Stand tall, Workout on the wall!

In the Classical Pilates Tradition, you start and end standing.  And I like how this just brings such an elegant simplicity to it all.  You start in the same way you came in to the studio, and finish ready to walk out and go about the rest of your day. Starting or ending on the wall is one of my favorite ways to either get things going or wrap them up.  And lately I find myself starting a session with it ALOT.  I especially love the way that it gives tactile feedback to your back that you may not get just standing up, and this helps to develop your understanding of where your back body is in space and time (“proprioception” as it is called, for all you fancy medical geniuses).

You really can feel where you spine is -whats parts are touching the wall, and what parts aren’t, and HOW you are moving -sequentially? Piece by piece? All one big thump?

Standing up, the relationship to gravity is different than laying down.  I mean, try a rollup against the wall and compare that to laying down on the mat.  Gravity just isn’t on your side when you’re laying down.  And so many other Pilates exercises change from sitting to standing or laying down, and its just amazing, the same exercise gets totally different by changing positions.

What makes the wall so wonderful is that gravity does pull against you in just a teensy tiny way as you roll up, and I love it for this!  It is just slight and enough that you are allowed to go slowly, move with control and work to really feel each piece of your spine press into the wall as you straighten up.

Another beauty of the wall is the awareness and control it lends to your stomach.  When you lay down on the mat, it can be hard to feel your abdominals scoop up and in.  When you are on the mat and rolling down, gravity pulls you down and makes it tricky to roll  with control.  But all that was before!  Lol, NOW!  Entering center stage right… the WALL!  Try to do the same thing (rolling up and down).  Stand at the wall and feel your abdomen scoop up and in, and in this position, stomach is no longer allowed to let gravity do its job, stomach has to work to make this happen.  Roll up from your bent over hang and feel your abdominals pull in as you press your spine into the wall.  Stomach has to work to put your torso back to upright position. Find the connection of the wall and your middle spine -especially the spine just behind the bottom of the front side of your ribs.  Keep this connection as you scoop your stomach and raise your arms over head.  Can you keep your spine connected?  Do your ribs wobble to and fro?

There is so much that you can feel for your self against the wall.  It helps you to build awareness about your body and allows you to become more independent when you exercise.

You will learn faster, stabilize and strengthen your structure faster and it will keep you brutally honest as to what your body is doing.

It shows you where the spots are that you need to work on and get to move.  There will be some “tricky” spots that are stuck and don’t want to move.  Others are all too happy to do the move.  Every spine is different, and every day makes the spine different.

However, I can say with certainty that the more your roll up and down a wall, the more movement you will get out of your spine.  So do it, a lot, when ever you get a minute.  It is so refreshing, how could you not?!

Grease the wheels and work to “undulate” your spine!

Scientifically speaking this DOES create a fresh exchange of cerebral spinal fluid that provides nourishment to your nervous system up and down your body.  MOTION IS LOTION, and to keep you fresh, you need to move ALL your parts.

Joe emphasized articulation and its importance in his writings.  Anyone ever heard that quote “If you are 30 and your spine is stiff you are old, if you are 60 and your spine is flexible you are young?”  Articulation and control seems like a few of the “Key Ingredients” in getting to this flexibility, if you were to ask me.

Grab a wall, or a door -whatever you have that is flat and smooth and lean against it. Try this series to explore your spine, your body and move in a whole new way!

Setup:  Lean against a wall and walk your feet about 18″ out. This should open things up so more of your spine can relax against the wall.  Palms are flat against the wall, head is resting against the wall, shoulder blades are squeezing together so that your arm sockets is closer to the wall.  Try to feel as much of your spine as possible on the wall.  Scoop your stomach (pull your navel in to your spine and up toward your shoulder blades).  This scooping or “hollowing out” of your abdomen may allow your spine to straighten a little more and connect it to the wall a little more, just a notion, give it a try.

Move:  There are a couple of different moves discussed below, and they do build upon each other.  Give each one a try.

