In ‘97 I was on a year tour with the show “Rugrats Live”. We would sometimes do 3 shows a day at almost 2 hours a show, dancing, jumping and climbing all in costumes with a big head. From the audience perspective we really looked like Giant Babies on stage. The costumes were top notch. But if you are a performer you know that not all costumes are made for function, mostly just show. Well, before the end of the tour my body finally gave out on me. I had continuous whiplash in my neck and in both of my ankles the ligaments and tendons were shot. After sadly leaving the show, I found myself not able to walk much for about 9 months and wondering what I was going to do to heal and keep my sanity. That’s when I found Pilates! Or, it found me.
Because Pilates is rooted in strengthening stabilizer muscles while doing dance-like movements and stretches, it’s a dancer’s dream workout. Because I wasn’t able to stand well while moving, I started with mat work. This was great because mat work is just that, you are lying down. Mat class is a great place to start and it’s where most Pilates teachers all start. I knew I was a mess but not until I had a Pilates teacher work with me on the mat, correcting my form, did I realize just how much of a mess I was.
Pilates introduced my mind and body to the anatomy of movement, or what Joseph Pilates first called it “Contrology”, which is the complete coordination of body, mind and spirit. When done with focus, intent and love, Pilates can fuse itself seamlessly in to your very being. It can become the base of all you do. My Pilates teacher (Randi Whitman) would always say, “From your abdominals Melissa … everything … everything extends from your core; your center is always growing out, always stretching”.
I learned that Pilates was not a certain exercise whether you did it on the mat or machine, but more a way you held yourself, your awareness in your body and its movement. It’s how you lift up out of your bones, decompressing everything.
The feeling of space
Our daily life is full of compression: walking, sitting, driving, if you are a runner or biker… you name it. Unless you are aware of the action to “to lift yourself” you are compressed. One of the best ways to decompress yourself and all your joints and muscles is to learn opposition. When you think about how you stretch something from being clumped up, what do you do? Just take a rubber band for example; you pull both ends away from each other. Now imagine your body being that rubber band; stand up and start to pull your abdominals in and up, making a scooping motion up your spine. Start to lengthen your neck and reach the crown of your head towards the sky. As you do this, the opposition would be to reach through your legs like they are vines growing into the ground, and lengthening your arms down your sides. If you are standing up doing this, you should be feel lightness in your hips and pelvis and all of your joints; a “feeling of space”. You are now being active in your body, you are decompressing, recruiting all of the muscles to do their job.
When I was pregnant this very action is what helped me when all of my bones were shifting and my body was doing so much changing. Instead of feeling like my body was a lost puzzle piece, I was able to keep it together, healthy and strong. Yes, it gets deeper than that, learning how to feel free in your body can be a long journey, but it’s a good place to start. This is what Pilates can teach you.
Learning neutral spine
Here is where the biggest difference of how you learn to hold your body is brought to light. In most fitness classes while doing a “crunch” or a leg lift, you are taught to press your lower back down into the floor and tuck in your pelvis. By doing this you are over activating your hip flexors and quads while putting stress on your lower back. When you think of it, yes you are “crunching”, now imagine that position standing up. Doesn’t look right does it? In Pilates you learn about neutral spine and working with the natural way your spine was made. “The neutral pelvis position, in which the pubic bone and the two hip bones are in the same plane, stabilizes the back so that the disks are in a safe position and are not “Compressed”, (Pilates on the Ball, by Colleen Craig). Your spine has curves that are essential to its health and well-being, learning how to not over exaggerate is very important. Everyone has their own neutral spine, let Pilates teach you yours.
Because this will be a two-part series, the first 3 exercises I give will be for beginners. They are fundamental exercises that you will see in all Pilates classes and even when you are advanced you will do them. The beauty of having a Total Gym is that the glideboard is similar to a mat, but this mat moves smoothly, without tension like a therapy ball and then you add arm pulleys to top it off.
In the next blog I will be talking about breathing: how to know when you are ready to move to a more advanced exercise, how Pilates saved me through and after my pregnancy and how I view the differences of Pilates and yoga.
Place your tower at level 2 or 3, you will need arm pulleys and a toe bar.
- Grab arm pulleys and sit at the middle to bottom of your glideboard.
- Face your toe bar.
- Lie back placing your feet on the bottom of the glideboard.
- Place your arms above your head reaching for the tower about ear level.
- Draw your shoulders down your back and lengthen your neck.
- Now keep your legs on the glideboard or up in a 90 degree table top.
- Make sure you are in neutral spine with the natural curve of your lower back.
- Deeply inhale through your nose.
- Exhale from your mouth and start to sink your lower abdominals in and up.
- As you are doing this knit your ribs together and start to pull your arms over your head towards your hips.
- As your arms pass your face, the knitting of your ribs will help you curl your upper body bringing your head and shoulders off the mat.
- You are now in your 100’s pose.
- Slowly start to pump your arms and hands up and down keeping them by your hips just like you would bounce a basketball.
- Pulse your arms 100 times, hence the name “100’s”.
- Your breath should be long and deep, in through the nose out through the mouth, try doing a 4 count in and 4 count out.
- When you are done simple place your feet back on the glide board, lie back and reach your arms back over your head.
Tips: Remember to keep your eyes looking at your legs, it will help with the neck strain. There should be a space between your chin and chest that an egg could fit in. With every breath reach more, lengthen more, curl higher, NEVER STOP WORKING!! If your lower back feels a little weak, remember to engage your inner thighs and glutes, they are there for a reason.
Keep level at 2 or 3, you will still need your arm pulleys
- Lie on the glideboard face up and keep arms over head at ear level.
- Place your legs in a 90 degrees table top.
- Take a deep inhale.
- On your exhale, the action of your abdominals sinking in and up and your ribs knitting is what starts your curl.
- Bringing your arms over your face and down by your sides.
- At the same time, you are curling extend your legs into the air.
- Then in a quick motion, open and close your legs (as if you were moving something out of the way and bringing your legs back together.)
- Then exhale, bend your knees back to 90 degrees table top.
- Lastly, bend your elbows until your fingers are pointing towards the ceiling (as you do this try curling higher.
- Repeat this 5 times.
Tips: remember when I was talking about opposition, this exercise is full of it. Try staying in neutral spine while you are curling and bringing your legs back in. Also resist the urge to crunch. Pull your abdominals in and up, don’t push them out.
Level 2 or 3 and toe bar if you want, as a marker
- Sit at the top of the glideboard facing the tower.
- Lie back bringing your legs up into the air and your arms reaching down your sides.
- Abs in, long neck.
- Inhale and slightly take your legs away from you.
- Exhale sinking your abdominals and bring your legs over towards your face
- As you do this press your hands into the glideboard and reach your arms down your sides.
- Stop rolling over when your body weight is on your upper back and shoulder blades.
- NEVER ON YOUR NECK!!!!!
- Always keep an open chest.
- Take an inhale and start rolling down.
- Exhale sink your abdominals and roll the rest of the way down.
- As you are doing this, keep reaching your legs towards your face (that is the opposition of you rolling down.)
Tips: Please try not to strain yourself to get your legs over your head. Start small. Maybe bring your level up the tower to 4 so that you have some assistance getting your legs over. There is a lot of opposition going on in this exercise, reach, reach, reach, lengthen, lengthen, lengthen! And again NEVER on your NECK!
I hope you enjoy these exercises, try to add them to all of your workouts and see the difference they can make. can make.