Becoming aware of the coordination between the core areas enables us to establish efficient movement patterns.
If you look at those above principles, you see a pattern starting to form; mindfulness is a key determinant for correction of physical movement sequencing. Having a greater sense of self, our breathing pattern, bodily sensations, our movements, posture and so on helps us to isolate the correct muscles in the correct sequence. If we strengthen not only our muscles, but our neural hardwiring of how to undertake that movement correctly, the stronger these correct neural connections within our brain and from brain to body are and the more efficient your muscles will work to undertake a movement!
Mindfulness meditation and pilates work together to not only restructure the brains connection with the body, but also the brains path of thought and response. It is the brain that controls your movement, your feelings, you interpretations, your learning…EVERYTHING! Just like with everything that you use a lot, don’t forget that sometimes it needs some maintenance done too!