1.  Try to simply nod your head.  Keep the back of your head against the wall.  Picture little “Knobs” on your ears and just try to turn your chin to your chest.  This is coming from the knobs on your ears turning down.  The space between the wall and your neck should not change, although you might feel a lengthening along the back of your neck.  This is working the connection between your head and your neck.  And believe me, in this day and age, this poor little connection needs a good stretch.  This is just a nice easy gentle lengthening for your neck.  And all too often the muscles get shortened as we stare at screens, watch TV, sit and drive.  Its the forward head posture.  I know you’ve seen it, and we’ve all been guilty of it a time or two!  Try to keep your head against the wall as much as possible.

Do this no more than 10 times.

2.  Raise and lower your arms.  Head and all your other parts (shoulders and hips) are connecting to the wall.  Try to especially connect the tiny part of spine that is behind the  front of your ribs.  Keep that connected to the wall and scoop like crazy.  Take your arms, raise them up and lower back down.  This may or may not be a challenge to keep your spine connected as you move.  There should certainly be some effort on your stomach’s part to stay scooping as your arms raise up.  And the farther up the arms go, the more the stomach should have to work.  Give this a try and explore this connection.

Do this no more than 10 times.

3.  Roll Down.  Or rather, a “nice gentle orchestration of events”.  Nod the chin, as practiced in #1, scoop the stomach and roll down bone by bone drawing your awareness to your spine and focusing on one piece of spine leaving the wall after the other.  Roll down just to the waistline of your pants.  Scoop your stomach and lift your stomach up to go back up.  Press the stomach into the wall as well as you travel up.  Try to picture each piece of your spine press into the wall before the next.

Note:  You don’t need to roll down all the way.  If you have a tricky spot with pieces of your spine that wants to “skip” the move, roll back and forth in this area to help it move a little more.  

Roll down just enough that the base of your shoulder blades comes off the wall.  This position might seem a little familiar, 100 anyone?  Single leg pull?  Double leg pull?  Try lifting a leg up into the Single leg pull.  Do your hips always stay still like this when you do this exercise on the mat?

Like every great Pilates exercise, Do this no more than 10 times.

4.  Squat.  This one requires that your feet walk out a little farther from the wall. You are going to be sliding down the wall and you don’t want your knees to go past your ankles in the process.  So do that.  Now check in with all your parts against the wall, and keep them there.  Scoop your stomach, and slide down.  I find that the hips and tailbone tend to move away from the wall during this move, so pay close attention to this and don’t let your lower body run away.  Slide back up.  Stomach makes the move.  Spine reaches long -up and through your head to come back up.  Nice and easy.  NO big muscle clenching, no big butt squeezing thoughts, just nice and easy in all your parts sliding up and going down.  Dare I say, Standing Footwork?  I would suggest possibly so.

Maybe you would like to add the arms when you do this.  Raise them up as you slide down.  Keep the stomach scoop, and the ribs still and connected to the wall.  Lots of room to play around with these simple moves.

So, find a wall!  Find a smooth door!  Something that lets you move nice and easy and give this a go.  This can take 5 minutes, it can take 15 minutes.  The beauty is that you can do this where ever, when ever and instantly feel more relaxed and more connected to your body and your center.  Refresh your mind and feel prepared for whatever else you need to do!

Translating Pilates into everyday life

At a recent workshop I attended, Jay Grimes described Pilates as a combination of

“a strong center and a 2-way stretch”

I found this statement fascinating and it inspired me  to delve deeper.  These days, when I work out, I ask where the 2-way stretch is in every exercise I do.

When Joe Pilates created the body of work that we know today as Pilates (Joe originally called it, “Contrology”), it was performed at his torture-chamber-esque studio.  However, he also dreamed that people would eventually learn the work so well that they could practice it at home and ultimately their body would encompass the principles within The Work and embody them in every movement made.

When I think about this being the ultimate end result I am fascinated by what exactly this might mean.  I mean, have you transformed into some super hero who has learned to use the force and uses “the power” for the good of all?  My mind can’t help but picture some glowing guy who can harness their power at-will.  A modern day X-men perhaps?  I digress.

