By Frank Jesse
Many people ask me about the practice of Pilates, whether it is compatible or comparable with Iyengar yoga, and does yoga build core strength, a buzz word that now seems to pervade the fitness industry.
Pilates is a physical fitness system, developed in the early 20th century by Joseph Pilates. He created it to help soldiers injured in the First World War to regain their health by strengthening, stretching, and stabilising key muscles.
Pilates has a focus on ‘the core’, which the Pilates Fitness Institute describes as the ‘powerhouse’ of your body. They describe the core as the area between your shoulders and your pelvis (without your arms and legs), encompassing all the muscles within this area. Specifically, Pilates exercises focus on the transverse abdominis (front and side stomach muscles), pelvic floor (controlling bladder and bowel) and multifidus muscles (back muscles).
What’s the difference?
While yoga and Pilates both promote flexibility, strength and better balance, yoga is fundamentally different.
Yoga is over 5000 years old and its primary purpose as stated in the Yoga sutras of Patanjali is to quieten the constant turning or chattering of the mind. In Iyengar yoga the asanas, pranayama (control of the breath), asanas and dhyana (meditation) are used as a vehicle to focus our mind in the present moment.
In all the asanas, our attention is on the whole body, and learning to integrate muscular action from the base.
If we do Tadasana (mountain pose), for example, we engage the “core muscles”, by standing upright, but most importantly we learn to observe and work from the base of our pose, adjusting our muscular action to create space, lightness and balance through correct alignment.
“ In an asana, the mind has to reach inside the body to find a quiet space until a point comes where perfect balance is felt” ～ Geeta Iyengar
However strengthening the “core ” in yoga is not a priority or focus in yoga. In Iyengar yoga it is considered far more important that we learn to align our body correctly by building an understanding of the foundation and its relationship to the rest of the body, through repeated practice and observation. In fact, focusing on the core alone or placing more value on a particular muscle group can be detrimental, creating an imbalance in our muscular developement. To stand upright or to sit well, needs more than core strength but rather needs an understanding of the muscles of the hips, legs and feet and their relationship to the trunk, neck and head.
If someone has problems arising from very weak abdominal muscles, or other muscles in the core, the practice of yoga will strengthen them over time.
In the standing poses strong legs and abductor (inner thigh) muscles are very important, because when we consciously lift and activate them, our core muscles (the muscles of our trunk) are able to almost effortlessly engage, thus creating lightness and a sense of equanimity in the pose.
With Iyengar yoga, first we learn the standing poses, learning to lift up and balance, which increase our strength, flexibility and inner awareness. The standing asanas incorporate to some degree, forward bends, inversions, twists and backbends and thus lay the groundwork for the other groups of asanas. Backbends stretch the abdominals and strengthen the back muscles. Asanas such as Bakasana (Crane pose) engage and strengthen our abdominals as well as fully stretching our back muscles. Twist both strengthen and stretch the muscles of the trunk as well as toning the abdominal organs.
One of the most important and powerful aspects of Iyengar Yoga is the balance of action and reflection. We do not just do the asana but we observe and monitor the effects of our actions on our physical, mental and spiritual well being. The asanas then become a laboratory to look inwards and develop insight. Without reflection our asanas become mechanical and habitual.
Is yoga enough or do I need to incorporate other forms of exercise such as Pilates for back problems and other ailments?
Of course, as an Iyengar practitioner and teacher, I believe that yoga is the ultimate practice to strengthen not just our muscles, but our emotional and spiritual resilience. Iyengar yoga is a holistic approach that is suitable for all ages and can be tailored to suit different needs and abilities. There are sequences that can help with any number of ailments and many Iyengar Yoga schools offer therapy or individual lessons for students unable to attend a normal class. Many physical ailments including back ache stem from bad posture. Yoga practiced consistently and with awareness changes the way we stand, sit and move, improving our posture and overall sense of well being.
“By persistent and sustained practice, anyone and everyone can make the yoga
journey and reach the goal of illumination and freedom.” BKS Iyengar.
The debate between Pilates and yoga advocates is not an irrelevant one: there are fundamental differences. I’ve heard it said that Pilates is more concerned with appearance, while yoga is more concerned with the feeling from within. That might be selling Pilates short, but it is certainly true of yoga.
Try this standing pose sequence to improve your understanding of foundation and its relationship to core strength.
1) Tadasana -Mountain pose
In Tadasana and the following asanas observe the energetic relationship between the foundation of the feet,the legs and the rest of the body and how this effects your state of mind. For instance if the legs are dull, your sense of perception will be cloudy.
2) Vrksasana - Tree pose.
Can you maintain the lift and balance you had in Tadasana while you are standing on one leg? Maintain the alignment of of the pelvis and spine with the standing leg. Commonly in this pose students tilt their pelvis forward due to tight hip flexor and weak extensor muscles.
3) Utkatasana - Chair pose.
While this pose requires much more effort than Tadasana, can you maintain the lift of the trunk, chest and arms through engaging the legs, especially the inner thighs? Notice as you press firmly through the heels and draw the tailbone down and forward the greater sense of freedom with which the arms extend up.
4) Utthita Trikonasana - Triangle pose
Try doing this pose with your back to a wall to help align your trunk and legs correctly. Observe the interrelationship between pressing through the inner edge of the front foot and the extension of the upper arm.
5) Parivrtta Trikonasana- Rotated triangle pose
After stabilising the feet and legs, observe the acton of the abdominal muscles and lower back muscles as you rotate your chest and extend your arm up. For more stability place the back of your heel to the wall with a small support under heel if necessary. (Note this is not a beginners pose and shouldn’t be practiced if pregnant or menstruating.)
6) Utthita Parsvakonasana - Extended side angle stretch.
Observe how having your back heel to a wall stabilises the back leg, helping to open the chest. Unless the chest is opened away from the back leg, it is very difficult to rotate the chest to the ceiling and extend the arm over the head.
7) Virabhadrasana 1 - Warrior 1 pose.
Warrior one pose is certainly a challenge pose for beginners and experienced students alike. For stiffer calf muscles and for stability, support your back foot against on wall or use a small block under your heel. Before bending the front leg, align your pelvis so your pubis is directly facing your front foot, and adjust your pelvis to neutral by drawing the tailbone down and forwards. Then, as you bend your front leg, stabilise your pelvis by resisting your tailbone forward and maintaining the upward lift of the spine and chest. Remain firmly anchored through the back leg.
8) Virabhadrasana 2 - Warrior 2 pose.
This pose can be practiced with your back to a wall to align the trunk and legs, or with your back foot to a wall to stabilise your back leg and help maintain the vertical alignment of the trunk. A common mistake is to lean or sink into the bent leg side.
9) Parsvottanasana - Intense side stretch
Align the hips so that your pubis faces the forward foot’s big toe and your tailbone is in line with the back inner heel. Keep your hips level, and observe that you maintain this alignment as you bend forwards by stabilising your legs.
10) Adho Mukha Svanasana - Downward facing dog pose
While in all the previous standing pose the feet have been the foundations, here the bodies weight is distributed between the hands and feet. Observe that the inner hand is pressing down, that your weight is distributed evenly across the balls of the feet and as you press the heels back and down you maintain the energetic lift through the arms, trunk and legs.
11) Urdhva Mukha Svanasana -upward facing dog pose
Try practicing this pose with yours hand raised on two chairs and observe how Virabhadrasana 1 is related to this pose.
12) Adho Mukha Svanasana
13) Viparita Karani - Inverted lake pose.
Finish the sequence with this relaxing inversion
14) Savasana- corpse pose
Now relax completely, and observe your body at rest.
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