More Mindfulness

Ballerina Project

On the basis that you can’t have too much mindfulness, here’s a follow-up to the two previous posts on the subject (Mindfulness and Its Benefits and a Guided Meditation) – an article by Nicola Preston Bell from the latest issue of the Pilates Foundation members’ newsletter, Connected…

Changing Habits, Changing Your Life Through Mindfulness

This fast-paced world

When, around 25 years ago, the internet age was born, it was predicted that technology would free us up to have more leisure time, work less and have more time to spend doing the things that really give us joy.

Here we are today, joined at the hip to our digital devices, bombarded with information, most of which is poorly researched and out of date within weeks. Colleagues, family and friends feel they can reach each other 24/7 – this seems a great idea, but can lead to a state of hyper vigilance, constantly ready for the next text, whatsapp or email, trying to respond before it joins the heap that needs to be sorted “manana”, (when we will ever have more time!)

This state of hyper vigilance is physiologically a low-level fight-or-flight response, and sometimes not all that low level.

Tension has to go somewhere

The brain is on the look-out for threats as it senses the tension. This could be a sense of urgency induced by “I must get this done, I should have done that yesterday, I ought to try and…. etc.”

The body holds tension in the muscles, breathing might well be shallow and rapid, and although the adrenaline can kick start energy, by the end of the day you might well feel frazzled, wired or just plain exhausted. Adrenaline is part of our survival package, but when it becomes a way of life it becomes a poison as the body and mind get sucked into a spiral of stress and exhaustion, poor health and well-being.

ballerina-project-tree

Thinking and doing on autopilot

If you have the virus of busyness (have you noticed how contagious it is?) then your wonderful brain will operate many systems of behaviour on autopilot. You can drive places while mentally writing your shopping list, sit in a meeting and quietly think about your next Pilates session, shower while worrying about how you are going to fit everything in today, eat a couple of biscuits when you really need a glass of water. Autopilot systems make sure that you can do at least two things at once. Autopilot is like sleepwalking, you are doing something but not really present with all your attention. Once we have learnt a pattern, a sequence of actions that seems to “work”, like cleaning your teeth, tying up shoe laces, then you can do those actions without thinking about them consciously. So you can continue to plan your day, mentally “be somewhere else” while undertaking mundane tasks. This can seem very efficient, but when do you find time to slow down and reflect, rest, recuperate.  How often do you allow yourself to do that? It takes practice to be good at relaxing, focusing and reflecting.

What is the antidote to 21st century life? (apart from Pilates)

Take a deep breath and stop for a moment…yes, you are allowed to stop for a moment. The sky won’t crash in on you. Be mindful of how your body feels in this moment, right here. Observe without judgement where you are relaxed and where you are holding tension – in your jaw? Shoulders?

How does your posture feel? Balanced or lopsided? Where is your mind racing off to? Rehashing the past? Rehearsing the future? Are you aware of your breathing, or the noise around you? Notice with compassion, with a kind curiosity, how it feels to be inside your one and only body in this moment. Can you find a comfortable feeling?

Take another deep breath, see if you can let go of your shoulders on the exhalation. Congratulate yourself for permitting yourself a breathing space.

You have just done a mindful check-in.

ballerina-project-cave

Living in our heads

So much of life is planning and doing, we take for granted the energy and comfort of a healthy body and just get on and use it to get all the tasks accomplished. We tend to only pay proper attention to this amazing meat case when it stops performing in the way we would like. Endless thought-feeling loops creating tension and dis-ease are a side-effect of this culture of busyness.

We are rarely taught how to manage our thoughts, however it is possible with practice. Buddhist psychology, Mindfulness and hypnosis are all showing us the way to calm down and take stock. Better for your body; it can begin to feel safe.  Better for your mind; when you are calm you can see the bigger picture, come down off that “do or die” soap box and develop a more flexible approach to how you can think about things.

I remember when I was a teenager my mother having sleepless nights and worrying constantly about a tree that was quite close to the house. She was convinced it would fall on the house and we wouldn’t be able to pay for the repairs. Her mind would be on a constant loop of fear and worry, conjuring up worst case scenarios that would keep her awake at night. The tree never fell down, it was taken down when they built an extension. All that worry and exhaustion…

The power of the imagination to terrify is most apparent to us in the small hours of the night, when we have no reality-checkers available to us. Entranced by the contents of our nightmares, we don’t notice how the body is stiff with anticipation of the disaster being conjured up by our unconscious.

