Pilates Language: The Cult of Neutral Shrine

Kudos Paleolates!

Thank you so much Mike Perry for your wonderful and beautifully articulated post: Neutral?

At the risk of jumping on the well-worn band wagon, I must confess that the infusion of the word ‘neutral' into the Pilates Method of Exercise is one that has always confused me.

Neutral vs. Movement

Neutral and movement appear to be at opposing ends of the spectrum. Ironically, neutral is a word that is anything but. Strong passionate feelings surround the argument both for and against the use of the word applied to the Pilates exercises.

But let's leave neutral for a bit to focus on a word we surely agree on.

Pilates Language: How did the word 'neutral' become divisive?

Yes?

Hang on, I am getting a little ahead of myself…

From wikipedia:

A neutral spine or good posture refers to the three natural curves present in a healthy spine.

Okay, let's have a quibble with the word ‘natural' first.

I agree with Mike that those who have perfect posture and ‘live in neutral' are fictitious creatures and are probably not our clients. 

Ethereal perfections! What need have they for Pilates?

With the gravitational pull on our bodies, a lifetime of sports, activities, tensions and tendencies we have arrived at a posture that may not be ideal or sustainable. We may develop exaggerations in the curves of our spine.

Oh dear, what's to be done?

As gravity continues to weigh on us, one or more areas of the spine can become compressed resulting in a swayback, a rounded upper back or a bit of both as our bodies seek equilibrium.

But just because I have a swayback doesn't make it ‘natural' in any way. My swayback also does NOT need to be honored. What it needs to do is decompress and…

Wait.

What was that about Length?

Imagine all the instances within the Pilates repertoire where it is desirable to have a long lengthened back.

When you are lying down for Footwork? Of course.

Standing up at the end of the Push Down on the Wunda Chair? Yes, please.

Sitting up à la Rowing Series on the Reformer? You betcha!

These 3 positions of the back are all the same shape in the Pilates Method:

A long (and ever-lengthening) back position

Looking at it through this lens, to keep any one section of the back in a static or fixed position would not aid us on our quest toward elongation.

It is through this very elongation that we create lift, strength and flexibility in our backs.

Strength? Flexibility? That sounds complicated…

Pilates is strengthening (Strength) and opening/stretching/lengthening (Stretch) resulting in balanced strength (Control) of your body.

In other words: Everything works.

To find this balanced strength and length, our spines must endeavor to move in all directions: back bending allows the back to lift and strengthen and forward bending helps us open and lengthen the back. Both are necessary for a healthy, strong and supple spine.

With regard to forward bending: we are not simply flexing the spine, gnashing bones together willy-nilly. We are in the business of finding lift!

The position of the back in the Pilates method is often defined by language created by one book in the '80s that birthed the whole “navel to spine” label. Now we have been branded with it. Your navel needs to lift itself all the way up to the nape of your neck!

Hence the elongated curve of the round shape exercises of the Pilates Method.

Movement must be Job #1 in the Pilates Method.

Et tu, JP?

Could the emergence of ‘neutral' be a reaction to Joe Pilates' direction in his legendary Return to Life: to “lie flat?” I do realize that “flattening” the back is believed to be detrimental to the spine, however I must pose the question:

Is it possible solely through muscular effort to actually “flatten” one's spine?

Surely we would not have survived as a species were we to possess such a capability.

So I tried it – you can read about it here.

Remember I am not suggesting one tuck the pelvis and use the legs and hips to press the low back into the floor. No bueno. Joe Pilates does not say that either, and that's certainly not lengthening anything. 

Perhaps Joe Pilates uses the phrase “lie flat” to indicate that one should not begin the exercise sitting up.

Et tu, PT?

In my understanding from all the Physical Therapists in my Pilates life, ‘neutral' does not come from Joe Pilates, but rather from the realm of Physical Therapy.

