By Cheryl Murphy
Although seldom mentioned, for most of us, (instructor or client) one of the “aha moments” after a few Pilates sessions may be how it gets the digestive tract up and flowing. It’s no secret that many of us struggle with the woes of the gut. But truth be told, 88% of all diseases stem from these intrinsic innards. So, how can Pilates help or are the two connected at all?
In every Pilates class whether it be Reformer, Mat, Cadillac or Chair, the key words that are constantly repeated are flow, contract and expand. If you think about it, the stomach is rejoicing with the same terms. The stomach muscles engage with the same rhythmic motions. As food enters our gut, there is expansion and contractions happening when food tries to find its way out. These movements are from muscles that help churn food with enzymes and juices. When we are full, the stomach expands but once empty, there will be deflation. So, just like a Pilates exercise, an important element of the stomach’s movement is contraction and expansion.
How Does Digestion Relate to the Pilates Regime?
The Pilates method draws a close connection from its principles – control, centering, and flow to name a few. I like to add awareness because both modalities, in movement and conscious eating, meet up.
In life and in nature, everything that includes energy is interrelated. The process of the gut is regulated by another system called the parasympathetic nervous system, the so-called “superhighway” of the communication system of the body. Once we rest and/or sleep, this particular nervous system sets up shop to check in with all organs and processes for impaired immunity.1 If the gut is impaired, then health begins to fail.
Pilates gives the system a boost with its accomplice, the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve regulates energy benefiting the body with relaxation, peace, pleasure and joy! Pilates finds the healing component that binds the mind and body with even a soulful connection. Intentional movement stimulates the nerve and assists with a better body response. Knowing how to activate muscles through movement and performing the exercise with precision and control are all very calculated through the mind. The nerve prompts the brain to focus, stemming from a neurological circuit that connects the heart and stomach region to the brain. The vagus nerve is always in conversation with the stomach.
Centering and Alignment
We are a population yearning for good posture and alignment, especially when our head, neck and shoulders are hovering over computers most of the day. According to Joseph Pilates (Return to Life), “in order for that to take place every mechanism of the body must be in perfect control.”2 Whether it’s walking, standing, or even sitting in a chair, faulty alignment can take a toll on the thoracic or lumbar vertebrae and once nerves are exasperated, they will send irregular impulses to the stomach leading to digestive issues. Subluxation of any vertebra will lead to various stomach mishaps. Contraction and expansion of the core will improve the muscles of the stomach. The lining contracts and expands, assisting the juices’ “churning effect” of the gut. Centering the core in Pilates works with isolated muscles to help organize and strengthen.
Precision and control eventually bring a flow to Pilates exercises adding grace and smooth movements, but it also allows mindfulness with breath and concentration3. Complete muscle control takes time and works better than a faster pace or force. By utilizing all principles, the body discovers fluidity. The same goes for our stomachs. Proper flow of digestion includes moving food and liquids throughout the intestines, breaking down particles that allow nutrients to be absorbed, and finding where they are needed. Nerves assist with the process of sending messages from the stomach to the brain so there is fluidity within all the mechanisms in the body. Pilates and digestion have a delicate relationship that remains subtle yet strongly connected.
With a deep connection between movement and digestion, breathing has to be mentioned. If there is a stressful event, stomach muscles will trigger uneasiness and respond with spasms or contractions. Taking slow, deep breaths will slow down these contractions finding a relaxed response.4 (Kinsinger) Once again, Pilates improves the gut with a variety of breaths.
Optimizing your wellness zone includes awareness of both the inside and outside of the body. Rooting the Pilates principles with movements and conscious eating will provide better integration of the body and encourage a more peaceful existence for everyone. So, be playful and roll like a ball, be mindful of your diet, and stay calm!
- Your Digestive System & How it Works. NIDDK ↩︎
- “Return to Life Through Contrology”. Pilates, J. Presentation Dynamics; 1998; First published 1945; NY ↩︎
- “The Art of Aging Beautifully: From Pilates to Mindfulness”. Ruiz-Giminez Aguilar, G. ↩︎
- How Breathing Exercises Relieve Stress and Improve Digestive Health, Kinsinger, S.; Loyola Medicine, 2017. ↩︎
About the Author
Cheryl has been a Pilates instructor, holistic nutrition educator, and wellness coach with Metagenics FirstLine Therapy for the past 10 years. When not following her passion, she finds her sense of liveliness in the mountains surrounding Denver, traveling the globe and discovering healthy recipes. She is the founder and owner of Wandering Star Pilates.