Pilates Beyond Muscles & Bones: The Autonomic Nervous System in Motion

Many people turn to Pilates to help them recover from injury, overcome chronic pain and physical limitations, and improve posture.  With those goals at the forefront it can be easy for Pilates practitioners to focus in on muscle tissue health, biomechanics, and, of course, movement quality.  That is what Pilates teachers know a lot about and tend to utilize in helping their clients improve and in reaching their goals.

What we do not tend to consider is how much the autonomic nervous system plays a role in our clients’ limitations and how much addressing it within our movement work could help them.

Kristin Loeer, NCPT Polestar Education Mentor

The autonomic nervous system is the branch of the nervous system (NS) that is in control of our bodies’ hormonal and chemical balance.  

It is very sensitive to what we experience on a daily basis.  Throughout the day it swings between parasympathetic and sympathetic responses in our body.  We tend to only be aware of this swing if we pay close attention or if we are reaching a threshold of tolerance where our nervous system begins to struggle.  When we are in a comfortable parasympathetic state, we are relaxed, calm, and able to sleep well.  We are in a state in which we are comfortable, able to learn new things easily, and recover from injuries quickly.  This is so because our nervous system is detecting no threats to our life and therefore chooses to take that time to focus on the internal processes that help us regenerate and grow. 

These processes include sleep, rest and digest, healing, and learning.  As we become more stressed or under pressure in some way our NS starts to move us into a more sympathetic state.  We experience subtle physical changes, such as a rise in blood pressure, increased tension in the body, and breathing becomes more shallow.  

Our NS does not understand the modern world we live in.  

It interprets our experience of stress and pressure as a reaction to a threat.  It reacts accordingly by making our body ready to respond (fight or flight).  The further we go into a sympathetic state the more the NS compromises on some processes in our body in order to focus all energy into short term survival.  It keeps us alert and our body in a state of constant readiness.  Our mind can not deal with anything else besides focusing on the potential threat or the stressful situation at hand.  There is little room for restful sleep, capacity for learning, or healing from injury during this time.

Both the sympathetic and parasympathetic states are important and should work in balance with one another.  However, we no longer live in the wild.  We live lives our nervous systems do not necessarily understand.  It does not know about the stress and pressure that comes with work commitments.  And it does not understand surgery or medication.  It does not understand our social pressure to suck up the emotional turmoil.  This can make it difficult for our NS to keep regulating itself in a balanced way.

Never mind knowing that we are often stressed and exhausted, how many of us and our clients deal with high blood pressure, sleeping problems, digestive issues, excessive tension in the body, difficultly to focus and remember things, and injuries and pain that just won’t heal?  If we add a slightly more traumatic event into this imbalanced nervous system, such as perhaps a bereavement or a car accident, it can push our NS into a traumatic state where we remain stuck in a sympathetic pattern way out of our window of tolerance.  Or it may push us down into a deeply para-sympathetic state, also outside of our window of tolerance.  We recognize this as a state of depression.

It is safe to say that many of us are dealing with a somewhat imbalanced NS nowadays.  

We need to consider how this may be affecting our clients during their session with us.  It is important that we read our clients well and acknowledge the state they are in when they come in.  

  • Are they rushing in overwhelmed and exhausted?  
  • Do they speak loud and fast?  
  • Are they complaining about not sleeping or struggling with digestion?  

These are clear signs that they are currently stuck in a sympathetic state.  Beginning their session that way may not be helpful, as they will find it hard to let go of the excessive tension in their body to move easily.  Their body is still looking out for threats.  That is not something we want when we are trying to help them heal, expand their movement abilities, and learn new movement patterns.

What we can do, is dedicate our first few minutes of the session to help them feel safe, so that they can tap into their parasympathetic system.  How do we do this?  There are many simple tools:

1. Modeling Safety

First of all we need to slow down our own pace and model the behavior of a person who feels safe.  This is why it is so important for us as practitioners to be self-aware and to self regulate our own NS.  We can speak slowly and softly, breathe deeply, and allow our own bodies to relax.  Our client’s NS will pick up on this and take in the message that if we feel safe, perhaps there is no threat here and perhaps they can join in on feeling safe too.

2. Orienting

Then we can make them aware of the environment they are in.  Perhaps their brain is still in traffic or at work; encourage them to recognize that they have arrived in your studio where they are safe and in an environment of joy and healing.

3. Grounding

Guide them to ground themselves in their body.  Make them aware of the contact they are making with the floor, the mat, the piece of equipment they are on and invite them to explore the subtle sensations of that.  Make them aware of their breath and encourage them to explore it or breathe more deeply.

All of these things can help your client shift into a more parasympathetic state in which they will be more able to engage with their body, focus on what they are doing and learning, move with more quality and efficiency, and remain safe as they move.

However we need to keep the NS in mind throughout the session.  We are asking our client to go through a variety of movements, and we do not know what their individual nervous system might make of an exercise that we think would be good for them.  

With our anatomy hat on, we might decide that a supine stretch would be beneficial to improve their thoracic extension.  

We need to understand that there might be a very good reason why our client’s nervous system has decided to keep them stuck in excessive thoracic flexion. 

 It may just be that desk job that caused them to hunch over time.  However it is likely that there is more to this person’s rounded shoulders and hunched posture.  It may be a side effect of the client’s NS detecting danger a lot of the time, asking the body to assume a more protective posture.  So before we ask our client to bend backwards and open their heart to the sky, we may need to take even smaller steps towards this movement to ensure that our client feels safe and, if possible, even empowered to take this “risk.”  

Likewise if we decide that our client is physically able and ready for the intense experience of Russian splits or hanging, we need to be aware of the signals that this physical undertaking may send to their NS.  Both of these exercises can in fact be amazing tools to help someone expand their window of sympathetic tolerance, which means if they achieve it while feeling safe and they have a positive experience, it may help them feel more capable and confident in their every day lives.  

However if we take a client who, at that moment in time is struggling with an unstable NS, he or she may well be unstable in Russian splits too.  Not only are we at an increased risk of something going wrong, we may just be adding the last bit of stress that may cause the client to go into sympathetic overwhelm, which may be hard to recover from or could even cause re-traumatization of someone who has been struggling with emotional trauma.

The problem is that our client may not be fully aware of what state they are in as the NS regulates itself on a rather subconscious level.  

On top of that we like to reassure each other that we are “fine” or “okay.”  That is why we, as practitioners, have to be even more aware of the signs that tell us about where our client is in his or her NS spectrum and the effect that our session may have on them.  As practitioners who support our clients to engage and work with their body, it is also our job to help them become more self-aware.  This practice will help them be able to self-regulate their NS, to make more wise choices when it comes to what they ask of their body, and to live a more balanced healthy life.

Kristin Loeer is a Polestar Mentor in London with Polestar Pilates UK Polestar Pilates United Kingdom

Learn more about Kristin here

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Reader Interactions


  1. Thanks for a great discussion on the role of the nervous system in our pilates work. Really fascinating and helpful for grounding our clients.

  2. This is simple wonderful! So well described and simply put! Thank you for explaining it SO clear!

  3. This is exactly my philosophy and teaching style. I’m so happy to read this and that this approach is becoming real and recognized. Adding essential oils to the session has been amazingly helpful too. Thank you


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