Thursday, March 29, 2012

Pilates Makes You Taller

On Monday, I taught a session in which the client and I were working on spinal mobility and length.  After a series of exercises, I asked this client to walk around the room, and she was certain that she was taller.  Unfortunately, as with many anecdotal stories, we only had a feeling.  Our comparisons had no quantifiable data so beside the joy I perceived emanating from her being; there was no “proof” that this Pilates session actually made her taller.  That being said, there have been many marketing campaigns that have shouted from the rooftops, “Come to Pilates, it makes you taller!”  Is it actually true, or are they speaking metaphorically?  Does Pilates make people taller? In this blogpost, I hope to explore how one might arrive at this perception, how we might go about measuring, and well maybe speak to the fact that maybe it doesn’t matter anyway because feeling taller is the most beneficial part of the process.

The first step is to define the variable we are trying to assess, what is meant by, “Pilates Makes me Taller,” and what can we use to measure this outcome?  As we begin creating this definition, every reader hopefully can agree that no bones will grow in length during a Pilates Session (this is the first argument that skeptics state, so let me be clear. I do not think that Pilates increases the length of the individual bones or muscles.) When I define this phenomenon I think of the relationship between the bones, the muscles, and the soft tissues of the body that create posture.  I imagine that Pilates can change these relationships, and it is this change that can make someone feel taller, or even better, can make the numerical measurement of height greater.  It is the change in proprioception when tissues lengthen, which then changes a person’s posture that makes the person perceive height change. The question becomes,  ‘Is there quantifiable proof to this perception?’ 

With our definition in place, it is time to imagine how exactly this phenomenon could be measured.  One simple way to gather data is to measure height from the floor to the crown of the head before and after each Pilates Session.  For instance consider the following generalized postures, if we measure each of these generalized postures at the crown of the head, the height is varied.  Different myofascial imbalances pull the bones of the body into different relationships; this in turn affects the height of the individual.  Pilates is a practice that often improves standing posture, thus if posture affects height and Pilates improves posture then Pilates might just improve height
Notice the height from floor to the top of the head

I am imagining a sort of pseudo experiment.   In this scenario a person’s height is measured before and after a pilates session.  Even though there is no control, at the end of the day two data sets with a pilates session in between could begin the formulation of a pseudo correlation. (My use of the word Pseudo I hope is acknowledging the fact that in this post I am stepping out of my scope of practice of mover and teacher and dabbling in the thoughts of researcher or statistician, and while I am sure my dabbles may be on the amateur side, I think they lead to a discussion across practices that is valid and interesting) This correlation that may or may not exist could lead to many other questions like:  Is one Pilates session enough?  Will the height increase over time?  Will a person be able to maintain his/her height from week to week?  Will the person have to do Pilates for the rest of his/her life to maintain the change in height?  And then in turn we would have to find ways of measuring data that erupts from these questions.  (If you’ve been at the studio and noticed the dry erase marks on the mirror, I’ve been dabbling in some pseudo science with willing clients.) This is all assuming that there is a correlation, but what if at the end of our pseudo data collection period no correlation is found…What then?

In my mind, if the data that was collected found absolutely no correlation between pilates and height, my temptation would be to say, “So what!!!” The psychological benefits of standing tall, the confidence that it brings, and the grace and ease of movement that can be brought forth by a perception of greater height are all benefits of this phenomenon whether it is true or not.  I have no way of knowing if the session that I taught on Monday actually increased my client’s height, but at the same time I don’t care because the ease with which she moved and the smile on her face told me that she was taller.  And the absence of actual quantifiable data would never have changed her perception, because in her mind’s eye she was taller.  Maybe our data set needs to move away from numbers and move into the benefits of improved posture.  Maybe our research questions need to evolve in the complexities of the human spirit and perception.  If you feel taller are you taller?  I for one think, absolutely!      

Katrina Hawley C.M.A, R.S.M.E
Co-owner of The Pilates Studio

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Journey to the Core: an anatomical discussion for anyone who's interested

Its spring at The Pilates Studio and for us that means its time to start thinking about the March MAT CHAT.  Next week on Tuesday March 27th, The Pilates Studio’s very own Katrina Hawley will give a talk about the Anatomy of the Core.   This latest in a series of Mat Chats at The Pilates Studio will answer the question, “What exactly is the core of the body?”  Inspired by the way in which “core strength” has gone viral in media outlets, Katrina will take a step back and explore the several muscular connections that make up the core, and then postulate that core strength might just mean a different thing for everybody.

