Pilates Inspiration – Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen

Finnish photographer, Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen movement-based images are beautiful.

Most of the photographs below are from her Coal Coast series, a culmination of Konttinen’s three years spent documenting life on beaches between Seaham and Hartlepool.

Her Step by Step project from the eighties explored mother-daughter relationships through a dancing school in North Shields. The book of the same name is said to have inspired the film Billy Elliot.

The last image of the girl on the space hopper is from her Byker project, a seminal documentation of the community of terraced streets in Newcastle’s East End, which were demolished to make way for Ralph Erskine-designed Byker Wall Estate in the 1970s.

Only one album to play at this time of year, Patti Smith Group’s Easter.  Have a relaxing long weekend.  See you on the other side.

 

 

RIP Ren Hang

Ren Hang

Like most Pilates teachers and other physical therapists, I am fascinated by the human body, how it looks, the way it works and how it moves.  For this reason I love the photography of Ren Hang, which celebrates the beauty, strength and fragility of the human form.  Sadly Ren Hang died this week at just 29 years old.

Championed by Ai Wei Wei, and talked of as China’s answer to Ryan McGinley, Ren Hang’s photography is often highly explicit, featuring nude group and solo portraits of men and women often contorted into highly performative positions. Not models, but his friends, and increasingly, his fans, often shot in his tiny high-rise apartment.

To pay tribute to his work, here are some of my favourite photographs by Ren Hang…

Ren Hang

Ren Hang

Ren Hang

Ren Hang

Ren Hang

Ren Hang

Ren Hang

Ren Hang

Ren Hang

Such a sad loss…

 

New Friday Morning Pilates Class

Good news!  To meet the growing demand for morning Pilates, from the 24th February Embody Pilates will be running a new class at 10.30 on Fridays at The Wellbeing Studio in Clevedon.

This will bring the number of Pilates classes on the weekly timetable to twelve as follows:

Mondays: 12.30-13.30 and 19.00-20.00
Tuesdays: 18.15-19.15 and 19.15-20.15
Wednesdays: 10.15-11.15 and 11.15-12.15
Thursdays: 12.30-13.30, 18.00-19.00 and 19.00-20.00
Fridays: 09.30-10.30 and 10.30-11.30
Saturday mornings: 10.00-11.00

Plenty of choice then to help you find a Pilates class to suit your lifestyle.

If you’d like to secure a place on the new Friday morning Pilates class at 10.30, or to check availability for the other sessions on the weekly schedule, please contact me.

To close, here’s a classic Friday-themed track from The Easybeats…

Sleep and Brain Health

Greer and Robert on the bed, NYC 1982 by Nan Goldin

Greer and Robert on the bed, NYC 1982 by Nan Goldin

A report was published today on the impact of poor sleep on brain health in later life. The research was carried out by the Global Council on Brain Health – a panel of experts convened by Age UK and the American Association of Retired Persons.

Here are the key findings from the report as featured in the latest news section of the Age UK website

Experts have found that in order to maintain a healthy brain and stay mentally sharp, we must make it a priority to get the required amount of sleep in later life.

What happens to our sleep as we age

Sleeping well becomes harder as we age. Our sleep patterns change so we become more vulnerable to waking up during the night and earlier in the morning.

Robert Rauschenberg’s bed, 1955

The health risks associated with sleep deprivation

Feeling sluggish and under the weather is a common experience if we don’t sleep well, but there is less awareness of the fact that those of us who have chronic, inadequate sleep on a regular basis are at higher risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, fall-related injuries and cancer.

“Sleeping is something we all tend to take for granted, but we really have to wise up to the fact that getting the right amount of good sleep is crucial as we age, helping to protect us from all kinds of problems that can affect our brains as well as our bodies.” – James Goodwin, Chief Scientist at Age UK

Factors which disturb sleep

Disturbances to sleep in older age can be environmental, such as the temperature of a bedroom, or related to lifestyle factors such as eating late or taking certain medications.

Sleep disorders such as sleep apnoea are also more common in later life and ‘deep sleep’ decreases in adults between the ages of 30 to 60.

Ella Campbell

Ella Campbell

How to improve your sleep quality

The report includes a number of tips for people from middle age onwards to employ throughout the day to improve the quality of their sleep. These include:

  • Get up at the same time every day
  • Expose yourself to natural sunlight during the daytime
  • Don’t drink alcohol to help you to sleep
  • Try and eat dinner approximately three hours before going to bed
  • Don’t drink coffee (caffeine) after lunch time
  • Don’t look at an electronic screen of any kind after you get into bed – tablet, phone, laptop
  • Avoid using over-the-counter sleep preparations
  • Wear socks to keep your feet warm in bed
  • Don’t sleep with pets in the bedroom
  • Avoid arguments with a spouse or partner before going to bed
  • Limit afternoon naps to less than 30 minutes

To close, a favourite sleep-related track from Teenage Fanclub from 1995…

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!

The Art of the Body II

Regular visitors to the website will know that EP HQ is very interested in how the human body influences art.  A trip last weekend to Tate Modern’s stunning new extension, the Switch House provided some great examples.  The Artist Rooms are currently devoted to the work of Louise Bourgeois, who explored the theme of the human body regularly in her art.

