Just Breathe

Is there a “right” way to breathe?

While no, there is not a singular “right” way to breathe, taking a look at what muscles you are using to breathe will tell you a lot about where you hold tension. And yes, there are more efficient ways to breathe that minimize excess tension and stress.

The diaphragm is the major muscle involved. A large, dome shaped muscle that lays horizontally separating the stomach and intestines from the heart and lungs. When the diaphragm contracts, the dome pulls downward, and in cooperation with the intercostal muscles of the ribs this allows the lungs to expand, resulting in a large inhale. Exhaling releases the diaphragm and relaxes the ribs back down.

As simple as that sounds other players want to bring themselves into the mix. The most common are muscles of the neck/shoulders and elevators of the collar bones. Take a deep breath right now. Did your shoulders lift? If they did, you are most likely relying too heavily on those accessory muscles instead of the diaphragm. Being able to keep the neck and shoulders relaxed as you breathe will help decrease muscle tension.

Lay down on the floor and put your feet up on a chair so that your lower back is relaxed. Close your eyes and keep your arms down by your sides with your palms turned up. Now focus on your breath. Don’t try to change anything, just take note of what is moving, where your tension lies and how deep/shallow or fast/slow you are breathing. After a few minutes redirect your focus on your belly. On the inhale, let your belly expand and on the exhale let it fall down. Soften your throat, neck and shoulders. Imagine your shoulders gently falling open, widening against the ground.

Now let your rib cage expand wide as you inhale deeply and then forcefully exhale while engaging the deep abdominal muscles pulling them up and in toward the front of the spine. Take a few more deep breaths like that, feeling the expansion and contraction of the ribs and the rise and fall of the belly. Diaphragmatic breathing allows more of the lung to absorb more oxygen which in turn allows the heart to slow down and the blood pressure to decrease. The opposite of belly breathing would be quick shallow breaths which will automatically start to speed up the heart rate and increase the blood pressure to make sure you are getting enough oxygen to the rest of the body. Shallow breathing also leaves one feeling anxious, and on-edge where as slow, deep breaths promotes calmness and centering.

In Pilates, diaphragmatic breathing is used in combination with a technique called posterolateral breathing. The goal is to really allow the rib cage to expand wide so that the abdominal muscles are able to stay engaged while taking deep breaths. This is important to be aware of while you are exercising. The Pilates movements all heavily rely on use of and initiation from the core muscles, if you were only using diaphragmatic breathing  you would have to let go of the abdominal tone and compromise the exercises.

The best way to benefit from this type of breathing is to practice. In the morning, before bed, or whenever you get a few spare minutes during the day, take a moment to sit quietly and focus on your breath. You’ll be surprised at how calming it can be. And hopefully the next time your “fight-or-flight” response jumps in remember to take a few deep breaths to calm yourself down and battle whatever comes at you with a clear head.

Prenatal Pilates

The Benefits of exercising throughout your pregnancy are plentiful. Not only will it help limit the excess weight gained, but mid-intensity work-outs, such as Pilates, have been shown to ease symptoms of pregnancy (i.e. back pain, morning sickness, fatigue), help shorten the labor, and reduce the time it takes to get your body back in shape after you’ve given birth. Not to mention, strengthening and functional exercises will help prepare you for the lifting, playing, and running around you’ll be doing once you have a newborn in the house.

Many women also find the breathing techniques of Pilates to be helpful in preparing for the labor, and the devotion to scheduled exercise time can be great for keeping a positive outlook during the pregnancy and a healthy mindset during a time when your body is going through a lot of changes.

There is a lot of contradictory information floating around about exercising while you are pregnant. The reason for this is that in the not so far past, doctors treated pregnancy as if it were an “illness”. What recent research is showing however, is that moderate exercise will help make the pregnancy easier. The body is incredible. It has an amazing ability to adjust to all the new changes taking place. While resting is important to remain healthy, exercising decreases the feeling of exhaustion and actually helps the placenta grow more efficiently. The more efficient the placenta, the better the baby is able to absorb nutrients and oxygen from the mother.