“In the Physical Therapy literature the historically older term is ‘core stability.' In the latter part of the 1980s, a concept of a ‘neutral spine' developed among physical therapists and physicians who were treating individuals with back pain.” (damienhowellpt.com)

I believe it should be noted that the presence of back pain is causal to the creation of the term ‘neutral spine.' Conversely the term may not necessarily apply to all populations, e.g., the healthy individual.

The article goes on to differentiate ‘core stability' from ‘core strength.'

‘Core stability' as it has been defined since 1992, includes a stable or “neutral” trunk while the limbs are in motion.

“‘Core muscle strength' is usually operationally defined by a measurement of the strength of the core muscles, either in terms of how much weight/resistance a muscle can lift, how many repetitions a muscle can perform, or how long a muscle can hold a neutral, stable position.” (damienhowellpt.com)

The crux of the article looks at the efficacy of ‘core strength' to improve athletic activity and performance and reduce the risk of injury.

The author considers an ongoing debate: can core strength also accurately be measured when the spine is in motion?

Hey! That sounds like the Pilates exercises!

And here we find controversy. Quel suprise…

But we are encouraged to use our intuition.

Yes.

Despite the lack of hard scientific evidence to irrefutably prove that ‘core strength' (as defined above, including the presence of a “neutral, stable position,”) enhances and improves athletic performance, this article encourages us to use our intuition!

Our common sense.

Surely increased core strength leads to improved athletic performance and injury prevention, yes?

The Physical Therapist then expresses his opinion that “core training should strive to simulate the athletic activity.”

Ok. This is a big statement.

The Pilates Method of Exercise is replete with exaggerated versions of our everyday movements.

For all intents and purposes:

Athletic Activity = Life!

“Much of the core training that is practiced involves abdominal exercises lying on the ground. The only sport I know of in which you are laying on the ground on your back is when a wrestler is losing a match.”

Point taken.

“Core training should involve dynamic movement progressing from slow to fast.”

Our daily tasks are varied in their tempo and rhythm.

“Ideally it should involve diagonal movements as most athletic movements involve rotation of the trunk and spine.”

Daily we reach for things in life that may be on a higher or lower level, or even across our bodies or behind us. 

“It should involve activities which require endurance.”

 

Some days may be very long and filled with activities – think of preparing a holiday dinner!

“Of course it should involve some reaction to changes in surface, or outside forces.”

Clearly this exists in life, but it also sounds very much like the Reformer.

#moveitorloseit

A life in motion requires an exercise regime that is also full of motion: up, down, bending, reaching in all directions. Our body conditioning must prepare us for a vibrant and dynamic experience of daily living.

Movement must be Job #1 in the Pilates Method.

I find one clear image sticks with me: Do I want to be the wrestler losing the match?

Pilates Language: The Cult of Neutral Shrine

“It is the spirit that builds the body.”

Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805)

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Comments

  1. Kim paxton says

    Amazing post Andrea. By far and away the best explanation of the spine in regards to Pilates I’ve seen.

    Thank you for your well rounded and intelligent take on this beautiful method.

    • Kim,

      Thank you so much for your high praise – appreciated, inspiring and motivational to me. Thank YOU for reading, sharing and for being awesome!
      Have a great Pilates week 🙂

  2. Andrea,

    It is fun to follow your mind as you tackle one of the largest sources of confusion for teachers who are looking deeper into Joe’s work. Thank you for crafting in words, the spine’s answer to what it is doing while it is moving in a healthy way!

    • Wow! Sandy, thank you so much for reading and sharing your thoughts. Please know that the stellar instruction I receive at Vintage Pilates on a weekly basis has been a huge help in understanding the options (and by options I mean muscles!) available to the body to find length in all the challenging places. Moving is key!

  3. Thanks Andrea, I really enjoyed this article. Keep up the good work. I’d like more articles on topics that are debatable between instructors, creates good conversation and thought.

    • Hi Rachel,

      Thank you so much for reading and for sharing your thoughts here. And a BIG thank you for your encouragement for these kinds of posts. I’ve got a couple more in the works, actually, so stay tuned. I enjoy creating them, as it makes me have to examine and think critically about the method and how and why we teach it.

      All Best to you!
      Andrea

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