Here are a couple of her pieces hanging in one of the Artist Rooms…

Louise Bourgeois body parts Tate Modern Artists Rooms

Another of the galleries in The Switch House currently features a retrospective of Rebecca Horn’s work, an artist who often incorporates the human body in her sculptures…

Rebecca Horn Body Sculpture

This weekend I came across a dance piece, bODY rEMIX gOLDBERG vARIATIONS by the controversial Canadian choreographer, Marie Chouinard.  Included in the work are dancers using various devices normally associated with physical disability, e.g. crutches, prostheses, to extend their bodies and create unusual shapes and movements.  The result is surprisingly beautiful…

Body Remix by Marie Chouinard

Another recent mini adventure, this time to The Eden Project in late June to see P J Harvey, I came across this sign which, if I was wearing a bigger coat, I would have nicked so I could bring it back and hang it on the Pilates studio door…

Sign for The Core at the Eden Project

Finally, here’s Polly Jean herself performing in all her glory at this year’s Glastonbury, a couple of days before I saw her Eden Session gig.  Unlike Pilton, we had wall-to-wall sunshine…ha!  Take that, Glasto!

Note: I would KILL for PJ’s hat…assuming no birds were harmed in the making of it of course…

 

 

 

 

Spinefulness

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.

Helen Redman's painting Singing the Bones

The Neck

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.

spine-stephane-saj

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.

Spine sculpture by Rebekah May-personal-velvet

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…

Good Driving Posture

A number of clients have asked for advice on how to ensure good posture when driving. Significant stress can occur in the neck and the upper and lower back as a result of sitting incorrectly when driving, particularly for prolonged periods of time.

Skeleton driving - shape of the spine

Those who drive cars as part of their job, for example, sales people, are at particular risk. This risk is increased for those who drive for 20 hours per week or more (Porter and Gyi, 2002). High exposure drivers are considered to be those who drive more than 25000 miles a year, or for more than 4 hours a day.

Driving forces us to sit in a constrained posture. In addition, the car is increasingly being used as a mobile office (e.g. using a laptop and making telephone calls), which has other associated health risks. Research shows that within a group of business drivers, 65% reported low back pain, 43% neck problems and 40% shoulder discomfort (Gyi et al., 2003).

Based on extensive research into business driving and ergonomics, scientists in the Design and Technology department at Loughborough University have developed guidelines on the best seating position and posture to avoid the pain caused by musculoskeletal disorders…

General driving advice

Any posture, no matter how good it is, can lead to discomfort if it is held for too long. Sitting in the same position for long hours, gripping the steering wheel and being exposed to vibration from the road can contribute to wear and tear on the neck and back.  Here are are a number of things you can do to reduce your chances of suffering pain and discomfort:

  • Vary your work activities as much as possible during the day so that your posture changes. Try not to keep the same role for more than four hours.
  • Take a break from driving every couple of hours.
  • Make sure you get out of the vehicle as often as possible, move about and carry out small stretches if you can.
  • When you’ve been driving for a long period, avoid doing any sudden intense physical activity (such as lifting, bending or stretching) without warming up first.
  • Make small adjustments to your driving position at regular intervals throughout your journey.
  • Ensure you are sitting correctly.  See image (moustache best avoided…yikes!) and step-by-step guide below.

Ideal driving posture

How to find the correct sitting position when driving

Start with the initial set-up position, where adjustable, i.e:

  • Steering wheel fully up and fully forward.
  • Seat height at its lowest.
  • Seat cushion tilted so that front edge is in lowest position.
  • Back rest approximately 30 degrees reclined from vertical.
  • Lumbar adjustment backed off.
  • Seat fully rearwards.

From this initial set-up position, follow steps 1-8 below.

1) Raise the seat as high as is comfortable to improve your vision of the road.

  • Check you have adequate clearance from the roof.
  • Ensure you have maximum vision of the road.

2) Move the seat forwards until you can easily fully depress the clutch pedal and the accelerator pedal.

  • Adjust the seat height as necessary to give good pedal control.

3) Adjust the seat cushion tilt angle so that the thighs are supported along the length of the cushion.

  • Avoid pressure behind the knee.

4) Adjust the backrest so it provides continuous support along the length of the back and is in contact up to shoulder height.

  • Avoid reclining the seat too far as this can cause excessive forwards bending of the head and neck and you may feel your thighs sliding forwards on the seat cushion.

5) Adjust the lumbar support to give even pressure along the length of the backrest.

  • Ensure lumbar support fits your back, is comfortable with no pressure points or gaps.

6) Adjust the steering wheel rearwards and downwards for easy reach.

  • Check for clearance with thighs and knees when using pedals.
  • Ensure display panel is in full view and not obstructed.

7) Adjust the head restraint to ensure the risk of injury is reduced in the event of a car accident.

8) Adjust the rear view and side mirrors ensuring that they can be used without excessive straining of the neck or upper body.

Repeat steps 1-8 and fine tune as necessary.

A number of vehicles are limited in the adjustments that can be made to the seat and will therefore not allow you to achieve the best driving posture. Equally, some cars may cause you to adopt a coping posture. For example, limited headroom forces a reclined posture, making reaching the steering wheel a problem. This, in turn leads to excessive forward bending of the head and neck and a slouched posture.  Try to choose a car that is best suited to your size and one with as much flexibility as possible to adjust the sitting position.

Source: Vehicle Ergonomics – Best Practice Guide, Loughborough University for the Highways Agency.

Two examples of bad driving positions…

Bad driving position and footwear

Joe Strummer on Car 1981 by Bob Gruen

[Any excuse to show a favourite photo of Joe Strummer by Bob Gruen.]

To close, a driving-related track from my Road Trip playlist by Joan As Policewoman…

 

 

 

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…