Pilates Meets Myofascial Stretching

For the past couple of months we’ve been exploring in class a range of Pilates exercises I’ve adapted to include more myofascial stretching.  Here is some background information on fascia and myofascial stretching which might help you get more out of your practice…

What is Fascia?

Fascia is the fibrous connective tissue that surrounds every part of the body.  Think of it as a three-dimensional spider web that holds together the muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments, organs, nerves etc.  Fascia, like all connective tissue in the body is made of water and this water is arranged in microscopic tubules.

A key feature of fascia is that it is one continuous entity, which informs how we can stretch most effectively when we practise Pilates.  It is useful to think of muscles and other structures like bones, ligaments, tendons etc as links in various chains or slings which run throughout the body.  These links work together to move us about in different ways.  Fascia is the fibrous web that weaves in and around the different chains or slings of the body, supporting and nourishing them.  This view of anatomy is a holistic one, which respects the global organization of our tissues.

What is myofascial stretching and how does it work with Pilates?

Myofascial stretching (MFS) is a relatively new technique and differs markedly from traditional methods of stretching. Instead of focussing on stretching a specific muscle, MFS works on the fascia surrounding the muscles, ligaments, tendons etc in a specific chain or sling, e.g. extending from the toes to the back of the knee and into the pelvis.  

The Pilates exercises I’ve adapted to involve more MFS encourage us to move into and hold certain shapes with the aim of improving the quality of the movement of each link in the chain relative to another.

Other features of MFS I’ve incorporated into the Pilates exercises we perform in class include:

  • certain stretches being held for 90-120 seconds rather than the traditional 30 seconds to allow time for the fascia to “let go.”  This results in tissue releasing permanently rather than just temporarily.
  • active elongation and perpetual motion, two more ways of encouraging the fascia to “let go.”  These help us experience the natural elasticity in the body.
  • being present during each stage of performing an exercise. I provide cues to help you focus on any tension in the body, encouraging you to breathe into it, to notice the resulting slack as the release takes place, then inviting you to lengthen further and wait for the next release.

The benefits of Pilates exercises that incorporate myofascial stretching

Pilates and MFS together are a powerful combination.  They help to nourish and rejuvenate the tissues throughout your entire body and can be used to:

  • treat injuries and tight spots gently without the pain associated with traditional stretching and massage therapies;
  • enhance muscle performance. Particularly useful for sportspeople looking to go fast, be stronger;
  • improve muscle recovery.  MFS improves the blood flow to tired muscles, helping them recover faster from intense periods of physical activity and with less soreness;
  • increase flexibility and range of movement;
  • improve posture and alignment;
  • encourage the balanced use of muscles;
  • promote spine and joint health;
  • promote good hydration of the tissues of the body.

We will continue to explore myofascial stretching through specific adapted Pilates exercises in the classes I run each week online.

Pop-Up Pilates Tutorial – Feet

I’m now doing occasional pop-up PILATES X MELISSA tutorials focusing on a specific part of the body or exercise or skill (e.g. balance, coordination, breathing.) The 30-minute tutorials provide a chance to work more closely on this one area than we’re able to do in a general, holistic Pilates class.

The pop-up PILATES X MELISSA tutorials are FREE, suitable for most people and live-streamed via Zoom. The first one is on Thursday 4 June at 1830 and the topic is feet.

Inspired by the work ballet dancers do to ensure their feet are strong and supple, I’ll take you through a series of strengthening, stretching and myofascial release exercises you can then do for yourself at home to help you achieve your best feet.

Who will benefit

  • Anyone who spends a lot of time on their feet.
  • Anyone who does load-bearing, impactful activities like running or tennis or football.
  • Anyone who regularly wears heels.
  • Anyone who has circulatory problems affecting their feet.
  • Anyone who finds their feet cramp a lot.
  • Anyone who spends most of the summer months wearing flip-flops or fashion sandals.

If you have any healing fractures or new sprains or strains affecting the foot or ankle then none of the exercises in the pop-up tutorial are suitable for you to do just yet. Best to watch and take notes as these exercises will help you enormously once your injury has healed enough to resume gentle exercise.

The myofascial release exercises will not suit people with the following issues – malignancy, aneurysm, acute rheumatoid arthritis, advanced diabetes, severe osteoporosis, open wounds or bruising to the foot.

How will you benefit

The exercises over time will help the proper functioning of the foot and ankle, particularly when balancing, walking and running by:

  • improving their strength, especially at the joints;
  • increasing the range of movement;
  • reducing tension by encouraging the release of deep knots or trouble spots;
  • improving blood flow;
  • reducing aches and pains;
  • improving the transmission of information from your feet to your brain.

There is also evidence that performing myofascial release exercises on the plantar surface of the feet improves the flexibility of the hamstrings and lumbar spine.

