By Kathy Corey
When I began teaching Pilates in 1979, the idea of mind /body exercise was a foreign concept. In the early 1980’s, I was writing for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate and tried to include the mind /body philosophy into my weekly column. My editors thought I must have lost my mind. There was no such thing as mind/body exercise. Exercise was exercise, and simply measured by as many sit-ups as you could do in a minute or by your number of push-ups.
By 1993, the mind/body concept was getting some consideration from the fitness world. “We can look forward to calmer workouts that massage the soul. The bodies of the future will be hard bodies with soft edges,” says T. George Harris, founder of American Health Magazine, “because fitness is moving into a broader context which includes the softer aspects of life -- fitness of mind, fitness of the aesthetic, even fitness of spirituality.”
Today, mind/body is a mass marketplace. From health products to exercise programs to music, food and the environment it is everywhere. And, Pilates stands as a leader among the mind /body programs. We should be pleased with this advancement – shouldn’t we? If we examine the mind/body connection, we may just discover that “they” were right in the first place. There is no such thing as mind/body. The simple separation of the terms undermines its connection and separates the wholeness that is Pilates. We cannot be a mind without a body or a body without a mind. We are the mind body connection. If we separate them by words, we lose sight of body, mind, spirit. Though we don’t have a word for it, Pilates is living the body, mind, spirit experience. We have come such a long way, but we still have more to explore. We should not lose sight that we are continuously learning both physically and mentally.
So how do we bridge the gap between our psychology and our physiology? We can explore the possibilities through embodiment. Embodiment is the way in which psychology arises from the brain’s and body’s physiology. The brain and body exist together so intrinsically that medical science is devoting an immense amount of research to the subject. The Cleveland Clinic and their Center for Integrative Medical Clinical Practices offers services though the Healing Arts Program that harnesses the power to use the mind to influence some of the body’s physiological processes including heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing. They say the mind can minimize the negative effects and maximize the healing aspects of the mind/body connection.
And, Contrology bridges the gap. Joseph Pilates wrote in Return to Life in 1945, “Contrology is the complete coordination of body, mind and spirit. Through Contrology you first purposefully acquire complete control of your own body and then through proper repetition of its exercises you gradually and progressively acquire that natural rhythm and coordination associated with all your subconscious activities. This true rhythm and control is observed both in domestic pets and wild animals—without known exceptions. The brain itself is actually a sort of natural telephone switchboard exchange incorporated in our bodies as a means of communication through the sympathetic nervous system to all our muscles.”
While Joseph Pilates did not have today’s scientific data, he was on the same path as the current research. The University Medical Center at the University of Rochester has been researching the body/mind connection headed by neurobiologist David Felton. The Rochester group has documented the ways in which the brain sends signals to the immune system. The receptors on the surface of the immune-system cells act as keyholes to accept chemical neurotransmitters released by the nervous system. They are also identifying new “keys”, neurotransmitters that talk to the cells of the immune system. A stimulus such as emotional stress can trigger the release of the nerve-fiber chemicals, which then tell the immune-system cells what to do. Dr. Felten says that other systems in the body are undoubtedly also connected in this way – that there are countless “players”, as he calls them, in the human body, together creating a virtual telephone network of transmitters and receptors.
“Our grandmothers knew all along that our minds and bodies were connected, even if the scientific community didn’t,” says Dr. Felten. “We’ve simply provided irrefutable data that it’s true.”
Joseph Pilates would have agreed with our grandmothers. “By reawakening thousands and thousands of otherwise ordinarily dormant cells, Contrology correspondingly reawakens thousands and thousands of dormant brain cells, thus activating new areas and stimulating further the functioning of the mind. No wonder then that so many persons express such great surprise following their initial experience with Contrology exercises caused by their realization of the resulting sensation of ‘uplift’.” These words come from Joseph Pilates in 1945. “It is only through Contrology that the unique trinity of a balanced body, mind and spirit can ever be attained.”
But what is the spirit of Pilates? With most religions or other disciplines, the spirit is defined for us and contained in the program. With Pilates, we have no preconceived notions of the spirit of our work. We have a blank slate to explore our passion for our work and have the spirit of Pilates be as unique as our programs. We have the opportunity to define our own spirit of our work, individually and connect communally. We can embrace one another in this spirit so we are free to discover our individual sensation of “uplift” and grow creatively.
And, in this spirit, for this conference and as a lesson in life, we can put away our teachers’ hats and open our minds—like the mind of a child without judgment or preconceived notions—to learn as a novice in order to gain the wisdom and knowledge of a master. This is how we will embody Pilates.
In 1979, we did not have acceptance of body, mind and spirit in the exercise world. As it grew to become popular and mainstream, we have discovered how it applies to all aspects of life. We have not come full circle, but have moved on to the next level in the spiral of learning. The spiral of learning takes us to embodiment. Embodiment looks not to the duality of mind/body but to mind and body being fused into a single being. Embodiment binds two worlds—the world of substance and the world of spirit. Pilates is the embodiment and unity of body, mind, and spirit.