Pilates: a treasure map to your true "core"
I am nuts about Pilates. It's one of the most effective forms of exercise out there - whether you are looking to improve fitness, maintain fitness or recover from an injury.
It’s challenging enough for people who love to train and push themselves.
It’s also enjoyable for those who normally avoid the gym at all costs. It also transcends the ages.
By making you work with your body weight, Pilates helps you achieve incredible mind-body coordination, strength, flexibility and balance. I've heard various opinions about Pilates including the following: "it's a trendy class for yummy mummies isn't it", "it's not very challenging" or "I didn't feel like I was doing anything". The truth is Pilates is a lifestyle. You're taught the principles and it's your job to transfer them into your daily life so gradually you develop a deeper awareness of how you move and how you go about your daily business. If you haven't felt challenged by Pilates in the past then try a different class - Pilates should always be challenging and push your limits. If you don't know what you're doing, then find a small class where the instructor comes round and feels your muscles and helps you activate them whilst correcting your body position and technique. A "hands-on" approach will increase your understanding of what is supposed to be working when.
To dispel some myths about Pilates, I asked a client of mine to share her story of how Pilates helped her through pregnancy and beyond. She was more than willing! Here is her Pilates story in her own words…
A Rocky Start
I signed up for ante-natal Pilates classes with Sarah Fellows in September 2015. My husband and I had just moved back to the UK from Australia, and were excited to be expecting our first child in January.
I hoped by joining a local Pilates class I would meet more expectant mothers, make friends and, as a by-product, improve my fitness during pregnancy.
My only experience of Pilates at that point was one unfortunate lesson during Fresher’s Week at University more than a decade before…
I had optimistically signed up for a free Pilates taster session with a group of athletic new friends I was trying to impress.
I had seen people do Pilates before; they just lay on the floor and rolled around. How hard could that be?
It turns out, pretty bloody hard.
After just 20 minutes I was red faced and shaking. I did my best to get into the positions as instructed, but as no one corrected me I got them all wrong. I was left with a pulled muscle in my neck, feeling far from supple.
And that wasn’t the worst part.
Just when I thought I couldn’t get any less dignified; lying on my back with my legs in the air, I let out – quite against my will - an almighty fart.
Well that did it.
I was so mortified, I vowed never to return.
It literally took me 10 years to get over it.
Thankfully Sarah Fellows' class was, in contrast, a breath of fresh air.
It was a small class, mostly pregnant women and a few people recovering from injuries with mobility issues.
We were all novices to Pilates but Sarah instantly put us at ease.
She let us progress slowly through the stages, making sure that we went at a pace that suited us. She didn’t push us too hard, but encouraged us to push ourselves.
We slowly built up our abilities over time, becoming more stable and in control at one stage, before moving onto the next.
Sarah had a wonderful way of describing the movements using vivid imagery;
“Now slide your leg down as if it’s pushing through treacle.”
“Imagine you’ve got a champagne glass on your knee – don’t spill a drop!”
“Your shoulder blades are floating, slide them down through warm melted chocolate.”
As well as sounding delicious, these metaphors made it simple to understand what she was asking of us. We knew what parts of our body we should focus on, and how it should feel when done correctly.
Strengthening the Body
The magic of Pilates is that, to a bystander, the movements look so simple.
But as I discovered, when practiced correctly, Pilates is an extremely challenging and effective form of exercise.
I learnt that by engaging deep core muscles in the lower back, hips and abdomen, Pilates encourages stability and control whilst improving flexibility and strength.
As a pregnant woman, I felt the benefits immediately.
I gained strength in my abdominal and pelvic floor muscles, meaning I had more control when it came to late stage pregnancy. (Not once did I wee myself after a sneeze!)
My back and torso muscles became stronger, making it easier to carry around my vast baby-belly. I felt more agile and less stiff than before. My posture improved and I slept more comfortably.
Of course, I could not avoid the third-trimester “pregnancy waddle” as my pelvis widened. But the regular Pilates classes helped ease stiffness in my hips and reduce pain in my joints.
Strengthening the Mind
Pilates offered some wonderful physical benefits, but for me, the mental benefits were even more significant.
As my pregnancy progressed I became more and more nervous about the prospect of giving birth. Pilates helped to ease my concerns in a number of ways:
I became much more aware of and impressed by my own body.
