Sports documentaries have been a revelation of lockdown life. They’ve exposed me (not someone that plays or watches sport despite being a Pilates teacher) to what being a sports person is really all about. It’s not always the most naturally able or biggest and strongest who win, it’s not always the shiny prize that drives the most determined and Pilates, mindfulness and psychology play a huge role in gaining a competitive edge.
The two standout documentaries to me have been Drive to Survive which takes you behind-the-scenes of the Formula 1 World Championship and The Last Dance about the rise of Michael Jordan and the 1990s Chicago Bulls.
Beyond the fascinating politics, power play, glamour and testosterone of Drive to Survive, you’re shown glimpses of what it takes to build a mind and body that can cope with putting your life at risk every week in a Formula 1 car. Pilates features heavily. For the driver they use it to keep a strong and supple body that can cope with the G force of the drive but also the whole pit crew do it together before the race so they’re ready to go from sitting watching the race to an all systems go ultra-fast tyre change. Off grid you see the drivers escape the adrenaline of the drive by connecting regularly with nature, quiet and stillness and spending time with family and friends who keep them grounded and help them retain a sense of humour even in dark times.
In The Last Dance the focus is mostly on Michael Jordan’s journey to super stardom but one of the most fascinating characters is Phil Jackson, the coach of the Chicago Bulls. He’s considered one of the best and most successful coaches of all time, so it was fascinating to see the techniques he used. He talks about how he was influenced by Zen Buddhism and Native American culture as a child. Before games you see him doing Pilates style exercises with the team, encouraging them to ‘centre and breathe’. You can see how these techniques help the players shut out the chaos of the court so they can bring their A-game.
“Michael [Jordan’s] a mystic. He was never anywhere else. His gift was not that he could jump high, run fast, shoot a basketball. His gift was that he was completely present. And that was the separator.” —Mark Vancil, “Rare Air”
So don’t be put off ‘sports documentaries’ if you don’t consider yourself ‘sporty’ or a fan of the sport being profiled. They’re really an exposé on how mere mortals can build powerful and resilient minds and bodies to withstand and overcome unimaginable pressures and challenges.
I met Bob a couple of years ago when he kindly invited me onto his station Wycombe Sound 106.6FM to talk all things well-being. I invited him to join me for a Pilates session and finally 2 years later we managed to make it happen. Since January Bob has been doing regular 1:to:1 sessions with me and on the show today we talked about his experiences – what he’s learned, whether he enjoys it and whether he’ll keep it up!
Improved flexibility is a common goal for many Pilates students, especially for my 40+ clients. They know that staying flexible in their muscles and mobile in their joints will bring about numerous benefits; improved posture, ease of movement, competitive advantage, reduced chance of injury and physical independence as we age.
I often get asked for stretches to target specific areas such as ‘how do I stretch my tight hamstrings?’. I’m always happy to share stretches like this but that’s not often the real issue. Many factors influence your flexibility and mobility (this article explains the difference between flexibility and mobility if you want to understand more)
Your posture – an anterior pelvic tilt will cause hamstring issues as they attach to the pelvis and will be permanently lengthened
Your bio mechanics and the natural limits of your range of movement
Strength of your muscles and joints – weak muscles and joints will cause others to become over active and tight
The quality (hydration, elasticity) of your fascia – the connective tissue that wraps like a web around your muscles, bones, organs etc
Beyond formal exercise – what you spend your time doing for the other hours a day that you’re not formally exercising (NEAT)
Regularity of your stretching & strengthening – to counter any sedentary behaviours
So bearing in mind the above, my top tips for becoming more flexible and mobile are:
Set realistic goals – do you really want to do the splits or is it about improving and maintaining a comfortable level of flexibility and mobility that enables you to do the things you love
Understand your posture and bio mechanics – do you have any postural imbalances or deviations you’ve picked up over the years that might be causing an imbalance or limit to your movement – I recommend you see a Level 3+ Pilates instructor or physio for this. Work on improving this first before incorporating stretch and mobility drills.
Strengthen and stretch – Everything in our bodies is connected so focus on full body stretching and strengthening to enable your body to operate in harmony rather than fixating on one part of your body that is ‘tight’. Ensure that you have an exercise style in your workout programme that doesn’t just strengthen but stretches as well for example Pilates or Yoga.
Myofascia – you may be experiencing limitations to your quality of movement if your fascia needs attention. A sudden increase in movement, trauma, or lack of movement can all impact your fascia. Think stretching and gliding on spiky balls and foam rollers to improve the quality of your fascia.