The real description is probably something a little more realistic, but no less super-powered. It might just look like an 80 year old man with the body of a 30 year old who runs around in swimming trunks at every possible opportunity (that was Joe).

After my five years of practice, there are still exercises that my body struggles to execute correctly, and almost anyone who practices knows that you will most likely never execute them all perfectly.  AND did I mention?  The more you do Pilates, the harder it gets!

Pilates Feels like a road that you journey on, with the destination always seeming so far away…

Now, on it’s own, this road is a GREAT road!  The more you drive it, the more you appreciate it.  All the twists and turns.  From the outside, it may seem boring, it looks like you are doing many of the same exercises over and over.  But our bodies are different every day.  And when your body is different, the exercise feels different.  When you progress it is a satisfying thing to notice.  And when you learn the subtleties and intricacies that encompass an exercise, it engages the body AND mind in such a way that directs a focus and calm to your life.

WHAT IF we did get to the end of the road?  What if Pilates wasn’t just about the journey and there was an end destination?

As defined by Joseph Pilates in his book, “Your Health” (originally published in 1934), the use of the Pilates Method was “where flat feet, curvature of the spine, protruding stomach, stooped-shoulders, hollow chest, hollow back, bow legs, and knocked-kneed conditions are cured through corrective exercises”.

Pause for a minute to think of each of these ailments, and how they stress, strain and ache the body.  Think about all the unseen unfelt toll that it would place on the organs and body system.  It makes sense that IF these ailments were to be cured, great health may be quite possible.

So, how do we get from where we are NOW to the ultimate end goal of the Pilates Method?

The obvious answer is (of course), to Practice!

Ideally, not just the mat, not just the reformer, or any one piece of equipment.  Every piece of equipment in the Pilates system was meant to be used in conjunction with the other.

AND,

Work out with an instructor as often as possible! It is crucial that you feel and understand the exercises in your body.  This may be possible when working out on your own but while you are learning, it is important that there is a keen eye watching and teaching your body proper position and form.  When you receive a correction, memorize it in your body.  Practice the exercise with the correction given.

Remember, at the heart of every exercise, there is “a strong center and a 2-way stretch”.  Search for this feeling in every one.  Once you feel it, and can perform the exercises as directed, I believe you will be well on your way to achieving everything that Joe was able to correct with his Method.

Finally, be patient!

Your body did not assume the form it has made or the condition you might have overnight.  It will take time and work for changes to happen.  But if you are diligent and thoughtful, it WILL happen.

After time and repetition, you will achieve strength and a supple grace.  Use the work that created your “reformed” body and apply it in every simple task you perform through out your day.  When you open the cupboard and reach for a glass, your arm, back and entire body should work in conjunction, just like the Swimming exercise.  When you bend down to pick something off of the floor, you are performing your own “Russian Squat”.

After devoting the untold amounts of concentration and practice required to achieve this, you have earned every inch of length you have created, and every benefit that you feel.  You might have so much inner strength that it might radiate and you may even glow!   In your own special way, you have transformed into a super-hero.  No Kyptonite necessary, just thanks to a little Pilates, and you can leave the swimming trunks at home.

Listen to your Body

Today is a special day because it truly isn’t like another.

Tomorrow isn’t today, and neither was yesterday.  We are creatures of habit, and often times it seems that each day might be similar to the last, but if you look deep, its easy to see that this isn’t quite the case.  Each day truly is different from the last AND the one that will happen tomorrow.  We eat different foods, we have different conversations we work on different projects at home and work.  Something will happen TODAY that will be different from yesterday.

Everyday your body feels a different way.  It might be that you have slept in an odd position, you might have worked out extra hard.  Or maybe it was extra traffic and extra screen time and extra stress.  No matter the case, every day your body has something different to say.  And say it will!  All too often when the body disagrees with your actions, it says it loud!  Its easy to hear the loud cries of your body.  The pain stiffness and tightness that all too often accompanies it to make sure you know that there is an objection to be heard.