I believe you just have to listen to your body, and be in touch with the signals it will give you. This is not a time to push the limits of what you are able to do! Start small, especially if you are a beginner to exercise. If you are professional or recreational athlete you can continue, within reason, to your normal routine but talk to your doctor or an exercise specialist for modifications and warning signs that you should discontinue or tone down your workouts.

If you plan on working out on your own, remember to keep hydrated, fueled (eat a small snack before and after exercise) and always warm-up  and cool-down for about five minutes before and after your sessions. Due to changes in the vascular system, it is important to give your body a fair warning that you are beginning a workout. Save high intensity workouts for after the baby has been delivered. Stay in a range of 5-8 on the perceived exertion scale which means in the highest intensity you are slightly tired but you can speak a full sentence while you are exercising. If for any reason you feel light-headed, fatigued, or have abdominal area cramping stop immediately and talk to your health care professional.

It is true that the body is under a lot of stress and changes take place in a relatively short amount of time and that is definitely a matter to take seriously. However, keeping the mother’s body active and healthy is incredibly important for a healthy labor and a healthy baby. Think about it in terms of preparing your body for labor and delivery, an intense biological marathon. It is especially important to do a lot of core/abdominal strengthening in the first trimester before the muscles begin stretching. It is harder to continue to strengthen them after that point and you are going to need them for the final push!

Pilates is a perfect compliment to any prenatal aerobic regimen. It will primarily work on building that core strength as well as toning the arms, legs and back. The functionality of the exercises will be beneficial to all the bending, reaching, lifting and squatting you will have to be doing with the baby. To keep sessions interesting, I like to incorporate a couple different props such as an exercise ball, resistance bands and foam rollers to keep the movements flowing so that you safely get the workout you need and want.

Don’t Forget to Stretch!

After a conversation with my coworker Jonathan Welch, who is starting to lift weights again, I realized the importance of stretching might not be common knowledge.

Jon’s arms and chest were seriously sore for the previous day’s workout with free weights and I suggested to lay back on a swiss ball to stretch the muscles on the front of his chest. He then asked a great question, “Does it make sense to stretch the muscles if you are trying increase the muscle mass?”

Stretching muscles after toning exercises is crucial unless you are going for the hunched over, and immobile look. The physiological changes that occur when exercises are complex but here is the simple picture. In order to build muscle the fibers must first break a little and then rebuild. This is part of the reason why  muscles get sore. You are actually producing micro tears in the body of the muscle. If you continue to exercise regularly, the repaired muscle fiber layers increase, which in turns increases the size of the muscle and the power behind it.

Contracting a muscle while lifting weights shortens the muscles. Stretching prevents the muscle from staying in that contracted state. While it’s true that the contracted muscle is often what body builders are looking to gain, it definitely puts a damper on your flexibility. While it’s true there is a little bit of an either-or in the ratio of flexibility vs. strength, (as in you can’t get maximum strength and maximum flexibility at the same time), I would assume the average person doesn’t want to sacrifice mobility for brute strength.

Anyway, this is all very generalized, if you are interested in the science of muscles this site is a great place to start. Brad Appleton’s document, Stretching and Flexibility, is full of great information for beginners on the subject.

 

Revisited

This weekend, At CPR, Center for Performing Research, in Williamsburg, SUNY Brockport dance alumni are presenting new work in a show entitled Revisited.

Marisa Ballaro, a dear friend of mine, and a Certified Personal Trainer, has choreographed a short piece using the music of the band, wakos (wise and kind old souls). It’s part of a larger process that will involve a live performance with the band and aerialists at The Muse in Williamsburg.

I’m thrilled to be a part of this project and can’t wait to see where it leads us. It is so refreshing to be dancing and doing something that I truly enjoy. With the craziness of the city and struggling to get through each day, it is a fantastic reminder of why I choose to live in this city and live this life.

As an alum of The Ohio State University I would love to see all of us Ohioans living here in NY get together to do something similar. It’s always good to be creating and collaborating with your peers!

Revisited details:

When:  Friday, January 20th OR Saturday, January 21st – 7:30pm
Where: Center for Performance Research – 361 Manhattan Ave., Unit 1 (Williamsburg, BK)
Tickets: $20 (https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/214125)

In Focus

Recently in rehearsal with Marisa Ballaro, we were discussing the ever importance of focus.

