During my Pilates classes this term I've been focusing on the principle of opposition. Pilates teaches us to create strength in our body firstly by opposing gravity. Standing tall is an example of this. There's a reason that I'm always saying, "Reach the crown of your head to the ceiling!". Pilates elder, Lolita San Miguel spoke of a gold string attached to a helium balloon above your head. Using this elegant imagery, she said:
"You are not crunching down in the torso. You are
resisting gravity, which is what we are trying to do. We are trying to resist the downward pull of gravity. Axial elongation; lifting through this string."
-Lolita San Miguel.
Beyond finding strength by lifting up against gravity, we can also become stronger through opposing movements within our own bodies. This means that we are building strength by lengthening through the body at the same time as we are avoiding compression.
Let's focus on spine stretch forward. We start sitting tall - lengthening the head away from the floor. At this point we are opposing gravity. Then we begin to round the spine forward from the head downwards. However, we don't allow the middle and lower spine to simply follow the head. Instead, we pull the abdominals back in opposition as we reach the spine and arms forward (illustrated by the arrows below). Now we are opposing the forward reach of the upper back, arms and head. This requires much more effort and mindfulness compared to a simple forward fold where we submit to gravity and (assuming that we have sufficient flexibility) rest into the stretch. The result is a more even stretch through the back and the use of opposing muscles to improve flexibility with control.
Another example would be the spine curl. As the pelvis rotates posteriorly, it invites the ribcage to rotate anteriorly. Instead, by rotating the ribcage also posteriorly, the spine lengthens (straightens) and the movement becomes even more active! Even though we aren't working against gravity to reach the crown of the head, it is lengthening away in the opposite direction to the feet and hands.
There is opposition in every Pilates exercise and bringing attention to it adds an extra dimension of effectiveness and mindfulness to the whole system. Indeed, without some conscious opposition, you may find the foundational exercises to be ineffective and the intermediate/advanced exercises to be impossible. Working with opposition will give you the strength and control to bridge the gap. So next time you do Pilates, I'd like you to think to yourself, "As I move here, what is opposing the movement?" Feel how it changes the sensations within your body and have fun with it!
Fitness and Pilates instructor with a passion for science.