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Pilates - Get Your Head in the Game!

The popularity of Pilates over the last decade has increased exponentially, surely leaving no-one completely unaware of its amazing benefits? Perhaps once upon a time, thought of as a class for old ladies, Pilates has now become a mainstream staple for people of all ages and walks of life. Often recommended by Physio’s for their clients to maintain and improve joint/posture issues, even the England Football team were photographed practising their Pilates during the Euro’s this summer!

Having taught Mat and Reformer for five years, I have worked with a few thousand bodies of all shapes, sizes and physical capabilities. The commonality I have observed during this time is a very high percentage of these people having a Forward Head Position. As the name suggests, the head has literally moved forward to varying degrees from its optimal position balanced beautifully on top of the neck! This can happen for a variety of reasons mostly, I believe, from our addiction to glancing down (many times a day) at our mobile phones, laptops, kindles, etc., and of course for many of us working from home during the last 18 months leaning in to hear our colleagues on yet another Zoom meeting whilst ignoring the requests for more snacks or the dog barking :).

The Forward Head posture is a real thing, even being written about in medical journals back in the 1920’s, but I’ve observed many more people adopting this faulty head position the last few years as our addiction to technology increases. However, I also see many with a head tilt towards one shoulder. This can be so slight that the client never realised themselves, but is possibly the cause of their long-term neck and shoulder tension, headaches, backache etc.

Our body is an amazing machine (when it works properly) and for most of us starts life perfectly balanced with our skeletal system, muscles and organs working together in synergy. Our brain always looks (pardon the pun) to keep our head upright, so our eyes look straight ahead. When we slouch in our chair and look down at our computer or read a book, our lower cervical spine (neck) flexes forward and the upper cervical spine hyper extend to keep our eyes looking forward. This change in head position has many consequences, one being compression of vertebral discs of the spine and nerves, that may lead to tingling in the arms and fingers, to pain and disc degeneration.

Pilates is probably the most frequent exercise associated with the word Core, and a less than optimal head position starts a chain reaction for a weaker Core, reducing your breathing capability and even adding pressure to your Pelvic Floor muscles. So, if you want to limit the risk of peeing yourself, get your head on top of your shoulders! An anatomically perfect posture would have a plumb line from the front of your ankle up through the centre or your knee and hip, shoulder and up the centre of your ears.

Pilates is a Method that, as Teachers, we apply certain principles to the exercises you perform in class (or 1-to-1), alignment being the very first thing so that you can actually even breathe more efficiently reducing stress hormones in your body as well as decompressing your spine and recruiting the right muscles. I often refer to our focus on breath during the exercises, as a mini massage for the spine. Your adult head weighs about 10-12lbs, but a forward jut of just 15 degrees adds 20lb of pressure to your spine and allowing your head to creep forward 15cm can add over 60lbs of pressure! Just imagine the compression not only to your spine and discs, but also your internal organs. Practicing Pilates (certainly under close observation as a beginner) helps you become much more aware of your body's alignment and head position - not just during class, but many clients tell me, whilst you are driving (do use the headrest), out walking and even shopping. Their new hobby, now that we are allowed out, is to observe friends (and strangers) posture whilst out and about!

The last observation I will share with you, is head/poor postural alignment, massively effects your mood. If you are a regular in one of my Pilates classes, you will have no doubt heard me refer to Winnie the Pooh and his sad friend Eeyore. Picture his drooping head - that’s not the posture of someone who’s just won the lottery or managed to secure some diesel! You can't have good posture if your head is not where it is supposed to be (balanced on your neck, over your shoulders) and this has a direct relationship with your muscle tension throughout your body. If your head habitually spends time in a forward position, this will create weakness in your upper back muscles and tightness in your chest and anterior shoulder muscles. Or if your head tilts towards one shoulder you will have a tightness throughout that side of the body and a lengthening/ weakening of muscles on the opposite side. Pilates can help you achieve an awareness for obtaining a better head position helping you in daily life as well as increasing your physical potential in your sport, all because your muscles will be working in better harmony. Surely we should all have our head in the game?

- Marion Herriot

Marion is one of the Studios’ Pilates Reformer teachers and also takes clients on a 1-to-1 basis for either Clinical Pilates or Reformer at our sister company, Drummond Physiotherapy.

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