Focus changes how we perceive what we are seeing, what we are feeling, and what we see when we watch it. It’s amazing to me what a difference it makes in someone’s dancing when they have an active focus. It becomes more intentional, more committed, even more full bodied- even if the only thing they change is really seeing whatever is in their view. It’s exhilarating to watch a dancer who is fully aware of her surroundings, of the other dancers, of the audience. It is a point of engagement.

focus: n., a center of activity, attraction, or attention. Also, a point of concentration.

Focus brings purpose to a dance. It gives the dancer a purpose, something to convey to the viewer.

It’s no coincidence that focus is one of the principles of the Pilates Method. What a difference exercising with full awareness of what you are doing makes to the overall experience and effect. The eyes can be thought of as a major link to the mind body connection which is so important when exercising or doing any type of movement. The body is instinctively smart and by letting the mind become more involved in what the body is doing, you give it a chance to do what it naturally wants to do, making movement easier and more efficient.

Thinking about the gravity of it’s involvement in dance and movement made me think about how this can translate into everyday life. Every type of action or goal needs an underlying focus. As simple as this may be, I think sometimes I forget about the main goal and go through the motions of what I think I should be doing at that moment, whether its with my friends and family or with my career or with a stranger on the street. So often I find myself walking down the streets of new york city completely blurring everything around me, stuck in my interior thoughts. I usually get my motivation and inspiration for ideas just by watching the people around me so it’s no wonder that I give myself a hard time for not always paying attention. How much have I been missing?

 

 

5-minute office exercises

Many New Yorkers are desk jockeys – sitting at our desks from 9-to -5.  We tend to slouch and quickly abandon proper posture, allowing our shoulders to round forward and exaggerating the curve of our upper back.  Unfortunately, this manifests in uncomfortable aches and pains.

When the spine is in a neutral position it has four natural curves, two outer and two inner.  The cervical spine, or neck, has an inward curve, and so does the lumbar spine, or lower back.  The two outward curves are the thoracic spine, or upper back, and the sacrum and coccyx – the fused bones connecting the back of the pelvis and the tailbone.  These curves balance and support the weight of the spine.  When one of the curves is out of alignment, it puts extra strain on the surrounding muscles.

When we slump over, the weight of the head and upper body is slightly forward.  This taxes the muscles at the nape of the neck and down the spine causing tight shoulders, nagging neck pain and a stiff lower back.

Pilates is one of the best ways to stabilize these structural weaknesses and alleviate these aches by strengthening our anchoring muscles.

 

Here are some simple, yet extremely effective, solutions:

1)  a. Using a large exercise ball (available at any sporting goods store or your local health club), lay back over the ball with your feet firmly on the ground, hip width apart, knees bent at a 90-degree angle.  The ball will support your lower back but it’s important to keep your abdominals engaged.

Laying back will take some balance but once you feel stable, bring your arms up in front of you, palms facing in, let them open sideways toward the floor.  This forces the chest and the front of the shoulders to broaden.  Your neck and head can rest on the ball, but this shouldn’t strain your neck (move feet forward/backward until you are comfortable).

Don’t forget to breathe, and enjoy the stretch!

b. In this position, bring your hands behind your head, scoop the belly in, and do a few slow curl-ups to strengthen abs.  A stronger core will prevent future back pain and reinforce better posture!

Another great stretch for the front of your shoulders:

2) a.  Sitting on the ground, bend your knees, feet on the floor hip width apart, toes facing forward.  Lean back, into a V-shaped position, place hands slightly behind you, fingers pointing forward.  Inhale and think of floating your sternum (mid-chest) upward and forward, to causing a small arch in the thoracic spine (upper back).  Keep your lower back neutral and lengthen the nape of your neck.  Breathe deeply and hold for a count of ten, then return to neutral (repeat as often as you like).

b.  From this position, engage your core by scooping the belly up and in.  Distribute your weight into your hands and feet and lift your body into a tabletop position.  Keep your neck inline with your spine; hold it so it doesn’t fall back toward the floor (if that is too taxing, bring your chin to your chest).  Keep your abs engaged so you don’t strain your back.  Your glutes and hamstrings (butt and rear thigh muscles) will engage and work to keep the hips raised.  If you feel strain on your knees, make sure they are aligned with your hips and at a 90-degree angle, directly over your feet.  Take 5-10 deep breaths here, then gently lower down.  Circle your wrists a few times to loosen up the joints and then repeat as desired.

