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Pilates COREterly

Fall 2012



By Deborah Marcus

From The Thinking Body, by Mabel Ellsworth Todd, 1937

  • The mechanisms for breathing, locomotion and mechanical balance are deeply tied in all bodily tissues and structural adaptations for these functions are closely interrelated.
  • The spine remains the fundamental basis of support and movement for all of the various vertebrate structures.

Definition of Ideokinesis as taught by Andre Bernard at NYU, 1985:

  • Ideokinesis is a discipline that employs the use of images as a means of improving muscle patterns.

In 1985 I became familiar with the above while completing a Masters in Dance at NYU Tisch School of the Arts.

Little did I know at the time that these words would have a profound effect on my work with students and on my own body as my dancing and Pilates practice evolved.


As Pilates entered popular culture, its primary benefit was distilled down to the strengthening of the abdominals, generally defined as the core. Thankfully, Pilates is much more than that. I find it interesting that the fitness seeking public latched onto this one aspect of the work when there is so much more to Pilates than simply, “the core.”

In The Thinking Body, Mabel Ellsworth Todd gives an eloquent description of the core: “Developing the core is not a thing that stands alone, but a process of organizing many structures and systems that are tied together in one’s body through the breath.”

After 21 years of learning, practicing, and teaching Pilates, I find that this is the most challenging aspect of the work to teach, because understanding this process is dependent on each individual’s personal learning style, which changes over time.


What is the role of “play” in a Pilates practice? From our earliest stage of development, we engage in movement play to make sense of our bodies. In Stuart Brown M.D.’s book entitled, Play, the function of body and movement play are illuminated: “Movement play lights up the brain and fosters learning, innovation, flexibility adaptability and resilience… Exploratory body movements…are done for their own sake; they are pleasurable and intrinsically playful. Yet they also help sculpt the brain.”1 This connection with mind and body is, of course, a main component of Pilates. But as we age, the willingness to engage in play diminishes and it can be challenging to convince many adults of the efficacy of play in their quest for improved health and fitness.

As adults, movement play is the willingness to maintain a clear intention while pushing into the unknown. This can be done at any age with any number of structural or neurological limitations.


What exactly is “play?” A look into the Random House Webster’s College Dictionary will present you with 80 definitions. Here are a few of my favorites as they relate to the practice of Pilates: “action of a specified kind,” “to amuse oneself,” “to pretend to cooperate or concur,” and “to maneuver opposing groups in order to benefit oneself.”

How can we encourage and integrate the idea of play…and how do we keep learning when the brain loses adaptability and the body leans toward known movement patterns? Many of my students come to Pilates for the first time with fifty or sixty years of body history with which to contend, with while simultaneously trying to change a movement pattern. After 50+ years, the idea of engaging in play as a way to change a faulty or painful movement pattern may seem counter-intuitive.

The challenge of my job as a teacher is to communicate something that can only be understood by the student in the most personal of terms. Many components contribute to the experience of each exercise. How I order a movement sequence, the words I choose to use, the tone of my voice, where I am in the room, and any number of other variables will only be as effective as an individual’s learning style is keyed in to a specific moment.

As a student and as a teacher, to enter a room and know simply that “action of a specified kind” will occur is the nature of play. I believe a willingness to play is the perfect state of mind to adopt when taking, and to a certain degree teaching, a Pilates lesson.

Of course, familiarity with the Pilates choreography is also part of this process. Learning what to move, when to move it, etc. may be enough for a student to handle the first few months.

(continued above)

But little by little, you can insert brief moments of “play” into your practice. Picture your hands like feathers floating on the ends of your arms when doing Swimming. It may alter your experience of your shoulders and of your “core.” What once felt restricted may feel suddenly strong and free.


The use of imagery to lead an experience of movement asks the student to enter into a state of “play” where there is only “action of a specified kind,” and to participate fully in the experience of the playful move. This ideokinetic modality of learning an exercise may be completely foreign, particularly when the student’s experience with other exercise regimens often is the rote performance of movement sequences.

When a student has discovered a deeper connection to an exercise, I will often ask him to articulate what it was that brought them to that deeper connection. Teacher: “Your Swan was beautiful today. What was going through your mind?” Student: “Not sure…I just sent my collar bones to the opposite sides of the room!” In a group setting, this can be an inspiring moment for that student and for the other class participants.

One of the best things about my job is to see the transformation in a student’s face when they have discovered something new in their own body. It is an instantaneous expression of joy, relief, and surprise. Surprise at one’s own ability to change is perhaps the end result of a great Pilates, and play, session.


The late modern dance choreographer, Merce Cunningham said, “Dance is most deeply concerned with each single instant as it comes along. It is as accurate and as impermanent as breathing.”

I keep this quote on my studio bulletin board with a little note next to it that says, “Read this and substitute the word Pilates for Dance.” Breathing is accurate in that it is always there as long as we are alive, impermanent in that it is always coming or going. Each breath is different for no reason other than that time passes. Of course breathing oxygenates the blood and is essential for movement. But it is also an action that brings us deeper into each passing moment. It allows one to enter into a state of “play” with the Pilates work. With proper breathing, we bring focus to our minds and can enter a state where we are more willing to accept the idea of “play” in Pilates.

Though we may age and grow older and more mature, we should never outgrow the idea of play. When we are able to integrate a playful mood, feeling, or attitude into Pilates, it becomes more fun and enjoyable. Our brains light up with play and Pilates!


The Thinking Body, by Mabel Ellsworth Todd
Preface & Chapter 1

Play, How It Shapes The Brain, Opens The Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, by Stuart Brown, M.D.

  1. Pages 84-85
  2. Page 17

Merce Cunningham, as quoted in the January 16, 2012 New Yorker Magazine article by Joan Acocella.