The 1230 to 1330 online class on Mondays has more of a rehabilitative focus. Anyone can attend the Monday lunchtime session of course. It will just be a bit less physically demanding with the emphasis more on beginner, improver and intermediate level exercises. For full details about the rehab Pilates class including who might benefit most from it and what to expect from the session, please visit this new page of my website.
The above image is of Dr Gunther von Hagens’ plastinated gymnast from his Body Worlds exhibition. I saw this in London in 2002/03. I was studying anatomy as part of my Pilates Teaching Training course so it was the perfect opportunity to get under the skin (see what I did there) of the musculoskeletal system. As those who practise with me know, the engagement of the pelvic floor muscles is a key part of the Pilates Method and this exhibition provided a chance to actually see them up-close. If I see a pelvic floor in the flesh again I’ll be surprised…and frankly disturbed.
To close, here’s a beautiful video from the Dutch National Ballet of their dancers performing at home in lockdown. Pirouetting in socks on a tiled floor – respect!
The pelvic floor is the bottom of the core and made up of a complex system of muscles, ligaments, nerves and connective tissue. It supports the bladder, uterus, vagina and rectum in women, the bladder and rectum in men and helps all those parts of the body work well together.
The pelvic floor system lies hidden beneath the pelvic bones making it physically inaccessible. Also, the anatomy and functioning of the pelvic floor is intertwined with nerves and connective tissue that aren’t discrete. The heart and the gut are two similarly complex systems in the body, but unlike the pelvic floor they aren’t voluntarily controlled. That’s what makes the pelvic floor unique.
A complex, unique system, yes and yet unlike the heart and gut, the pelvic floor is an often overlooked even neglected part of the body…until it goes wrong.
Millions of men and especially women all over the world suffer from pelvic floor problems, e.g. urinary and faecal incontinence and specifically for women, prolapse (where the pelvic organs drop down and create a bulge within or outside of the vagina.)
Research shows that the three biggest risk factors impairing the proper functioning of the pelvic floor are ageing, childbirth and obesity. High impact sports can also detrimentally affect the health of the pelvic floor.
Pelvic floor exercises are the best way to help prevent and treat pelvic floor problems and this is where Pilates has a vital role to play. Engagement of the pelvic floor is a key feature of the Pilates Method. We do it between every exhale and inhale whilst performing each Pilates exercise. In an hour-long class that’s a great workout to strengthen the pelvic floor.
For more information about the pelvic floor, I recommend this article by Jane Simpson and her excellent book, The Pelvic Floor Bible. Jane did an interesting lecture last year at a training weekend by my professional governing body, the Pilates Foundation.
Another recommendation – Joey Landreth. His debut album Whiskey is worth a listen. Here’s a taster…
The spine is an amazing piece of engineering, consisting of strong bones, flexible
ligaments and tendons, large muscles and highly sensitive nerves. The spine is also
intelligent and a source of energy.
Most of us tend to take our spine for granted, until something goes wrong.
Understanding the anatomy and inner workings of your spine will help you be mindful of how best to look after it as you go about your day-to-day life.
Your neck supports the weight of your head and protects the nerves that go from your brain to the rest of the body.
The cervical spine has seven vertebrae that get smaller the closer they get to the base of the skull. Only the top two segments rotate so you can turn your head.
Acute neck pain is most often caused by a muscle, ligament or tendon strain, e.g. from a sudden force or from straining the neck. These injuries usually heal with time and non-surgical treatments to alleviate the pain, such as ice/heat, medication, chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation etc.
If neck pain lasts longer than two weeks to three months, or if you experience mainly arm pain, numbness or tingling, there is often a specific anatomical problem in this area which needs to be addressed.
The Upper Back
The 12 vertebrae in your upper back make up the thoracic spine. The firm attachment of the rib cage at each level of the thoracic spine provides stability and structural support, allowing very little motion. This means that thoracic disc injuries are rare. However, irritation of the large back and shoulder muscles can be very painful.
The Lower Back
Your lumbar spine has the least structural support and endures the most strain, making it the most frequently injured area of the spine.
The movement in the lower spine is divided between five motion segments, although a disproportionate amount of the motion is in the lower segments (L4-L5 and L5-S1). Consequently, these two segments are the most likely to be injured. For example, a herniated disc in this area can cause pain and possibly numbness that radiates through the leg and down to the foot (sciatica).
Most episodes of lower back pain are caused by muscle strain. Even though this doesn’t sound like a serious injury, pain in the lower back can be severe.
Below your lumbar spine is a bone called the sacrum, which makes up the back part of the pelvis. This bone is shaped like a triangle that fits between the two halves of the pelvis, connecting the spine to the lower half of the body. The sacrum is connected to part of the pelvis (the iliac bones) by the sacroiliac joints. Pain here is often called sacroiliac joint dysfunction, and is more common in women than men.
The coccyx (tail bone) is at the very bottom of the spine. Pain here is called coccydynia and again, is more common in women than men.
The Intelligence and Life-Force of the Spine
From an energy point of view, life revolves around the spine. Our nervous system is the body’s information gatherer, storage centre and control system. Its function is to collect information about external conditions in relation to the body’s internal state, to analyse this information, and to initiate the proper response. The Central Nervous System (CNS) includes the brain and spinal cord, which is housed inside the spinal column. The Peripheral Nervous System (PNS) connects the CNS to other parts of the body and is composed of nerves that emanate from the spinal column. The skeletal alignment of our spine is key to us accessing the body’s energetic resources.