Not only will this open your chest and shoulders but also, you will feel a stretch in the front of the hips and thighs, key areas to stretch as well after sitting all day.

Try these easy moves during or at the end of the day.  You will find your muscles strengthening and your increased awareness will help avoid those nagging aches and pains.

Principles of Pilates

Breath

The use of breath is of the utmost importance to any exercise. It provides the necessary oxygen to the muscles at work. Pilates integrates the breath into the movement so that it flows naturally and works to assist the movement.

Centering

When movement is initiated through the center, through the powerhouse muscles, it creates stability that allows the spine and limbs to move with greater power and less effort and strain. Energy comes from the center and radiates outward.

Control and precision
Exercises should be done with great precision. Knowing what to tell the body to do help teach the body the correct movement pattern. This is closely connected with the control of the movement. Only do as much as you can control and keep the integrity of the movement intact. Always value Quality over Quantity.

Fluidity

Nothing about the exercises should be abrupt or shaky. When working in a state of fluid motion, the body has to coordinate both big and small muscles groups. Practicing fluid, smooth and precise movements provides you with greater range of control over the muscles.

 Concentration           

The mind has to be focused at the task at hand. Part of the reason Pilates is also seen to be a relaxing form of exercise is that it forces the mind to be present in the moment and not drifting off to go over the long “to-do” list that’s in everyone’s thoughts. The challenge of the movements forces the student to concentrate and stay mentally involved.

 Intention

Part of keeping students mentally involved is an educational process. In order to get the full results of these exercises it’s important to know why you are doing them. Keeping the intention of the movement in mind helps with the control, fluidity, and precision as well.

Visualization

If a student does not understand a movement cue, how is she expected to do the movement correctly? Using visual cues has become an essential part of the Pilates teaching methods. Visualization helps keep the mind involved and remind the student to think three-dimensionally.

Dynamic Opposition

Lines of oppositional energy are used in almost every single Pilates exercise. These dynamic oppositions create balance and stability, seeing the body as an integrated whole not just the individual parts directly linked to the action.

Getting Started: The Scoop on Pilates

At this time of year my mind and spirit shout Spring, but my body still reflects those extra layers of winter “insulation.”  What a great time to re-energize and reboot my workout!  I find Pilates is just the thing for me.  I love sharing what Pilates has done for me which is why I began to study to be a certified instructor.

Like many mind-body techniques, Pilates offers a wide range of benefits.  Do you have lower back pain?  By strengthening your abdominal muscles you can better support your low back, and by increasing your range of motion, you can release any tension pulling you out of alignment.

As a low impact workout, Pilates is a great form of exercise regardless of skill level as a good teacher can always modify the movements based on your needs.  We can make adjustments to go easier on joints and ligaments, or more for the more advanced we can really challenge the muscles.

I was first introduced to Pilates in grade school while training with a pre-professional dance company.  The Artistic director surprised the class one morning by asking the entire company to lie down on mats instead of starting at the ballet barre.  The Director’s objective for inviting a Pilates instructor was to teach us how to better control our movements, but I think she also thought we were getting too soft!

The mat exercises focus on the “powerhouse” which is a term Joseph Pilates used to describe the core abdominal muscles.  Historically, Mr. Pilates called his technique Contrology.  The controlled, coordinated movements focus on the deep postural muscles at the core of establishing strength and balance.

Pilates teaches efficiency of movement by bringing awareness inward.  In discovering muscle imbalances, you will begin to understand and learn to correct your posture and gait.  It will even change the way you think about doing mundane activities like washing the dishes or sitting at a computer.

Hooked from the start, I found the exercises highlighted my body’s strengths and weaknesses and I quickly saw results, even in my dancing.  But you don’t have to be a dancer to reap the rewards.  Pilates aims at increasing flexibility while building long lean muscles.  So whether you suffer from aching joints, want to get back into your skinny jeans or if you’re just looking for a new routine, Pilates is a great place to start!

 

*first published on http://www.yinovacenter.com/blog/