As I worked through the movements and up through the stages, I became more and more aware of how complex and intricate my body was.
By learning to use my muscle correctly, instead of relying on the wrong ones as we do so often in our daily lives, I discovered a power and strength that I never knew I had. This gave me such a boost of confidence in my body’s ability to give birth.
This mindfulness enabled me to feel calm and relaxed knowing that this is what my body is designed to do.
Pilates helped me to understand the importance of breathing.
It seems like a simple point, but one I think lots of people take for granted.
I discovered that our breath has an enormous impact on the tension in our bodies. When controlled, our breath can help us to tighten and lift or loosen and relax.
Pilates incorporates breath into every movement, and understanding this helped me come to terms with its importance during labour.
Pilates is a practice of control. Learning to control your body, in such specific detail, requires a lot of practice, repetition, and stamina.
I remember one exercise in particular, where Sarah was pushing us particularly hard. Our legs and bums were burning with the effort, but we were encouraged to push on and finish the set.
“You can do it! This is nothing compared to labour pains!”
Those words really resonated. I was about to face the biggest physical endurance challenge of my life. Pilates was going to help me get through it.
In the end, I had a wonderful birthing experience. I know that much of this is down to luck, but I credit ante-natal Pilates with giving me the mental and physical skills to get me through it.
Getting Your Body Back
Magazines often talk about “getting your body back” after having a baby.
To me, it always seemed like a shallow phrase aimed at celebs and yummy mummies. Women who just wanted to get back into a sexy bikini.
I was surprised when, after giving birth, that phrase started to mean so much more to me.
I did want to get my body back.
It had nothing to do with weight loss, dress sizes or a flat stomach. For me, it was about regaining the strength and control that I had lost.
During pregnancy and early-motherhood my body had turned into something I barely recognised as my own.
It seemed that suddenly my body belonged more to my daughter than to me; a vessel to carry her, a station to feed her, a cosy blanket to soothe her.
I was no longer mindful of my body. I’d forgotten my own strength and ability. I’d lost confidence in how it all fit together.
I felt soft, spongy and wobbly.
What I wanted back was control over my body. Control of my muscles, my posture, my balance.
My labour, whilst good, lasted 20 hours. My beautiful baby weighed a hefty 9lb12. My body needed a lot of recovery.
Thanks to the ante-natal Pilates, my pelvic floor was strong. I luckily had no problems with incontinence or prolapse.
What I did have was a set of torn abdominal muscles. Thanks to my super-size baby I suffered from diastasis recti. My abdominal muscles were ripped down the middle like an undone zip.
There was nothing much to do about this other than wait for my body to heal itself.
Finally, after several months, I was given the all clear to get back to some exercise. I immediately signed up to Post Natal Pilates with Sarah.
To my dismay, it felt a lot like starting from scratch.
I was disappointed that my body could not move with the control that it used to.
But after a few sessions my strength started to return.
Once again, I marveled at how complex and intricate my body was. As we worked through the movements Sarah would mention how your body is made up and how it's all connected. This made it all the more meaningful, helping us to correct ourselves in the posture, ensuring we were working the right muscles without putting undue pressure or tension on other areas.
I felt connected with my body again. I felt in control.
Now I am enjoying Pilates more than ever.
I’ve started to combine regular classes with a few gym sessions per week. I’ve realised I can apply a lot of the things I learnt from Pilates into other activities. I know how to engage the right muscles and use my breath to help with the movement.
The weekly evening classes also offer a great time out. I can switch my brain off from all the busy “mum” thoughts that rush through my head every other second of the day. It’s time that I can focus on me, developing that mindfulness so I can come home happy and relaxed.
My daughter loves it when I practice Pilates in the living room. Sometimes she’ll challenge my balance by clambering all over me. Other times she’ll just try to copy me. Most of the moves come easily to her as a toddler – squatting, bending, lifting. It goes to show how much our bodies are capable of if we can just remind ourselves! Overall, I feel healthier than ever, both physically and mentally. I put most of that down to Pilates – and I have Sarah to thank for it!
Thank you to my client for sharing her Pilates journey. I'm hoping some of those Pilates myths have been debunked. It's never too late to start something new. If you want time for you to focus on you and feel what your body is capable of then come and trial a class. Email or check out my website if you have any questions or would like to enrol for a class: email@example.com or visit www.physiosarahfellows.com