What you will need for the pop-up Pilates tutorial

To get the most from the session you will need:

  • a 6-7cm ball of some kind, preferably a spikey massage ball or you could use a golf ball or a juggling ball;
  • a tennis ball or similar;
  • a hair elastic or a small but strong elastic band;
  • a TheraBand or a hand towel;
  • a large handkerchief or a tea towel.

To attend this free pop-up Pilates tutorial for the feet, please register with Zoom here. Once you have done this you will automatically receive a confirmation email from Zoom (please check your spam folder if it doesn’t arrive straight away in your inbox), which contains a link. On the day of the tutorial, 5-10 minutes before the start time, you simply click on this link to join the session.

Before the tutorial, if you’re using a tablet or mobile to take part you will need to download the Zoom App from the App store, which is free. If you’re using a laptop and want quicker access into the session, download Zoom Client for Meetings from their website. You don’t need any kind of Zoom account to attend my online classes and pop-up tutorials on Zoom.

Please help me to help others by sharing details of these free pop-up PILATES X MELISSA tutorials and inviting any friends, family members and work colleagues you think might be interested.

To close, a fine tune from Benjamin Clementine and a fantastic video. It’s like looking inside someone’s head while they’re dreaming…

Seeing and Hearing with your Whole Body

Lockdown can provide time for more mindful pursuits so I thought I’d share a favourite video of mine.  It features choreographer, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s pure dance piece, Rain set to Steve Reich’s minimalistic composition, Music for 18 Musicians.

Rain feels particularly apt for these unprecedented times when we’re being called upon to work together to overcome the threat posed by Covid-19.  Here’s how de Keersmaeker describes her piece…

“In Rain, the company of dancers are a close-knit group of pronounced individuals who, one by one, play a vital role in the whole. Seven women and three men allow themselves to be propelled by an unstoppable joined energy that binds them together. It’s a bustling network in which breath and speed is shared as well as that special comradery that forms when you are beyond fatigue.”

If dance isn’t your thing, I’d highly recommend you just close your eyes and listen to Reich’s music.  I often listen to it while doing Pilates at home. 18 Musicians is a beautiful piece that you experience rather than just hear.  The pulsating tones and repetitive movements seem to enter the body, clearing the mind of its chatter, releasing tension in the body and producing, if not quite a dream-like state then a stillness inside.

Anyway, less blathering from me.  I’ll let the dance and music speak for themselves…

UPDATE – rather unhelpfully, YouTube has removed my favourite video so here is the full performance of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians and a snippet of the dance performance, Rain in a separate video…

The Brutal Beauty of Dance

Marianela Núñez Rick Guest portrait

I recently discovered London-based photographer, Rick Guest’s book, What Lies Beneath.  It features the stunning images he took of some of the world’s best dancers. Guest’s aim was to capture the ‘determination and sacrifice’ that goes into the gruelling training regimes of professional dancers.

Guest: ‘The photos were taken over the last three years, with the dancers always coming to my studio. I felt it was important to remove them completely from the world where they perform, in order to better get under their skin as people, not just the dancer playing a character.  Part of their job is to make the physicality of what they do appear effortless and only be seen in terms of how it adds to the narrative of the performance, but this does a great disservice to their art and its appreciation.

The photo above is of Argentinian ballet dancer Marianela Núñez, a principal dancer with The Royal Ballet.  Below are three more of my favourite images from the book.  They are of (in the order shown) Sergei Polonin, Zarina Stahnke and Eric Underwood…

Sergei Polonin by Rick Guest

Zarina Stahnke by Rick Guest

what lies beneath rick guest

I also love this GIF, a mash-up of all the stills from Guest’s book, which allows the dancers to move…

A mash-up of Rick Guest's what lies beneath

In case you’re in any doubt of the brutality of dance, here are couple of images (not by Rick Guest) of dancers’ feet…ouch!

ballet dancer's feet

A ballet dancer's feet on pointe

To close, here is a video featuring key moments from one of the best dance documentaries ever made, Pina 3D, a film for Pina Bausch by Wim Wenders.  It’s set to Song of the Stars by Dead Can Dance.  The video perfectly captures the brutal beauty of dance…

Pilates Inspiration – Butoh

Imre Thormann - Butoh

Few things demonstrate the eight principles of Pilates* in action so effectively as the slow, hyper-controlled movements of Butoh, a form of Japanese dance theatre.

Below, videos of arguably two of the best Butoh dancers in the business. The first is Swiss dancer, Imre Thormann performing at Hiyoshi Taisha Shrine in Shiga, Japan. The live music is by Swiss jazz pianist, Nik Baertsch and his band Mobile.

The second video is Sayoko Onishi’s solo Butoh performance piece, Animal Science.

* Eight principles of Pilates: 1) concentration, 2) flowing movement, 3) co-ordination, 4) alignment, 5) core strength or centring, 6) breathing, 7) control and 8) relaxation (by which we mean performing a movement using only the muscles needed to execute it, allowing other muscles to relax and thus working the body at optimum efficiency.

Sayoko Onishi - Butoh