Katrina has spent her entire life studying movement and anatomy.  Starting as a small child in dance classes, moving on to obtain a B.F.A in dance, then becoming a certified Movement Analyst, as well as a Pilates Instructor.  Katrina brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to this emerging field.  Add to this Katrina’s wit, humor and talent for presenting complex concepts in easily digestible ways, this mat chat promises to be accessible and enjoyable for all.    

The Anatomy of the Core
7pm, March 27th, 2012
Join us and find out what these crazy pictures mean!

Friday, March 16, 2012

Choose Your Own Adventure: Finding Balance at The Pilates Studio

Two nights ago I was making soup and I thought to myself, ‘this soup needs black beans, it is Mediterranean after all.’ I went to the cabinet and on the top shelf I saw the very edge of the black bean can.  I then proceeded to pull up a chair that had a wobbly leg, climb up onto it, and stand on one foot on the edge of the chair. I did all of this so that I could reach the last can of black beans out of the very back of the cabinet.  It wasn’t until my feet had hit the floor again that I realized what I had accomplished…and while getting the black beans in this way may not have been a stellar example of common sense, it was a great example of the kind of balance that Pilates can create in the body.  Really when you think about it, one could be say that Pilates averted disaster!

I jest, but I am positive that everyone can at least agree that balance is important.  Whether it is balance in myofascial connections that create posture, balance in standing, balance in spirit, or balance in any of the precarious positions that life throws our way, we are all striving to find a dynamic stasis that allows us to move in any direction we choose.  Now here’s the conundrum, one of the best ways to practice and improve balance is to throw the body into precarious situations that require struggle… It can be a frustrating thing, and I always say to clients that the minute a “balance” exercise becomes easy then progress towards better balance is halted.  It is at this point that the exercise has to be progressed by adding an additional proprioceptive challenge. For instance, if someone is standing on one foot without wobbling, then it is time to lift the heel off the floor.  It is in the struggle that the body shows the weaknesses that need to be improved.  The following exercises provide an introduction into balance practice.  Follow the instructions below and see what you discover!  Think back to the pre-teen  “choose your own adventure” novel that was popular about twenty years ago, and take a balance adventure.   

Marker Exercise - When starting a balance practice, it is helpful to use a marker exercise to measure progress.  For the purposes of this post the marker exercise is going to be standing on one foot.  Find your breath and take note of how the body feels, then keep breathing as you pick up one foot.  What is the body doing to remain vertical?  Are the hips shifting forward and back or side to side?  What are the ankles doing? What about your upper body? Asking yourself these questions will help you decide where to go next.  What is causing the struggle for balance?  After you’ve done the marker exercise, and assessed what movements your body did in the struggle choose on of the following options: 

·      If in your struggle for balance your body kept folding in half at the hip sockets,  Scroll down the page and try Gotta get me some hip power, anterior pelvic tilt, and More than just the plank. Then try the marker exercise again.

·      If your hips kept shifting forward and your back was arching, scroll down and try the photos of the log balancing sequence and toe taps on the foam roller then scroll up and try More than just the plank. Then try the marker exercise again.

·      If you tried the marker exercise and your ankle was wobbling everywhere, scroll down and try Stomping out foot pain with Pilates, and with that also try the  calf raise exercises on the step, and then scroll up and try Gotta get me some hip power. Then try the marker exercise again.

·      If your balance was perfect with no wobbles and your spine was perfectly still, then go back to the beginning and try the marker exercise again with either your eyes closed or standing on your toes.  Remember the best way to assess balance is when the body is struggling to find it. Then choose one of the previous options

·      If none of these items fit your marker exercise story, then write a  comment below, tell me what did happen and I will reply with some ideas.

      Gotta Get Me Some Hip Power

Anterior Pelvic Tilt
More than Just the Plank
Balance on the Log
First lift one leg

Then lift opposite arm
Then lift both arms

Toe Taps

Stomping out foot pain with Pilates

Calf Strengtheners

Calf raises with straight legs
Calf raises with a bend at the knees
Alternating calf raise

This was a fabulously fun blog post to write.  I got to think back to the wonderfully pleasant moments I spent reading choose your own adventure novels, and write about one of my most favorite areas of functional movement. What could be better? Please feel free to leave a comment with any questions.