But what about when your body is at its optimal?  What about that feeling -a “runner’s high” that is felt when you have pushed your body just enough or pushed past your limitation?  When you wake from sleep refreshed and  when you bounce out the door prepared for the day.

They say that most humans tend to give negative feedback.  That we give approximately 8 words of negative reinforcement to every positive response.  Sometimes I wonder if our society can only focus on what’s wrong.  What needs to be fixed.  What if this is all we know how to listen to anymore?  What if we feel the aches.  we feel the pains, but we’ve forgotten to cherish the moments when we are energized and it just seems like everything clicks. I for one have decided to refuse to accept this reality, and Pilates happens to be a fine weapon to combat this evil brew.

“I reject YOUR reality and substitute MY OWN” -Adam Savage, Mythbusters

They must have sprinkled on something magic when Joe made The Reformer, The Leg Springs or the Arm Chair.  You can’t help but find your stomach when you push your legs out for footwork, or circle your arms around in the Arm Chair.  The beauty of this equipment is that it provides a kind of tactile feed back and a visual cue to truly show you what is happening to your body when you move and while you work.  Everything you need is there.  BUT!  You can only understand what is going on in your body if you pay close attention to it and let the tools that you are using show you!

When you press your legs out in footwork, Do your ankles wiggle outward or wobble inward?  How does this impact the position of your feet and how is your weight distributed?  How do your inner thighs feel?  DO you feel your inner thighs?  WHAT DO you feel?  

Footwork is one of the most basic exercises, and it is how most workouts start and it is also one of the most telling of moves (Joe’s Genius lives on).  I love that Pilates helps you to listen to your body talk and to understand what it is saying.  It turns your focus inward and provides a place for your wandering mind to focus.  Once you know how to do the exercises of your workout you might even call it a moving meditation.  Focus your awareness not just on what’s happening that shouldn’t or what gives you discomfort.  Ask yourself what feels wonderful?

CELEBRATE the success of a stable ankle pressing out on a still foot.  Know that your body IS working!  Your body was built for movement.  Know that your body will make every attempt to accommodate the series of motions you have planned for it.

I have to confess that running has always been a challenge for me.  For so many reasons, its just always been tough for me to stick with.  One foot after the other, after the other, after the other…  But I know its good for you.  So I try to do it again and again and again.  I am currently on my third attempt at the “Couch to 5K” program, but after three weeks am still only 3 days in.  I refuse to give up on this program.  I won’t let it beat me and I know eventually I WILL complete it.  After completing the first day of the program, my legs were in AGONY for three days.  3 Long days.  It hurt to move and all I wanted to do was stay in a blanket wrapped around me like a cocoon on the couch and lay as still as possible.  BUT I didn’t!  Motion is lotion and I pushed on like a trooper and puttered about and did my day. Secretly hoping no one would chuckle loudly enough for me to hear.  I couldn’t believe the distress I was in!

How can I be a Pilates Ninja and not be able to jog a 60 second interval?!  Truly variety is the spice of life and I needed more of this one.  One week later I mustered up the courage to do the next day of the program.  60 second jogging interval.  Here we go again, bound to not let it get the best of me.  I completed my jog and then I waited for the next day and for the agony.  And I waited.   And nothing happened.  Instead, I FELT GLORIOUS! But I also scratched my head.  How could I have two completely polar opposite experiences?! The answer lies in the fact that Today isn’t tomorrow and its not even yesterday.

The truth is that our body CAN adjust to external circumstance and it CAN respond to a challenge.

The next time you feel your body respond to the challenges you have given it, try to listen to just what it has to say.  welcome this response.  It is a sign your body is working for you.  it is working to adapt.  it is working to prepare for the future in the best way it can.  Your body is working hard for you, and maybe the least thing that you can do is try to listen to it and the things it has to say.  It may be uncomfortable but you never know, you might just find that you dominate your own personal hurdle and it might even feel GLORIOUS.

TODAY IS A SPECIAL DAY BECAUSE IT TRULY ISN’T LIKE ANOTHER.

Love the place you and your body are in today.