Pilates and the Focus

 The way I experience Pilates reminds me of the experiences of “the Zone” as a former athlete.

The more I think about this, the more I consider that the mind-body connections I find in Pilates are either incredibly similar to my experience with the “athletic Zone” or they are literally the same experience. I would say my experience of the Zone in pilates is more frequent.

A few reasons, outside my own experience, are drawn from the book Mind, Body, and Sport. I’m currently working through a reading list recommended by a  movement teacher I highly respect and I found myself reading Mind, Body, and Sport by John Doulliard this month. I enjoy how he expands on the experience of the zone in various cultures, ancient modalities, meditation, and modern sports. I was more than curious as he wrote about the dynamic postures and Zone experiences through examples like archery, Vedic wisdom, and running. He conveys the Zone as something that relates to optimum health and access to human potential…

He defines the Zone this way:

“The exercise high, in which dynamic physical activity coexists with the inner experience of composure and calm.”

And he goes on to explain…

“The most remarkable finding was the reproduction of alpha brain waves during exercise , indicating a state of inner calm. The mind is composed while the body is functioning in an efficient, relaxed way- in the midst of the most dynamic physical activity. The athlete, like mother nature, is doing less and accomplishing more. Our preliminary studies indicate that anyone can experience the Zone or ” runners high” at will. This give us a new, uniquely challenging fitness goals. We’re no longer content to see how much we can do; we want to know how effortlessly we can do it! “

   His description reminds me of when I first began Pilates classes and private sessions. I would always hope to find the balance between challenging muscular movement in the midst of focus and calm that had surprised me during my first few sessions.  I enjoyed the quiet studio and the focus of the people around me. I left sessions feeling strong and relaxed at the same time. The amazing thing was in almost every session I found that connected strength, movement, and calm. I wasn’t sure what to call it. For people who have tried, practice, or teach Pilates I’m sure what I am describing is familiar. And while John Doulliard doesn’t call out Pilates specifically, I think it’s more than fair to say the words dynamic yet calm and focused describes Pilates extremely well.

I love Pilates equipment and moving using closed kinetic chains, the equipment is one of the primary contributors to the accessibility of the Zone in Pilates.

It is truly a joy to learn the movements for kinesthetic learners.  I decided to study and completed my certification and soon teaching was amazing as well. I noticed I could encourage students by allowing them the space to focus & feel their movement with subtle cueing. The result was a glimpse of what I believe John is describing as the “the Zone” for my clients as well. The type of experience is not just relaxing it has a very positive effect on chronic pain and muscles that have deep compensatory patterns due to musculoskeletal imbalance. With my scoliosis, it became vital to tune into my body while trying to exercise in a way that provides length and balance. Pilates and the Zone were the perfect balance for my body and mind.

   In reading Mind, Body, and Sport I’m grateful for the concepts he weaves together at the beginning of the book. Especially how he expands on the experience of the Zone. He has trained many people to flow easily through their proper ( meaning not overtraining)  amounts of training while challenging themselves and avoiding the ” no pain no gain” methods. John attributes that method to the injuries that cause most people to lose the enjoyment of exercise. He also expresses that the Zone is something attainable for everyone.  And could help to bring exercise enjoyment back to those who have lost it.  That is something I can really get pumped about! His ideas come together to create a picture that suggests breathing, awareness, body cycles,  body season type, seasonal eating, and choosing a sport appropriate for one’s self are the largest contributing factors. In other words, we can affect our personal enjoyment of exercise and athletics by sticking close to nature.

  Consider a time where you felt you were achieving something in the Zone.

It would be a time when the mental requests you made of your body were specific, focused, and flowed. Did you feel stronger and use less effort? If your an athlete maybe you set a personal record, scored shot after shot on goal, made that perfect three-pointer, or felt that perfect swing as you spiked the ball over the net. Maybe it was more like a yoga or pilates session seemed to be easier and you were reaching from the inside out to do each movement…

These moments stay with us, and they create new neurological pathways that help train out bodies to “tune in” and outperform ourselves. Remembering them is not just about the joy it’s about also about a state of being… its almost indescribable.

I have always had an underlying question that is answered by the movement I didn’t know how to “be” without movement or a sport. So ” being” became training. I trained in several different sports at different times in my life. And fairly regularly I sensed a small phenomenon of personal flow and mind-body achievement that was outside of average. One evening I served a shut out volleyball game where 15 points were aces. My team maintained possession of the ball and I serve 25 straight points…  I can still remember the feeling of “knowing” before my hand made contact with the ball that the point was going to be an ace. These phenomenal experiences were things I didn’t even think to describe in those days. I do know I attempted to recreate those moments and would recognize when they were happening.  But acknowledging them was at the risk of losing the moment… after years of these moments creeping into your athletic game, you learn to just be one with it and have a ball at whatever you are doing!

I was ecstatic 8 years later when I began Practicing Pilates.  It has given me back this Zone in an attainable and repeatable way. It was meeting the modality of Pilates that made the connection with my body more clear and frequent, and now that I know Pilates I would definitely stand by Doulliard’s opinion. He says,

“A primary cause of the zone experience is increased mind-body integration, the harmonious cooperation of mind and body. Second , the degree of mind-body coordination you develop through exercise is yours- that is, it stays with you all the time, so that you begin to carry that peak experience into your life. … third, focusing on the process actually brings the greatest success. “ – John Doulliard –


The full-body integration, when combined with counter tension and internal concentrated effort creates the zone for me every session. Now, I can be walking and get into the zone. The amount of information we have in movement science now is incredible between fascia, musculature intelligence, and our ability to enhance the neurological system’s effects of movement we are living in the Renaissance of movement!   Jon touches on this point in Mind, Body, and Sport with some detail. I really appreciated how each chapter has smaller segments within it that bring up different topics. Slowly he connects them all for the reader so you see the history of “the Zone” and mind-body experiences through his mind. It’s as if you are on a short tour to understand the physical factors that affect performance. And of course, the main player is the Mind! I admit I opened his book most interested in what he would say about the mind. I was thrilled to learn his perspective on focus.

“Winning from the inside out means being more dedicated to the cumulative development of mind-body coordination than to momentary victories.”

 My point in sharing all this is to convey the opportunities that exist in Pilates and the potential it affords each person regardless of fitness level. I hope that more people consider looking to Pilates to learn how to move deeper, smarter, and use their imagination. Wouldn’t it be amazing to discover as much potential in each person as possible! I’m excited to have another reference for influencing my approach to mindful movement.

Thanks to Jon Doulliard for his inspiration. Happy Reading.

( side note: In Mind-Body Sport, The Author does elaborate on plenty of other topics related to sports training that I didn’t choose to write about in my little blog above. I am only trying to relate to the book and respond.)