Katrina Hawley, C.M.A, R.S.M.E
CO-owner of The Pilates Studio.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Pilates Classes for a Pain Free Neck

In a Pilates Mat Class there are many exercises that may appear to be, on the surface, dangerous for the neck.  Take a look at these pictures below.  In each exercise the head neck and shoulders are lifted off of the floor without support. This can seem scary especially if a person doesn’t know how to use the body’s breath, how to coordinate spine articulation, or how to keep the organization of the shoulder girdle clear.  When doing these exercises it is important to understand how to keep the neck safe, and it is important to find a pilates class in which the instructor can explain ways to protect the neck or how to modify the exercises so that participation can be consistent and pain free.

the hundred

single straight leg stretch

Here are a few things any pilates instructor should talk about when considering how to protect the neck. 

1.  Breath –  To become aware of how the breath might be a tool to release neck tension place your hand on your breastbone, Take an inhale and an exhale.  Is there movement here?  Check in with your neck again, how is it feeling?  If your breast bone isn’t moving very much with the inhale and the exhale, then it is quite possible that there will be tension in your neck when attempting Pilates exercises.  If you want to make a change, on your next exhale allow the pressure from your hand to encourage the release of the breastbone towards the spine, and on the inhale let the pressure of your hand give resistance to the breastbone so that it rises.  Continue this practice for a few more breaths and then release your hand.  Notice the tension in the neck

In a Pilates class the instructor may cue “Inhale to prepare, exhale as you soften your breastbone and lift your head.”  As a person exhales, releasing the tension in the breastbone allows the diaphragm to release into the thorax, which then allows for the release of the muscles in the back.  This is the most efficient time to engage the abdominals to lift the head.  If the head is lifted before the diaphragm releases into the Thorax then the neck muscles are on their own working without the help of the spine.

Now that previous paragraph sounds pretty complicated…The great thing is that the sequence of movement described above does not have to be a conscious thought process.  All one needs to think is “Exhale and release the breastbone to the spine as  you lift the head.”  That initiation will set the previous sequence of events into motion without any thought to what the diaphragm is doing…

The occipital muscles at the very top of the spine
2. The Spine – I often like to talk to my students about the fact that the top vertebra is between the ears, and thus segmental movement of the spine starts with a nod of the head.    This nod allows for continued length in the spine as the head is lifted.  It lets the head be carried by the fascial hammock created by the upper traps and the erector spinae. It also allows for better spine articulation, which will take pressure off of those overloaded atlas, axis and seventh cervical vertebras.

But once again lets leave all the anatomical mumbo jumbo behind for a little bit.  In a Pilates class keeping your neck safe does not require a kinesiology degree, it requires awareness and a few good cues.  Exhale as you soften the breastbone, nod your head and then engage the abs to lift the head.  Continue breathing, continue reaching the head for the ceiling, and of course if you begin to feel any strain or pain in the neck then lay your head down and try again.  Pilates is a practice, and when it comes to the basics, practice makes easier.     

3.  The Shoulder Girdle – The collarbone, shoulder blade, and arm play a large part in the safety of the neck.  The seventh cervical vertebra is often burdened with the weight of the shoulder girdle if the chest is too tight, and if the shoulders are hypermobile, the thoracic spine tends to try to balance this with a lack of mobility that can often leave the neck to its own devices. 

 one of the myofascial sling that supports the neck in Pilates Classes
A good warm up is the one way to check in with the shoulders.  Often lying on the foam roller to stretch the chest while moving the shoulders through a large range of motion can release anything that might bother the neck in Pilates Exercises.  During the exercise having the mantra widen the collarbones, widen the collarbones, widen the collar bones, will also aid in neck safety and ease.

The following video is full of neck preparation exercises and examples of ways to keep the neck safe.  Watch it, try the exercises, and then come to The Pilates Studio and try a mat class that keeps the neck safe and balances the body.

Try these exercises out and feel free to comment with any questions.  We are happy to help make Pilates a safe practice for anyone's neck.

Katrina Hawley C.M.A, R.S.M.E
Co-owner of The Pilates Studio