Harnessing the wild horses of the imagination

When you begin to meditate, or to relax and focus the attention, you might well notice how the mind wanders off the chosen topic. A train of thought comes along and you jump on it without a second glance, then a few moments later realise you’d chosen to focus on the breath, not tonight’s dinner. Guided meditation is really an opportunity to practice attention focus. Informal meditation, when you attempt to stay present with an activity such as showering or eating, also encourages us to be more aware of how we can manage our thoughts and what we are attending to.

ballerina-project-cave

The attitudes of mindfulness are really important to embrace if you are interested in making changes in your life. Lead yourself gently by the hand with kind discipline and consider the following attitudes:

  • Beginner’s mind – be curious about what you encounter without having to give it a story. See it as new and unique.
  • Non-judgment – try to cultivate impartial observation, develop your “observing self” without labelling but simply taking note of what is happening from moment to moment.
  • Acknowledgement is a quality of awareness that validates what you are experiencing.
  • Non-striving – remember you are not trying to get anywhere, you are learning to be here right now with yourself.
  • Equanimity is about seeing the bigger picture, much easier once you are calm. Develop a deep understanding that everything changes and you can transform along side it with greater insight and compassion.
  • Letting be means you don’t have to let go of difficult sensations or emotions, but you can consider letting them be.
  • Self-reliance is a quality of awareness that helps you to see for yourself, from your own experience, what is true or untrue for you.
  • Self-compassion is very important and may be the most important of all. Cultivating love for yourself just as you are without self-blame or criticism.

So make sure you carve out time for yourself every day to come to your senses, allow your body to feel safe and calm each day, even for a few minutes and you will notice differences settling into place over time. A bit like a Pilates practice, except you are exercising the muscle of awareness and attention, so that you can tune in to what makes you smile and feel joy.

Studies in Cognitive Bias Modification have shown that when we regularly pay attention to the good stuff around us, we develop a more positive mindset. This, plus feeling calmer and more in control, provides a great foundation for changing those autopilot unhelpful habits. Relax and imagine your day going well, think about when you are going to draw breath and congratulate yourself and feel a sense of achievement. Enjoy moments when you allow yourself to pause and be really present. Rick Hanson, a neuroscientist and meditation teacher says that we can rewire the brain to be Teflon for the bad stuff and Velcro for the good stuff. It takes time, just a few minutes a day, and it is well worth it, just like your Pilates practice.

Photography by the Ballerina Project.

To close, a bit of mindlessness from punk band, The Vibrators who I’m going to see in London this weekend…gertcha!

May Bank Holidays – Class Timetable Changes

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Two chill-out Bank Holiday weekends on their way in May, which means a couple of minor changes to the usual weekly class timetable at The Wellbeing Studio: there will be no 12.30 Monday lunchtime classes on the following dates:

  • Monday 2nd May
  • Monday 30th May

The rest of the timetable remains unchanged of course, so for anyone affected by the cancellation of the two Monday lunchtime classes in May, please feel free to come along to one of the other classes during those weeks – the Thursday lunchtime class at 12.30 perhaps?

Prince wearing third eye sunglasses

To close, here’s Prince, one of the best movers in the world, and the best guitarist of all time.  RIP.

How to Improve Your Balance with Pilates

Balance

What is balance?

Balance is our ability to maintain the body’s centre of mass over its base of support.  In other words being able to distribute our weight evenly in order to remain upright and steady whether stationary (termed a static balance) or moving (a dynamic balance).

A properly functioning balance system allows us to see clearly while moving, orient ourselves in relation to gravity, determine direction and speed of movement, and then make automatic adjustments to maintain posture and stability in whatever we’re doing and whatever the conditions, e.g. walking on a pebbly beach, riding a bike, getting out of bed to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, running on a treadmill etc.

How Do We Balance?

Balance is achieved and maintained by a complex set of control systems involving input from the eyes, ears, and from the skin, muscles and joints being sent to the brain for processing:

  • The eyes provide visual cues identifying how a person is oriented relative to other objects.
  • The ears provide sensory information about movement, equilibrium, and where we are in a space.
  • The skin, muscles and joints have special receptors which provide information about any change in stretch or pressure the body may be experiencing. The receptors in the neck and ankle are particularly important.  Cues from the neck indicate the direction in which the head is turned. Cues from the ankles indicate the body’s movement relative to both the standing surface (floor or ground) and the quality of that surface, e.g. hard, soft, slippery, or uneven.

The brain sorts the input received from the eyes, ears, skin, muscles and joints, and integrates it with any previously learned information from past experiences, e.g. repeated automatic movements like tossing a tennis ball when serving, or an awareness we have to use slower, more precise steps when walking on an icy pavement.  The brain then “talks” to the muscles that control the movements of the eyes, head and neck, trunk, and legs, enabling us to maintain balance and have a clear vision while moving.

These complex sensori-motor control systems which enable us to achieve and maintain balance can be impaired if the eyes, ears, skin, muscles or joints are not working properly, e.g. through injury, illness, lack of use or the aging process.

Ballerina Project Hungary

How to improve your balance

There are a number of important benefits associated with having an enhanced sense of stability, e.g. protection against falls, better mobility, fewer injuries when going about our daily lives or playing sport, greater capacity to push ourselves when we exercise, leading to increased overall fitness.