Move regularly – Can you build daily stretch breaks and more incidental movement into your daily routine so that your muscles and joints don’t get ‘stuck’ in set movement patterns. A couple of exercise classes a week can’t undo hours and hours of sitting at a desk where as regular 5 minute stretch breaks every hour can really help.
Hydrate and eat well for good muscle and joint care. Think Calcium, Vitamin D, Protein, Omega-3 Fatty Acids and H20
And when you do stretch…….
Be in the movement & in the moment – work to your end range of movement so that you can seek gradual improvements week on week (without pushing beyond your limits). You need a good neuromuscular connection to ensure you’re maximising the quality of the movement, staying in control of the exercise, so stretch and strengthen mindfully.
Breathe – by breathing calmly and steadily you’ll shift into your parasympathetic nervous system where your body is more relaxed and able to work with you deeper into the stretch
Break out of set movement habits by incorporating variety into your stretches your body doesn’t get used to the same patterns and remember consistency is key. It takes time and consistency to increase your range safely and effectively.
Enjoy the release but stay safe – finding stretches that unlock tension and new movement patterns is intensely rewarding. Remember though it is possible to overstretch so listen to your body, work within your limits, explore and have fun.
Before I started teaching Pilates I was unaware of how powerful the breath is to our wellbeing. It’s a freely available tool we have at our disposal to bring about a variety of outcomes – if we know how to use it properly. I’ve just been reading some of the latest recommendations about managing long covid symptoms as breathing control exercises feature heavily to help restore patients back to wellness. Read article
In class we use various breathing techniques for lots of reasons (Joseph Pilates was a big breath fan!). We use one at the start of class to clear our minds, another to engage our muscles more deeply and to support our posture and movement. Plus in Zen Pilates it switches us to our parasympathetic nervous system for a more effective calming guided relaxation.
At rest, we normally breathe approximately 8-12 times per minute but if we’re suffering shortness of breath for any reason – Covid-19 or stress, exhaustion, anxiety etc – our breathing becomes erratic. I was interested to see which breathing techniques are being recommended by the top scientists for managing shortness of breath. Unsurprisingly nasal breathing features heavily in most papers. It has many benefits but fundamentally it works the heart and lungs due to increasing the vacuum in the lungs so you draw in up to 20percent more oxygen than breathing by mouth and this natural resistance slows the pace of your breath. According to this New Scientist magazine article this increased oxygen intake gives your brain function a boost too!
You can simply gently breathe in and out through your nose but a useful technique in times of stress and pressure is to build on the natural vacuum and resistance by using one nostril to inhale and then the other to exhale:
Sit or lie in comfortable upright position with your back straight, closing your eyes helps you focus.
With your right hand, gently close your right nostril with your thumb.
Inhale through your left nostril, and then close it with your ring finger.
Exhale though your right nostril, then inhale through the same.
Close your right nostril, open your left, and slowly exhale.
There are many definitions for what well-being means, the OED definition is ‘the state of being comfortable, healthy, or happy’. In 2012 a new definition for well-being was proposed by Dodge et al, ‘as the balance point between an individual’s resource pool and the challenges faced’ summarised by the image below and you can read the full paper here
This really appealed to me as a definition as it captures everything we talk about in Zen Pilates. In class I share a practical self-care tip each week to help build my students library of tools and activities that energise and boost your well-being toolkit. This then equips you to successfully tackle and respond to life’s challenges – exactly as Dodge et al describe in their definition.
This framework is also broad enough to reflect just how individual this balance is – what energises one person may drain another, what someone sees as a challenge might be an opportunity to another. We need to know ourselves in order to strike the right balance for us individually.
There are so many conflicting ideas about what constitutes health and wellbeing that it can be really overwhelming to navigate. Taking a ‘balanced’ approach is becoming an increasingly popular perspective. Diets that label some foods as bad and others as good are outmoded now, same with exercise no one exercise style is deemed better than another in fact a complimentary mix is now seen as ideal, same with any one set style to work or even family set up. It’s about getting to know yourself and what brings you a sense of health and wellbeing and then making the time to regularly put those wellbeing practices in place.
Well-being resources are highly personal but a few that are commonly backed by science and recommended by leaders in this field include; moving your body, breath work (which can be as simple as a few minutes just noticing your breath) gratitude practice, acts of kindness, walks in nature, taking regular breaks from any activity and balanced eating.
So take a moment to reflect on your ‘well-being balance’, how are life’s challenges leaving you feeling at the moment and could you top up your inner ‘resources’ to serve you better and increase your overall sense of wellbeing.