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Training the Posture: Pilates, Yoga, and other techniques
Mind and body interpenetrate each other, so that what is held in the mind influences the body, and the attitude of the body influences the mind. Emotions are the most obvious connection between body and mind. When we think of something fearful, angering, or pleasant, it produces changes in the body. These changes can be held in the body and unconsciously affect our attitude and the responses of others. Therefore, a good posture can be very useful in meditation.
Whether seated on the floor or in a chair, the most important thing is to sit upright, finding the middle way between two extremes.
One extreme is slumping forward, with the chest collapsed, the shoulders rounded, and the head thrust forward. The other extreme is sitting rigidly erect, exaggerating the curvature in the lower back, thrusting the chest forward and the buttocks back. Most of us have a tendency to adopt one of these positions due to the habits of poor posture encouraged by sitting for most of our lives (at school, at home, in the office, in the car). These positions eventually lead to soreness, tension, stiffness, and pain in the neck, shoulders, and lower back.
Finding the correct posture can be difficult, due to these bad habits that we have internalized. We shouldn't over-focus and obsess about posture, since our bodies do not have to be perfect in order for us to develop meditative concentration. However, our meditation will be more effortless if we can gradually begin to reform our postural habits.
Ideally meditation should lead to discovering a feeling of spaciousness, lightness, and "length" in the body. Dancers (modern dance and ballet) are familiar with this concept of length, or seemingly effortless extension. Yoga postures and movements are designed to train the body (and mind) to experience length. When the body is in length and spaciousness, the mind is also spacious and at ease.
Methods of training the posture
The Chinese have ancient movement exercises called tai chi and chi kung (or taiji and qijong) which are also designed to produce that feeling of length and spaciousness. The Tibetans have self-massage and movement exercises called kum nye as well as forms of yoga (not the so-called "Five Tibetans," which were never taught as such in Tibet, as far as I can tell).
Here in the United States we have methods that were developed by Europeans: the Alexander Technique, the Feldenkrais Method, and the Trager Exercises, to name a few. However, in my experience, the most valuable approach is that developed by Joseph Pilates.
My recommendation: Genuine Pilates Exercises
Pilates, in my opinion, is one of the most effective methods for retraining our postural habits of mind and body. It strengthens the deep core muscles, which are traditionally the "power-house" in yoga. It produces length in the spine, opens the chest, and helps the head to float above the shoulders. It is best if Pilates is learned from a certified Pilates teacher in a studio devoted to Pilates. Pilates classes in gymns may or may not be authentic Pilates. The best Pilates studios not only offer mat classes, but also are equipped with the training equipment invented by Joseph Pilates. The more you study and practice Pilates, the more you realize its depth (kind of like studying meditation). In Leominster I highly recommend the Mind-Body Studio on Central Street and certified instructors Carol Claflin and Meredith Sousa. For more information, go to their website www.m-bpilates.com, or call 978 534-6463, or use the button at the bottom of this page to go to our "external links" page.
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