A quick heads-up on some upcoming changes at Embody Pilates. We’re adding four new sessions to the existing timetable of Pilates classes running at The Wellbeing Studio in Clevedon. So, from MONDAY 5TH SEPTEMBER the weekly schedule of classes will look like this…
Mondays: 12.30-13.30 and 19.00-20.00
Tuesdays: 18.15-19.15 and 19.15-20.15
Thursdays: 12.30-13.30, 18.00-19.00 and 19.00-20.00
With a wider selection of morning, lunchtime, evening and weekend sessions to choose from, it will be even easier to find a Pilates class to suit a busy lifestyle.
Every class is suitable for all ages, abilities and fitness levels. For those wanting to explore the repertoire of Pilates exercises more fully, we’ve purchased some foam rollers and Therabands. Similar to the small balls we already use, the rollers and bands allow us to challenge our stability as we perform an exercise, and help us to isolate or engage targeted muscles more effectively. We’ll start to use the rollers and bands in class from Monday 5th September.
Regular visitors to the EP website will remember this post from January with details of a retreat I’m going to be teaching at on the Greek island of Skyros. The time for this is fast approaching; I can’t believe how quickly it’s come around!
I’ll be working abroad from Saturday 10th to Monday 26th September inclusive. Obviously I won’t be able to teach my usual timetable of classes in Clevedon and Bristol during this period. Apologies for any inconvenience. It’s a great opportunity though for me to learn and grow as a teacher and bring back to class lots of new ideas, skills and experiences.
I hope you will return to class after this short interlude. Just so we’re clear, the last class before I head to Greece will be on Friday 9th September at 09.30 and the first class back after my time abroad is Tuesday 27th September at 18.15.
Finally, look out for Embody Pilates in the local press in late September/early October. We’ve managed to secure editorial space in three free monthly glossies – the Clevedon and Tickenham Green Paper, Clevedon Living and the Clevedon and Portishead Resident – to promote the new class timetable and to spread the word about the huge benefits that regular Pilates can bring.
To close, here’s an apt song about the perils of being a white-skinned northerner heading abroad to sunnier climes. It’s also a favourite tune from my summer playlist and arguably has one of the best intros and guitar riffs of all time…
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…
Another small escape from Clevedon and EP HQ is on the cards in June, which means a few minor changes to the Pilates class timetable at The Wellbeing Studio from the 6th-9th of that month. The following classes will not take place:
Monday 6th June at 12.30
Tuesday 7th June at 18.15 and 19.15
Thursday 9th June at 12.30
The Thursday evening class at 18.00 on the 9th June will run as normal, as will the Saturday morning class at 10.00 on the 11th June of course. To those affected by the four cancelled classes, apologies. Perhaps, if you find you’re free, you might like to come along to the Thursday lunchtime or Saturday morning classes instead that week.
I recently discovered Czech rebel sculptor, David Černý. Any artist who, on the eve of a general election, floats a statue of an obscene-gestured hand in front of the castle to oppose the state of Czech politics, perceived corruption, and President Milos Zeman’s support of the Communist party, gets my vote.
Less controversial, more beautiful but equally impactful is Černý’sculpture, In Utero, a six-metre high stainless steel structure of a pregnant woman, which visitors can step inside to “experience” the womb…
I also love his 45-ton, 42-layered rotating sculpture of Franz Kafka’s head. It’s near the building where Kafka worked as an insurance clerk in Prague, and faces City Hall. Černý built it to remind us of Kafka when we get frustrated by the incompetence of those in public office. This constantly moving sculpture transforms over time just like K in Kafka’s seminal novella, The Metamorphosis. Take a look; it’s a mesmerising watch…
As I do each year, last weekend I attended the Pilates Foundation AGM and workshops in London. It is a great opportunity to discuss Pilates and movement issues with other professional teachers, catch up with old friends, make new ones and continue to develop and learn from one another in our shared passion for the Pilates Method. In turn these new ideas I bring home with me and share with my clients. This not only helps to keep my classes fresh, but also at the cutting edge of new thinking about health and well-being.
This year is the 20th anniversary of the Pilates Foundation. Founded in 1996, it is the UK’s first and therefore oldest Pilates Teachers’ Association. One of the founders of this not-for-profit organisation is Alan Herdman. He was taught by Joseph Pilates and is credited with introducing Pilates to the UK. One of the other founders of the Pilates Foundation, Hana Jones, herself a student of Alan Herdman, luckily for me, was my teacher on the Pilates training course I took in 2003 at The Place, the London Contemporary Dance School.
The Pilates Foundation was set up to promote the work of Joseph and Clara Pilates, honouring the original repertoire and principles, while at the same time bringing current knowledge and research to teaching the Pilates Method.
In a nutshell, the Pilates Foundation is dedicated to maintaining excellence in the practice and teaching of Pilates, and through this powerful method, promoting health and well-being. That is our mission and guides everything we do as Pilates Foundation teachers. To gain membership of the organisation, students must undergo extensive training and pass a rigorous examination process, which takes at least a year. This is not the case for the vast majority of teachers delivering Pilates classes in the UK.
Membership of the organisation is renewed annually and Pilates Foundation teachers have to meet on-going professional development requirements and adhere to a Code of Ethics and Conduct.
