I FEEL LIKE A PLAYFUL ARTIST: CURIOUS AND COMMIT TED, SILLY YET INTENTIONAL. Pilates, as I originally learned it from Dorothee Vandewalle and continue to be dedicated to, is a rich system, offering clarity, structure and ample room for creativity and growth. Our Pilates practice gives us something to lean into throughout seasons of change, leaving ourselves and then returning home to ourselves.
Chinese Medicine is like this, too. It’s an art—a healing art that connects our bodies to our emotions and our spirit. A philosophy that serves as a guide for the ongoing journey of self-becoming. As a practicing acupuncturist at my studio, Clasique, I love weaving these two modalities together. I also bring this integration to CoreSelf, my online membership site.
The Five Elements of Chinese Medicine act as a lens to our growth and invite us to build a deeper connection to the Pilates system, both as a practitioner and an instructor. You know where to begin and how to grow roots, how to progress a workout and appropriately challenge, when to go big and where to find the rungs on the ladder to do really hard things. You practice how to meet a client where they are and adapt. You have flexibility yourself. And with your client you have resonance. In the moment of teaching, you have presence. At your core you have skill, integration, knowing. In your practice you feel nourished and lit up.
The additional intentionality of the Five Element framework reminds us of what we know to be true: how we do anything is how we do everything. Our presence, play and attunement to our own practice is something we take with us into all aspects of our life. I find this exciting! As a Pilates practitioner I tune into a conversation with my body; my workout is a moving meditation to quiet my own mind. Pilates becomes a practice that fuels the authentic fire of my own spirit.
I invite you to open your mind into the metaphors of growth and evolution and how they connect to Pilates exercises. Try and feel into the distinct seasons of nature and the life cycle of a plant, allowing this vantage point to light up new meaning within your movement.
The Five Elements, Explained
The Five Element wheel is the cycle of life, from seed to sprout to flower to fruit to rot and finally to seed again; the end is the beginning and around we go. In our Pilates practice and our teaching, this is like our own cycle of growth, learning, evolving and staying connected to ourselves. By tuning in this way, we honor the seasons in nature, the seasons in our own lives, and the different energetics along the process of becoming who we are, again and again. Read on for more on the significance of the Elements—and where to seek them out in your Pilates practice.
WHAT IT SIGNIFIES IN CHINESE MEDICINE: The most yin of all, Water corresponds to winter, a quiet and restorative time of year. In the life cycle of a plant, it’s a seed deep in the soil, filled with potential and a powerful essence waiting to grow roots and branches.
HOW IT RELATES TO OUR PILATES PRACTICE: It’s the basic material and the fundamental principles. The essence of our workout and our deep, true core and spine connection.
WHAT IT SIGNIFIES IN CHINESE MEDICINE: Wood aligns with spring, a time of growth and change. The Wood is the sprout coming up out of the ground with courage and flexibility on its creative path to becoming a tree.
HOW IT RELATES TO OUR PILATES PRACTICE: It’s how we grow, stretch, bend, get stronger and take up space. It’s the intermediate material and all the bending, twisting and hip work.
WHAT IT SIGNIFIES IN CHINESE MEDICINE: Not surprisingly, Fire corresponds to summer, the most yang and bright time of year. Think of it as the flowers on the big, bold trees—upward, radiant and expansive.
HOW IT RELATES TO OUR PILATES PRACTICE: Fire points to the expansive work, filled with backbends, inversions and smiles. The advanced Pilates material is very fiery, made possible because of the steps of growth from Water to Wood and then to Fire.
WHAT IT SIGNIFIES IN CHINESE MEDICINE: The Earth element corresponds to the harvest season, between summer and autumn. This is a time of richness and fullness, where flowers have become fruit and the garden is abundant. We feel a sense of contentment prior to descending into winter.
HOW IT RELATES TO OUR PILATES PRACTICE: Our dedication to and ownership of our movement makes us feel full and abundant from the inside out.
WHAT IT SIGNIFIES IN CHINESE MEDICINE: Autumn, when the leaves are falling off the trees, the fruit is rotting and the transition from summer (yang) to winter (yin) is omnipresent. It’s a time of release in nature, as the trees become bare and the air cool and crisp.
HOW IT RELATES TO OUR PILATES PRACTICE: It’s when we are mindful of our breath, precision, letting go and stripping away back down to essentials.
The Water Element captures the fundamentals of your practice. It’s about building deep powerhouse connections, lower-spine freedom and a solid sense of growing deep roots. Like a seed with so much concentrated potential, connecting to the Water Element brings us closer to our true selves and the “why” of our movement practice. It’s how we connect to our own authenticity.
The Fundamentals of the Mat
BEGIN WITH HALF ROLL-DOWNS LEARN WHAT IT MEANS TO ACTIVATE THE POWERHOUSE, and the difference between pulling in and pushing out. This is what we mean by “scooping”—engaging our energy (our qi) in toward our center, our core selves. We discover that the powerhouse is more than abdominals: It’s the muscles above, below and wrapping around our entire midsection, from the hamstrings and glutes to the lats and serratus.
COME INTO YOUR FRAME AND CALL ON YOUR ARMS. Find where you are in space, then use your arms to deeply turn on your whole powerhouse and create opposition in your movement. You’ll find that your spine is already gaining in flexibility through all this connection.
TRY WORKING EVEN HARDER BY HOLDING ON. Press into your legs and press your legs out into your arms during the foundational movements—including Half Roll-Down, Single- Leg Stretch and Single Straight-Leg Stretch— creating dynamic action that lights up the powerhouse (almost as if you are the Magic Circle). The arms instantly connect to the back, the legs connect to the waist and the whole body comes alive.
WITH SINGLE-LEG STRETCHES, THE ARMS ARE A RESOURCE THAT CAN BE SO USEFUL, helping you deepen the matwork and connect throughout your entire body. It’s especially helpful for people journeying through diastasis recti, recovering from an injury or feeling low back vulnerable or very stiff, beginners who are having a hard time “finding” their core and even athletes who tend to power through with big muscles rather than subtle, deeper engagement. As you move through Single-Leg Stretch and Single Straight-Leg Stretch (the entire Stomach Series, for that matter), never release the powerful connection of the arms engaged into the outside of the upper thighs. Stay turned on!
REALLY USE YOUR BACK CONNECTION, rather than your chest or shoulders, when engaging your arms. Don’t forget the lateral, side connection of your powerhouse—turn it on, too.
Spine-Stretch Forward on the Chair
SPRING SETTING 1 middle
SPINE-STRETCH FORWARD IS HARD TO TEACH! It can feel illusive for us and for our clients. “You want me to do what? Lift? Or round? Which one? Not my arms?” Exactly. Yes. I want you to lift and round and avoid using your arms for power and release the grip of your quads— but, yes, engage the lift from your seat and round (but not too round because now your neck is all kinked up) and press the pedal (but not all the way) and pull in deeper still and smile (because this is fun). Wait, are you breathing?
SPINE STRETCH 1
SPINE STRETCH 2
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