Sit up straight!

Posture is simply the position of the body when sitting or standing. While you might think it would be a rigid position, it should actually be anything but static. Good posture aligns the bones and muscles to work the most efficiently so that it requires the least amount of energy. Any posture that forces certain muscles to strain is going to have repercussions. The body is designed for movement so keep that in mind when “sitting up straight,” it’s usually not a great idea to try to lock joints and muscles into place.

The word posture also has some other connotations dealing with projecting attitudes, often in a way to impress or mislead. This seems fairly logical given that we can read a lot about a person by their posture. And it works both ways. Try feeling confident slouched over in your chair…. Now sit up tall, shoulders wide, chin lifted horizontally- it’s like being a totally different person.

Most of posture correcting techniques or methods deal with breaking bad habits. Once you recognize when you are not in an ideal posture it’s easier to change into a more supported position. Having a sense of body awareness is crucial, not only for correcting posture but also coordination and balance. Body awareness and posture also play a role in overall body language, which sometimes speaks louder than you might think.

But the real kicker with bad posture is that it contributes to chronic back pain. A lot of people spend most of their time sitting in front of a computer. It’s important to make sure you are getting up to stretch your legs and walk around periodically throughout the day. Staying in one position for a long period of time is stressful on the body. In order to improve your posture you will need to strengthen the muscles that run on either side of the spine. These muscles, especially the erector spinae, support your spine in an upright position. The reason why it’s often difficult to keep the back straight when sitting down is because of weak erector spinae.

The baby swan exercises in Pilates targets this muscle. By extending the back without using your hands to push you up, you are forced to use the muscles of the back. Do these exercises very slowly to make sure you are not using momentum or letting other muscles compensate.

Lie down on your stomach, engage your abdominals and place your hands, palm over palm, underneath your forehead. Slowly lengthen your spine to lift into an arc coming up only as high as you can control. Just as slowly lengthen the spine to lower back down. Do 4-6 repetitions and then stretch out the back by sitting in child’s pose or cat pose on all fours.


Nurturing our Practice

This past weekend I had the opportunity to meet up with my lovely friend esther. She is an amazing yoga teacher and is studying thai massage as well. For quite some time now, we’ve been swapping sessions with each other whenever we get the chance. We actually met at the Ohio State University’s dance program, I was in undergrad and she was getting her Masters, and then we reconnected here in New York.

It does not surprise me that so many dancers begin to turn to other forms of movement and teaching. The connection with the body and movement rarely just leaves someone after they’ve spent years training in a studio and performing and creating and experimenting. Even if that person decides their dancing days are over, they often find something else to fill that void. While I still love to dance, and jump at any opportunity that arises for me to play around in the studio, I’m glad that I’ve found a way to connect with this unique knowledge that I’ve gained after fifteen years of traditional dance training and to bring that into each class I teach.

“Swaps”, as we call them, are such a nurturing way of giving back and continuing the education. Esther has been giving me private yoga and meditation sessions and I’ve been training her with Pilates techniques. While the two forms are drastically different in style and philosophy we surprise ourselves with the underlying connections and often pause during our sessions to discuss possibilities about anatomy and why each practice approaches specific movements with slight differences. It keeps our own practices fresh and makes us think about why we do what we were taught to do, or if maybe we should think about doing things differently. No matter what we decide, it’s the conversation that keeps us on our toes.

Pilates for Stress and Anxiety

Have you ever heard of a “runner’s high?”  The “I’m on top of the world” feeling you get after exercise is actually caused by chemicals your body releases after physical exertion.  These endorphins, believe it or not, have similar properties to morphine.  They decrease the body’s perception of pain and promote an overall feel-good, positive energy.  Benefits are not just limited to the few hours after the workout.  In fact, according to WEBMD, regular exercise has been proven to help reduce stress, ward off anxiety and feelings of depression, boost self-esteem AND improve sleep!

So, what’s the catch?
It seems like regular exercise is a miracle remedy, so it should be easy right?  Well, unlike morphine, endorphins are not addictive.  That is a good thing, but it also means that you have to have the motivation to get started and keep with a program.  The good news is that once you start and begin seeing and feeling the effects of exercise, it’s easier to set fitness goals and motivate your self to meet them.

If you are prone to stress and anxiety, one of the things you should absolutely avoid is taking on an exercise routine that will only increase your level of stress!  Choose activities that you enjoy and that you can look forward to during your week.  Everyone is different.  For me, the idea of taking a spin class is way too overwhelming but for others it’s just what they need to get into that zone and feel that “runner’s high.”  For me, pilates is the perfect workout.

Pilates is an excellent addition to any exercise routine.  Because it is physically challenging you’ll get the reward of endorphins which in turn provide a boost of energy.  But the real benefit is gained by the attention to the breath, which is choreographed into the movements.  The breath is a link between the mind and the body.  In oriental medicine, it is believed to be the prana, or life force.  Breathing exercises are thought to increase the awareness of bodily sensations so we are able to communicate to the body with our breath.  Think about it, when we want to calm down, we slow our breath; when we are excited, our breath quickens.  By incorporating the breath with exercise we learn greater control of our bodies and muscular activity in a soothing and organic way.

Learning to breath properly by utilizing the diaphragm, will help increase lung capacity.  When coupled with the Pilates technique of posterolateral breath which also keeps the abdominal muscles engaged, the breath becomes strong and helps tone and strengthen the core.

Pilates will help tone your muscles, improve posture by strengthening the muscles of the back and core, increase flexibility and range of motion, as well as increase your bodily awareness.  As a bonus, these will all help boost your self-esteem!  But it’s important to note, body awareness is not about noticing flaws in ourselves, but rather it’s about appreciating ourselves.  With pilates, we gain greater control over our movements and we become more efficient as we get stronger.  We learn to listen to what our body needs.

What ever exercise routine you choose, make sure it isn’t painful.  Pain is the body’s way of telling you something is wrong.  Listen to those cues!  Overdoing any form of exercise will be counter-intuitive to your stress and anxiety-reducing plan.

Most fitness professionals recommend starting out small, three times a week, if you are an exercise beginner.  Exercise for at least twenty minutes if you can, gradually working up to longer workouts.  I recommend starting out in the morning.  Fewer excuses not to exercise can sneak into you schedule if you set aside a few minutes into your morning routine.  This will also allow you to take advantage of the boost of energy it will give you and help you face the rest of the day with a positive outlook!


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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.

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.

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!


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