Psychotherapy and Pilates: Parallel Practices

Although my blog posts usually address specific dynamics between twins, I have been thinking lately about the parallel between thetwin practices of psychotherapy and Pilates. I am not someone who loves exercise—in fact, quite the opposite. My friends and family know not to ask me to accompany them on a hike. I do enjoy nature—but primarily from a sedentary vantage point. Nonetheless, I do love Pilates. Although I spent ten years with one teacher and discovered that I had not actually learned classical Pilates techniques, I value the philosophy and rigor behind the practice. The required concentration and integration of one’s mind and body are challenges that I appreciate.

Interestingly, I see many parallels between psychotherapy and Pilates. Both require an investment of time, thought, and discipline. In each case, no quick fix or instant gratification exists. Similar to psychotherapy, the relationship between the

Pilates instructor and the client is paramount. A gifted trainer is exquisitely attuned to her client’s physical and mental capabilities. Just as a competent therapist pays close attention to verbal and nonverbal cues, the Pilates instructor evaluates and corrects minute muscle movements and bodily shifts to help her client achieve correct alignment, balance, and strength.

Just as psychotherapy can feel slow-going, painstaking, and aimless at the outset, Pilates can seem frustrating, random, and discombobulating. However, this fitness practice eschews lingo like “no pain, no gain,” dripping sweat (at least in my case), and countless reps. On the contrary, Pilates gradually teaches what the exercises are designed to do and how their proper execution promotes flexibility and core strength. Initially, Pilates equipment looks inviting and fun; however, as the training increases in complexity and sophistication, the machines can sometimes resemble medieval torture machines!

In both psychotherapy and Pilates, one will sometimes feel confused about what is happening and where this is going. Paying close attention to minute bodily adjustments and repetitive reminders concerning form—“Breathe, grow tall, don’t crunch, relax your wrists, and use your back muscles”—is emotionally painstaking and frustrating for both the client and the Pilates instructor. The instructions persist ad nauseam until, one day, the mind and muscle memory decide to sync up and do as they’re told. This is not unlike what happens in psychotherapy when a patient asks her therapist, “How many times do we have to talk about the same thing? When am I going to get better? When will this trigger go away?”

My instructor tells me that reaching a plateau in Pilates is an impossibility. In fact, that is not the goal at all. Rather, Pilates is a challenging, ever-evolving practice where you continually to strive to become more adept and masterful; the exercises become more complex as you reach higher levels of intensity. Similarly, the goal of long-term psychotherapy is not a cure but a safe, reciprocal relationship where the therapist and the patient can explore both unconscious and conscious feelings. By examining how one’s developmental history shapes present conflicts, relationship difficulties, and emotional instability, one can achieve deep insight and make extraordinary gains in self-regulation and happiness. In both practices, hard work, focus, and faith in the process can lead to gratifying changes. Learning which muscles and feelings to activate and appreciating the relationship that facilitates that growth are essential to maintaining a healthy integration of the mind and body.

Image courtesy of Runway Pilates (CC BY 2.0)

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