To unlock this energy we must balance the curves of the spine and lengthen them in two directions. The sacrum and tailbone move down, and the lumbar spine and everything above it extends up. It’s important to lengthen the spine, while maintaining all of its natural curves in order to pull the spinal column to its maximum length.
To visualize a healthy lengthening of the spine we need to understand the muscles involved in this action. The pelvic floor is an important yet often overlooked group of muscles. Energetically this muscle moves upward into the core of the body. The big gluteus maximus in the backside, is a muscle that wraps down the leg to extend it. Energetically it flows downward towards the ground. These muscles, the pelvic floor and gluteus maximus, have specific functions that work in opposition to each other. Unfortunately this functionality is undermined because we tend to overuse the gluteus maximus and under-use the pelvic floor, and the spine suffers as a result.
Overuse of the gluteal muscles tends to shut down energetic movement through the spine. In standing, the gluteus maximus should not be working. In walking it works a tiny bit to take the leg back, unless you are walking up hill or up a flight of stairs, which is when it really kicks into gear. Unfortunately our posture usually shifts the gluteus maximus into a different role. If your legs are underneath your pelvis, the gluteal muscles can do less. If the thighs begin to sink forward and the pelvis tucks under, as they do for most people, the quadriceps (the big thigh muscles) and the buttocks begin to work to try and provide stability. This is a false sense of stability, however, and results in the gluteal muscles gripping and its energy moving upwards. Releasing the glutes and engaging your pelvic floor creates the upward energy that allows the sacrum and the tail bone to move down.
Engaging the pelvic floor is a key part of the Pilates Method of course. We do this between every exhale and inhale in order to strengthen the pelvic floor and to fire up the trans abs, the deep abdominal muscles that stabilise the lower spine. Not sure how to engage the pelvic floor? Think of holding in your pee, gently engaging between the anus and the genitals. When you engage your pelvic floor, you should get a sense of movement at the base of the pelvis and a shift in the bones as well as the muscles. Your tail bone at the very base of the spine should move forward ever so slightly towards the pubis (the front of the pelvis) as the sacrum lengthens down.
To lengthen the spine effectively, we engage the pelvic floor, draw in the abdominals and extend from the back of the throat (hyoid bone) and the neck. This helps the spine lengthen up into its full extension at the top. When the pelvic floor engages, the sacrum and tail bone move down. When the abdominals are also engaged, the spine starts to lengthen upwards with the help of the erector spinae muscles in the back.
However, if the relationship between the buttocks and the pelvic floor is not harmonious the spine will only lengthen in one direction, usually from the lower back and above. This means that the nervous system’s access to everything below the lumbar spine is diminished.
To close, here’s Bjork doing weird and wonderful things with her skull…
Melissa is often asked why a lot of Pilates classes are taught without reference to, or with little emphasis on the navel-to-spine and lateral breathing and the pelvic floor engagement. It’s a good question. The lateral inhale into the sides of the ribcage, the sucking in of the tummy on the exhale and the engagement of the pelvic floor between each exhale and inhale, are fundamental to Joseph Pilates’ method. So why do a lot of Pilates classes ignore or underemphasise these fundamentals? Two reasons. Firstly, poor teacher training. A lot of Pilates classes, particularly those run by large gyms or leisure centres, are often taught by fitness instructors who have completed little more than a short course to qualify to teach a Pilates class.
The second reason is because the lateral inhale, the navel-to-spine exhale and the pelvic floor engagement are difficult to do, especially for beginners. That is no justification for not teaching them though of course. The lateral inhale keeps the air out of the belly thus avoiding the abdominal muscles relaxing. The navel-to-spine exhale powers the movements and is a very effective way of strengthening the abdominals quickly. Strong stomach muscles help to keep the pelvis and lower spine stable, which avoids the back muscles and vertebral discs overworking. This strengthening of the abdominals is perhaps the main reason why health professionals recommend Pilates to patients suffering with lower back pain as a key part of their rehabilitation. The engagement of the pelvic floor fires up (a bit like pressing the ignition on a gas hob) the deep muscles in and around the lower spine, e.g. the transversus abdominis, which are hard to activate. It also strengthens the pelvic floor muscles of course, which is highly beneficial for post-natal women and the millions of people who have problems with incontinence.
Not teaching or placing little emphasis on the lateral inhale, the navel-to-spine exhale and pelvic floor engagement in a Pilates class is like going to your first tennis lesson and the instructor saying, “Serving and lobbing are really hard to do, so we won’t bother with those. We’ll just play the game without those two strokes.” For beginners attending their first Pilates class, our recommendation is to think of Pilates as a sport with a number of skills you need to master. Like any sport, Pilates takes time and practice to become good at it. You wouldn’t expect to serve and volley perfectly the first time you play tennis. In the same way, the lateral inhale, navel-to-spine exhale and the pelvic floor engagement, will take more than one Pilates class to get to grips with. Usually after around five or six classes, the fundamentals of Pilates start to become a little less challenging, which means you can focus more on the exercises.
Finally, last week Melissa was asked to describe Pilates in a sentence. Her tongue-in-cheek answer – “It’s like Twister only less improvised.”