A Man of Principle

There is a fundamental concept in Pilates, the principle behind which translates well into many other areas of living. Called “navel to spine,” this process involves drawing your abdominal muscles up and in as you imagine your navel drawing toward your spine. Performing navel to spine while you exhale increases the stability of your torso and facilitates centered movements which emanate from your “powerhouse” (the girdle of strength in the center of your body).

When you grok this concept and learn to maintain it in a variety of movements you gain access to a part of you that you might not have known existed. Moreover, I’ve found this concept has many applications beyond Pilates. This postural control applies neatly to the development of a good seat in horse riding, it helps to generate a more efficient and powerful pedal stroke on a bicycle and when the principle is applied in a broader context it provides a proven model for living an expansive and generative life.

Just as the eyes are the window to the soul, specific applications of true principle provide an aperture into the vast library of wisdom which is always at hand. The application itself is finite and typically quite limited in scope, but the principle behind it is usually simple yet profound. In this case there are a variety of physical applications, but the real gravy comes when you learn how to consolidate your mental and spiritual resources to the vertebral column of your inner life.

You may have heard the phrase, “he is a man of principle.” What does that mean, really? To me it means much more than the usual connotation (the individual is a person of character or someone with strong morals). A man of principle is someone who has taken the time to examine the eternal principles of truth which underlie all creative activity. A man of principle is willing to ask the difficult questions, hear the difficult answers and remain humble, vigilant and compassionate instead of being lulled to sleep in ignorance.

Flexibility and Control

My Pilates instructor shared an interesting video with me after attending the recent Atlanta MANIA fitness tradeshow. The video featured Chuck Wolf, M.S., an exercise physiologist who developed an interesting fitness training modality called “Flexibility Highways,” who expanded on the basic point that: “Mobilizing muscles and joints without incorporating a stabilizing movement pattern can actually increase the client’s risk of injury.” Take a moment to reread the last sentence. It’s an important point!

Increasing flexibility without increasing control is risky business.

This principle works well in this setting, but does it hold true in other phases of life? I believe so. Yesterday we considered what it takes to “step it up a notch” in your personal expression. I have found that stepping up my game requires that I first relax more deeply in relation to some point around which I have held unnecessary tension. That relaxation – physically, mentally or emotionally – allows the life force to course more freely through body, mind and heart, providing a natural source of strength and inspiration to overcome previous limitations.

New capability without new control is dangerous.

Think of this in relation to children who are allowed to go on the internet for the first time. At first the control must be provided externally, by a parent or limited access restrictions on the search engine, but it makes sense to ease those external controls over time as the internal control builds in the maturing child. If you were to give a child free access to the internet without such controls, the results could be disastrous.

Whenever you mobilize new capability, pay attention to the corresponding stabilizing movement. There will always be one.

In business terms, this would relate to the corresponding strengthening of infrastructure that must accompany a growth in sales. Many wonderful companies with excellent products or services go out of business because of a failure on this point. Their growth outpaces their infrastructure and the company implodes or the infrastructural development outpaces the growth and the company starves to death. Either is an ugly and inglorious ending. Both are generally avoidable if care is taken to add a dash of stabilization whenever a pinch of expansion is experienced.

Principles such as these abound in life and the nice thing is that one principle properly understood can be applied in millions of different ways. What you learn, experience and know in one area of your life can be tremendously useful in other areas of your life when you learn to connect the dots. It’s not that hard, really.

Go ahead, give it a try!

Aha! Moment

Never underestimate the power of realization. During my riding (horse) lesson on Sunday my trainer and I worked on gymnastic exercises designed to increase flexibility, strength and lightness. Both my horse and I had taken time off due to injuries, so we were both starting back up  at levels lower than we had left off. They say that the hardest part of exercise is getting started, and this lesson was no exception to the rule!

The exercises we were doing were basic, but demanding given the present level of fitness. Although I understood in concept why my horse was huffing and puffing about the exercises, I can say today that I feel I am much more empathetic about what he was going through during the lesson after my Pilates class yesterday.

If you have never tried Pilates, it is one of those forms of exercise – like yoga – that is much harder than it looks. Pilates emphasizes core strength and stabilization.

One of the movements during my session on the Reformer (a piece of equipment used in Pilates) was called the “Elephant.” The movement, shown to the right, involves articulating your legs back and forth at the hip joint while keeping everything else stable. This move is one of many exercises that strengthens the powerhouse – the pelvic floor muscles, Transversus, Multifidus, muscles of the inner thigh and the muscles circling the sitting bone area – that, in turn, offers a solid foundation for any movement.

This movement in particular was working at exactly what I was after in the gymnastic exercises with my horse. And boy did I feel it later! As I said, my empathy increased but so, too, did my resolve. Getting to the other side of this exercise was tremendously rewarding. Further, I realized again that lessons learned in one department of life come in handy in either the performance or the understanding of another.

Your life is one thing and approaching it with a holistic perspective has its advantages. As I mentioned in my post, Classical Education: A Primer,  the linkages between fields of study and areas of interest are of vital importance to anyone seeking to refine his or her expression. If you are frustrated, if progress is blocked in one area of your life, look to the areas where you are successful for clues as to how to restore the flow you know is possible.

Your life is one thing and the sooner you treat it as such, the better off you’ll be.

From Coarse to Fine


I stumbled across an interesting thought while giving some thought this morning to two of my favorite forms of exercise, pilates and horseback riding. It became clear to me that both of these activities measure progress in similar ways: advancement requires increasingly less coarse or jerky movement.

Pilates Reformer

In fact, greater control translates into finer movement to the point that experts in either field make even the most demanding moves look effortless. This, to me, is the essence of refinement. Refinement is more than the appearance of ease, it is the evidence of the presence of ease. Refinement, therefore, cannot be faked.

Refinement comes on the heels of control. Control comes as there is a deep and fluid understanding of the principles that govern any given activity. In the equestrian arts an effective rider must take into account the ever-present principles of rhythm, balance and suppleness. In pilates, the practitioner must remain mindful of centering, concentration, control, precision, breath and flow. Mastery is made possible by the purposeful utilization of these principles and despite many attempts to prove another way, there are no shortcuts.

Every activity you undertake should, over time, take less of your energy and conscious attention to complete. Practice may not always make perfect, but diligent practice provides the means by which progress is made relative to the efficiency of effort.

The opportunities for improvement are endless when you look at the activities you undertake in this light. If things are not getting easier over time, you’re likely missing an important principle or two. Go back to the fundamentals and honor the basics. You will likely take a giant leap forward!