Essential to achieving and maintaining good balance are:

  • core muscle strength;
  • strong, powerful leg muscles, particularly the quadriceps;
  • strong, powerful gluteal muscles;
  • strength and flexibility in the ankle joints and feet;
  • the ability to use multiple muscle groups.  Researchers looking at the human balance system measured muscle use in a group of professional dancers against those of people who had no dance or gymnastics training.  The dancers not only moved with more grace and precision, but deployed more muscle groups, even when just walking across a flat floor, than those with no training;
  • practice and repetition.  A baby learns to balance by practising and repeating movements.  Impulses sent from the sensory receptors to the brain and then out to the muscles form a new pathway. With repetition, it becomes easier for these impulses to travel along that nerve pathway—a process called facilitation—and the baby is then better able to maintain balance during any activity.  This pathway facilitation is the reason dancers and athletes practise so much. Even very complex movements become almost automatic over a period of time.
  • confidence/a positive attitude.  If you think “oh no, a balance, I’m rubbish at balancing” before you attempt a balance exercise in class, you will more than likely execute it poorly;
  • a good night’s sleep.  Sleep deprivation slows reaction time and is also directly related to falls.  Researchers tracked nearly 3,000 people and found that those who typically slept between 5 and 7 hours each night were 40% more likely to fall than those who slept longer.

The Pilates classes I run in Clevedon and Bristol are carefully prepared to provide exercises which build a strong core, improve the strength and flexibility of the leg and gluteal muscles, encourage the correct activation of all the muscles required to perform a movement (nothing overworking, nothing underworking), and increase the strength and flexibility of the ankles and feet.  Balance exercises chosen from a wide range, are also a key feature of the classes.

Just like strength and flexibility, balance can be improved if we continually challenge it. This is achieved in my Pilates classes by performing both static and moving balances, as well as by encouraging people to try and balance:

  • on an unstable surface, e.g. a small Pilates ball;
  • in different positions, e.g. on all fours in table-top, extended kneeling etc
  • with eyes closed;
  • on a smaller surface area, e.g. on one foot or with both feet together rather hip-width apart
  • for increasingly longer periods of time.

Right, time to go practise my balance beam routine.  Here’s one I did earlier…when I was Chinese…and a bit younger…

Pilates For Feet

Ballerina Project

Feet have a key role to play in achieving balance in the body.  With twenty-six bones, thirty-three joints and more than a hundred muscles, ligaments and tendons in each one, the foot is a marvel of engineering and yet it is often overlooked by anatomists and medical students, indeed by all of us. When our feet go wrong then we pay attention to them.  Only when they stop working properly do we appreciate what they do to keep us upright and move us around all day.

According to anthropologists, the development of the arches of the feet allowed us to step into our humanity more than two million years ago. It is the evolution of this part of our anatomy more than any other that enabled man to walk upright, freeing up our hands and our brains to focus on other more complex tasks.

Footprints of two people walking in the sand

Feet not only provide insight into how we developed as humans, they tell the story of our overall physiological health. When the foot hits the ground, everything is affected. Conversely, an imbalance in the pelvis places strain on the knees and ankles, which can be seen in our feet, even when they are not weight bearing.

When we run approximately half the energy used in each step is stored in the elasticity of our Achilles tendons and released via the arches of the feet. The arches, two along the length of the foot and one across its width, also bear our weight. They are necessary for strength, just like the spans of a bridge. Without the arches, the feet can’t support the weight of our bodies.

The feet need to be flexible in order to reduce the impact of postural imbalances and to improve stability when we move around. As we age the foot becomes less flexible increasing our susceptibility to ankle sprains, knee and hip pain, and to falls due to poor balance. Similarly, repetitive movements such as walking and running, inappropriate footwear and a sedentary lifestyle, can all contribute to a loss of flexibility in the feet.

textured-ball-foot

Tension in the feet can affect the legs and hips. This is because the muscles of the calves run all the way down into the feet. These in turn connect via fascia to the muscles of the upper leg and hip.

To address this tension and inflexibility, Melissa now incorporates foot exercises into the Pilates classes she runs at The Wellbeing Studio and the Complete Health Clinic in Clevedon. The exercises, using special textured balls are easy to do and feel good.  Doing them at the start of the Pilates class helps maintain proper foot alignment for the rest of the session, which improves the recruitment of the muscles in the hips, pelvic floor, and abdominal area.

Burning Man Festival Marco Cochrane sculpture

New Tuesday Evening Pilates Class

Ballerina Project

To meet the increasing demand for our classes, Embody Pilates now runs two group sessions on a Tuesday evening, from 18.15 to 19.15 and then straight afterwards from 19.15 to 20.15.

Like all the Pilates classes on our weekly schedule, they are suitable for all ages, sizes, abilities and fitness levels, and take place at The Wellbeing Studio in the heart of Clevedon.  Click the following links to find out where the studio is and to have a look inside the studio.

The cost of a block of six group Pilates sessions is £50. The classes can then be taken as and when you’re available. No booking required.  For those who’d prefer to pay for each class individually, the cost is £10.

Embody Pilates’ weekly schedule of classes now looks like this:

Monday lunchtimes, 12.30 to 13.30
Tuesday evenings, 18.15 to 19.15
Tuesday evenings, 19.15 to 20.15
Thursday lunchtimes, 12.30 to 13.30
Thursday evenings, 18.00 to 19.00
Saturday mornings, 10.00 to 11.00

Thank you to all our clients for supporting Embody Pilates by coming regularly to class and for recommending us to family and friends.  This is so valuable to us in attracting new people.

Ballerina Project