About 15 years ago, I started weekly Pilates sessions and attended regularly for 3 years, with three different teachers, including one teacher specialised in prenatal and postnanal Pilates.
My motivation for doing Pilates was that I wanted to get stronger after a miscarriage. I felt that my body was trying to tell me something and I needed to act. I did have a good pregnancy and had my fourth and last baby age 37. I was well enough but wish I had done more squatting, as my core was good but my legs could have been stronger! I did Pilates for several weeks after that, then stopped and resumed with a different teacher for, again, several weeks, before doing Iyengar yoga instead as I became interested in alignment, to finally study biomechanics and restorative exercise.
I believe that any form of exercise that involves connecting the mind to the body has great benefits. However, there are a few habits I picked up that were not so good, and I also see these same habits in several of my clients now.
I don't have any photos of me when I was practising Pilates but I know how I was holding myself so I can recreate that body for a brief moment. I also notice these same postural habits in clients who come to me for pain relief during the initial assessment.
This may look like good posture, but I've marked up the areas that need attention:
These are the issues I see in the above picture:
1) Lifting the ribcage compresses the thoracic spine. The muscles that attach to the ribcage are no longer in the optimal place to function well (including the breathing muscles and the abdominal muscles). You think you are holding yourself straight, but all you do is shift your ribcage forward. You are basically masking your hyperkyphosis (excessive curvature of the thoracic spine). I believe that the ribcage is beginning to be a focus in Pilates, as reported by a few of my clients. However, using your muscles to force your ribcage in alignment will not have long-lasting effects.
2) Tucking the tailbone means that the muscles of the pelvic floor and the glutes are not in a great place either to perform their essential tasks and the psoas is held in a shortened position. The vertebrae in the lumbar spine are getting compressed. Most people won't know where "neutral" is as a lifetime of sitting in soft chairs will have displaced their centre of gravity. They need to know where their pelvis is and how to use bony markers to find the neutral or centered position of their pelvis (neither excessively tucked or untucked).
3) Taking the shoulders back means that your shoulder blades are squeezed towards each other, which shortens the fascia around the rhomboid muscles (muscles between the spine and the shoulder blades). You think you are opening up your chest and looking lovely and straight but you have over-corrected. Please, let your shoulders be where they want to be for now.
4) Holding your belly in introduces unnecessary tension. You cannot "engage" a muscle by consciously contracting it. Muscles engage of their own accord when your bones are aligned. A flat tummy may look attractive, but there is a price. Your organs inside your abdomen will not just disappear by your pulling your tummy towards your spine. Give them space!
Other things that I notice in my Pilates clients (Pilates being a factor, not necessarily a cause):
1) Hyperextending elbows because of the lack of strength in the arms and shoulders (see left picture above). You want to use your biceps, not rest on your ligaments, no matter how comfortable it feels. It's not the ligaments' job to be carrying your weight - pain will soon remind you of that. Hopefully, you will do something about it before!
2) Shortening of the calf muscles, due to doing many exercises with pointy toes, in combination with sitting a lot and wearing heels.
3) The neck doing the work of the "core" because the body is not ready for the demands of the exercise, leading to neck stiffness and pain. Make sure you work at the level that suits you.
4) Weak legs, hips and arms as the focus is on the abdominal muscles, the exercises being mainly done lying down, so not weight-bearing.
My advice is to develop the necessary body awareness so you can enjoy your Pilates sessions and get the long-term benefits from a mind-body connection, not be guided by the sole quest of a flat tummy and toned abs.
We are mostly sedentary even when we're active, some parts hardly ever get to move (feet, hands, ribcage, shoulders, individual ribs, etc.) so I also recommend aiming for a movement-rich life, looking for opportunities for movement throughout the day while also learning to restore your body to its natural glory.
Here, I have aligned my hips vertically over my knees and ankles and my ribcage over my pelvis. And I can breathe again! The idea is to relax towards this, not to force your body there. And that takes time.
If you practise Pilates, how can I help?