‘Attention is our most important tool in the task of improving the quality of experience.’
What is the difference between having a massage and taking a Pilates class? They can both be pleasurable and relaxing, but massage is passive enjoyment, whereas the participant in a mind-body class invests concentration, discipline and flow into the hour. It is this investment of psychic energy or attention, writes Csikszentmihalyi, that greatly enhances an experience.
In Csikszentmihalyi’s intriguing book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, optimal experience adds up to a sense of participation. Any activity that is goal-directed offers challenge and requires skills, and turns into what he calls a ‘flow activity’. But it is not just performing movements that create flow. Csikszentmihalyi stresses that the mind must be involved. There must be a discipline and a ‘concentration of attention.’
How exactly do his ideas about flow and concentration apply to a Pilates class? Ideally, in a Pilates class you are taking control of your experience as you do when mastering a series of dance steps or a learning to swim or play tennis. You also flow from one movement into the next; and the transitions are as important as the exercises. An example of a frequently used transition is the Shell Stretch. This pause or breather is where you are curled up and sitting back on your heels. This is not the moment to tune out. The goal of a breather is to scan the body, notice any tension that might be building, and relax that area, as you prepare for the next movement. You are paying attention, even when at rest. This is flow, even when you are still.
Flow is a state that Csikszentmihalyi defines as when ‘people are so involved in the activity that nothing else matters.’ Flow in a Pilates class places you entirely in the moment, and marvelous things can happen. Suddenly every single movement that your body executes, whether it be lifting the gaze to the horizon or drawing up the pelvic floor, is part of the whole. The best part of flow is that we can all achieve it. We can all learn the art of concentration and how to ‘control the body and its senses’.
Sometimes flow gives you an image of yourself that you don’t immediately recognize. You might feel like a dancer, and if you are working with a large ball, as we do in some of my classes, you may experience the ball not as a plastic prop but a partner in the dance. The ball (or anything used in a workout) should heighten the experience of flow rather than detract from it. In the same way, replacing your six-pound weight with a seven might add a new dimension of challenge to your workout, but should not distract from the goals and precision of the ‘steps.’
The steps used in a flow activity should be within the reach of all students, and adjusted to the level and abilities of each participant. A small movement, such as shifting the pelvis from neutral (where the low back is not pressing down on the mat) to imprint (where the low back presses gently down like a hand in damp sand) can be exact and economical. So does a more challenging exercise—a personal favorite of mine called Ball Toss where you fling the ball in the air with your feet and catch it with your hands. Both the simple Pelvic Tilt and the complex Ball Toss require you to have a precise sense of where your body is in space. Concentration ensures the movement is precise and accurate, but it takes a continuous investment of ‘psychic energy’ if the mind-body connection is to be maintained. Psychic energy ensures that even the smallest move is significant, and can be highly rewarding.
Use the Body for all it is Worth
Physical activity performed with flow and concentration has great potential for mood enhancement. Csikszentmihalyi argues that mindful movement not only give us fitness and health, but a keen sense of happiness: the joy of being alive. ‘When we are unhappy, depressed, or bored we have an easy remedy at hand: to use the body for all it is worth.’
As you do the twenty-minute Basic Ball workout I hope you will feel a sense of flow. Remember to integrate the ball smoothly into the movement. Try and stay in the moment. If your mind happens to wander, gently bring it back to the breath and the ball. As with any fitness activity check with your doctor or health practitioner to ensure this workout is safe and appropriate for you.