For all the reasons highlighted above, this means when you attend group classes or private one-to-one sessions with a Pilates Foundation teacher, you can be sure you are in safe hands. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s what West London Osteopaths’ David Tatton has to say about the Pilates Foundation…
“At West London Osteopaths we have been referring patients to Pilates Foundation teachers for over thirty years. The training and knowledge of the teachers from the Pilates Foundation fits in very well with the needs of our patients for exercise and rehabilitation. Osteopathy and Pilates is a very powerful and effective combination, with many patients maintaining and improving on the benefits of Osteopathic treatment with Pilates.”
To close, here’s cover queen, Lissie with her version of Kid Cudi’s Pursuit of Happiness. Being happy, making others happy – perhaps the key to physical and emotional well-being…
Fascia is a complex network of connective tissue which lies just beneath the skin. Made of collagen, this stretchy, white, mesh-like substance interweaves through and around your musculature, surrounds and supports your organs, and shrink-wraps your entire internal structure like a second skin. Fascia has a key role to play in the everyday healthy functioning of the body.
The musculoskeletal system consists of thousands of separate parts: hundreds of bones held together by more than 600 muscles and vast numbers of ligaments and tendons. It is the fascia though that links the entire system, not just muscle to bone but muscle to muscle, along with all the other structures in the body, like organs, ligaments and tendons. Rather than thinking of the body as having 600 plus muscles, instead think of it as being one single muscle with 600 plus stopping points, all linked together by a fascial web that is sensitive, dynamic and extremely adaptable. There are 10 times as many nerve endings in the fascia than there are in the muscles, making it far more susceptible to pain and sensation in general than the muscles. Most injuries are in fact problems with the fascial structures, not the muscle tissue.
Anatomists say ‘muscles attach to bones’, but muscle can’t attach to anything. It’s the fascia that goes over, around and through your muscles that organises that tissue into linear pulling machines.
The fascial webbing itself is organised into distinct meridians, or “trains” — dense bands connecting multiple muscles and spanning multiple joints, tacked down at numerous bony “stations” along the way. There are about a dozen of these fascial superhighways, which help in understanding how we move and help in treating pain and dysfunction. Some run the length of your body, head to toe; others spiral the torso, pass over the top of your head, and run down the middle of your back.
Like guy-wires on a well-rigged boat, a balanced, harmonious tension among these myofascial meridians helps support fluid, effortless movement. Too much chronic tension or slack in key meridians can lead to poor posture and pain — and not always in the places you’d expect. Trace the fascial lines through the muscles and across the skeleton, and it’s possible to see, for instance, how shoulder pain might be caused by dysfunction in your opposite ankle, or how tight hamstrings might actually be caused by tension in the soles of the feet.
It is through these myofascial lines, moreso than through individual muscles, that the body adapts to and reinforces alignment and movement. Fascia adapts to every move we make — good, bad or indifferent. Over time, the fascia in the front of the rib cage of someone who sits at a desk all day may become thick and short to reinforce a habitually caved-in posture. And injuries, even minor ones, often result in fascial “patches” in the muscles that can cause restricted motion, leading to compensations in gait and movement. These might remain long after the injury itself has healed.
Injured or poorly adapted fascia can start to act like glue, binding to muscles, other fascia, even your ligaments. Your entire individual life history — exercise habits, injuries, common sitting and sleeping positions — is effectively written in your fascia.
How Pilates can improve your fascia
Targeted Pilates exercises which aim to strengthen and stretch the body in fascia-friendly patterns, can help to improve the quality and elasticity of the fascial web.
The Pilates method involves slow, controlled movements timed with the tidal rhythm of the breath. If we stretch too quickly or intensely the muscles go into a protective mode, contracting and resisting. Pilates gets round these protective mechanisms, by romancing rather than attacking the body. When we are in a relaxed, calm state, our muscles and connective tissue are much more responsive to working. Pilates favours smooth motion over thrusting, ballistic actions, and encourages us to work within a range of movement that feels comfortable.
Each Pilates exercise slowly and rhythmically moves our limbs in a series of shapes, which usually increase incrementally in size with each repetition. These gently expanding movements can elicit a soothing, parasympathetic response from our nervous system, much like rocking in a chair or swinging in a hammock. Pilates never pushes the joints to their limits, instead the exercises carefully test the boundaries of the range of movement we are capable of on that day and in that moment. The slow, rhythmic tempo provided by the Pilates approach to breathing, lowers apprehension, allowing us to get past resistance in the fascia and work the muscles more effectively.
This calm state also primes the client for learning new movement patterns, while at the same time, the broad, multi-dimensional movements associated with Pilates exercises, stretch the entire fascial fabric in ways that conventional stretching doesn’t.
Pilates is particularly effective at redressing imbalances in the fascia because rather than stretching one muscle group at a time, the exercises encourage us to stretch an entire plane of the body at once, involving long movements that extend and spiral the body head to toe. Pilates exercises also provide the chance to stretch the body in multiple planes, releasing the fascia and improving flexibility.
For greater suppleness throughout the fascial network, Pilates exercises that incorporate some kind of bouncing are beneficial. As we age we lose elasticity in our fascia. Children exemplify the bouncy elasticity in their fascia. Bouncing helps us hold on to this fascial elasticity.
The best safeguard against tightness and adhesions in the fascia is variety. Repetitive physical action — including forms of exercise like running or cycling — can leave its mark on the fascia, unnaturally tightening certain areas and eventually leaving us more susceptible to injury. The key thing to do is mix things up, constantly changing the Pilates exercises we do in class and finding new ways to move. Just as the fascia links the muscles together in interconnected chains, so integrated exercise and movement link the muscles functionally, through dynamic, coordinated movement patterns.