Concentration Frees the Mind

August 20, 2009

By Kathryn Ross-Nash

One of the most valuable offerings of a Pilates workout is the ability to clear your mind, but so many people never take full advantage of this benefit. They enter the studio and bring with them all the things they need to do, the things they have just done and the tremendous pressures of everyday life. Whenever a student shows up at the studio and I can “see” the baggage they are carrying, I tell them to “leave it at the door.”at the door

Joe Pilates encouraged us to bring our minds to our workouts. All his underlying principles incorporate focus and require us to be completely present in our work. One of the main principles of Pilates, of course, is concentration. When we use the mind to guide the body, the work is never executed on autopilot. A centered mind is needed for a centered body. Joe Pilates stressed using five aspects of our mind: intelligence, intuition, imagination, will and memory. When you fully engage your mind, you free it.

With that in “mind,” let me share a few things I do for both my clients and myself:

1. Leave it at the door: When entering the studio, I tell myself that I have chosen to be here and am committed to the time. There is nothing I can do about all the other things, and they will be there when I get done. (And if they’re not, well, then, that’s even better!)

2. Find a focus (intelligence): I know what I am lacking in my workout. For example, if your teacher is always telling you to squeeze your bottom, then that would be a great place to focus when you are working.

3. Go with your gut (intuition): If you are truly present in your workout, you will know which exercise suits you and what ones do not. Every day your body is in a different place. Some days we are full of energy, some days we are not. Honor the place you are in that day and adjust accordingly during your workout.

4. Find a way to let go of outside pressures (imagination): I have a fellow teacher who keeps an empty basket by the studio entrance and has her clients mentally deposit their baggage there. [Editor’s note: We love this one!]

5. Keep bringing yourself back to focus (will): As you work, your focus may drift, so keep bringing yourself back to where you are and challenge yourself to build your focus with each lesson.

6. Make yourself learn the order of your workout (memory): Learning the order of your workout has many benefits. One is that it helps to keep the mind sharp by using and developing your memory. One first-generation teacher told me that Joe would tell him to do Reformer, then do everything he knew on the Cadillac, then on the Wunda Chair, and so on.

Remember: When you bring your mind to your workout, you free yourself from the pressure of everyday life. This allows you a break—to breathe, regroup and be able to approach life with a fresh, clean and clear vantage point. It helps to teach you to be present; in the now. Your workout is your moving meditation.

So the next time you enter the studio, remember that this is your time for you. It’s one short precious hour to lose the stress of the day, so “leave it at the door.”


Your Best Foot Forward

August 6, 2009

By Kathryn Ross-Nash

Bunions, fallen arches, curled-up toes, plantar fasciitis and the rest of your foot disorders: watch out, ’cause there’s an old tool in town. It’s called the Foot Corrector, and it has been reforming and refreshing tired, achy feet for decades. The little device that looks like what you might find in a shoe store to measure your feet really gets the circulation going, courtesy of the genius of Joseph H. Pilates. Whether you’re beginning from the bottom up (at the start of a lesson) or using the Foot Corrector as a sweet ending the choice is yours–either way, you win.

The Foot Corrector offers a multitude of benefits. For thousands of years people around the world have enjoyed the benefits of Reflexology. Well, the Foot Corrector takes it a step further by increasing ankle stability, flexibility, alignment and propulsion. It uses the pressure of the pedal to massage the bottom of the foot and increase circulation. This massaging action also helps to break up knots deep in the foot. The lateral movement of the pedal detects if the user’s alignment is imbalanced and allows you to find where your correct alignment is. The Foot Corrector will develop ankle stability and flexibility through isolation. It is often used to help develop speed for an athlete and the arch jump of the dancer. At the end of the day, it just plain feels great!

Here is my favorite exercise to become refreshed and revitalized from the bottom up.

If you do not have a Foot Corrector, fear not: you can get almost-similar results using a tennis ball or other smallish squishy ball.

Body Position: Front leg bent and back leg straight. Arms behind your head, palm on palm. Be sure to scoop your tummy and keep your box square and you shift your weight onto the pedal.

Begin with your heel on the back edge and ball on the pedal.

Press the pedal and keeping the pedal straight and pressure even, slide the foot over the pedal.

Slide from the ball of the foot to the arch.

Then slide from the arch to the heel. Remember to keep the pedal straight and pressure even.

Return by reversing the slide and repeat 5-10 times.

Note: A sock is recommended to increase the slide.

The Rules of Engagement

August 3, 2009

By Kathryn Ross-Nash

What sets the Pilates method apart from all other types of exercise? Why does the method consistently work for all types of people training at all different levels, with all different needs and from all different walks of life? The movements that are executed are similar to so many other movements used in fitness, and the number of repetitions much less then most other workout routines. Plus, the body really only moves correctly in so many ways: So why is this method head and shoulders above the rest?

It’s simple. It all comes down to “the rules of engagement.”

In the Pilates method, the powerhouse must be the first area to be engaged. It is the beginning, middle and end of each exercise. I think that this is probably the most difficult thing to get across, as most Pilates practitioners (myself included) have deeply ingrained movement patterns. It’s typical for many people, especially newer students, to try and initiate an exercise using their extremities. But what happens? You wind up strengthening already-strong muscles. When you retrain the body to use the powerhouse—or girdle of strength—with each breathe, you protect your spine and strengthen one of the most vulnerable areas of your body.

As instructors and practitioners, we need to search for ways to find the powerhouse. Here are three techniques I use to help myself and my clients turn their power hut into a powerhouse.

1. Imagery: Using verbal cues, try to help the client find something he or she can relate to. For example, when trying to help them find their backs along the mat, suggest they imagine sinking into warm sand on the beach. Or invite them to imagine they have a corset on and the only place free to move is the powerhouse.

2. Physical Cues: I will place my hand under the hollow of the client’s back and have them press in and up on my hand. The tactical feedback of my hand is easier to feel then the flat of the mat. As the client begins to move, you can easily feel if they release the pressure and have begun to use another part of themselves and are no longer focused on the core.

3. Reference. Try mentioning another exercise they already do and understand. For example, if the client understands Spine Stretch Forward and is now learning Horseback on the Barrel, you can point out how these exercises are the same, just done in a different place (the man was a genius) and make this new exercise an old friend.

Two small points to leave you with. First, always beware: Just because someone looks as if they are doing the “movement” of Pilates, it does not make it Pilates. And second, always remember this: powerhouse first; box, second—and then use the movement of the exercise to challenge the integrity of the rules of engagement.

Putting the work back in your workout

July 20, 2009

By Kathryn Ross-Nash

A few days ago I was teaching a group of clients who had been students for many years. Instead of suffering through the Hundred…they looked comfortable. COMFORTABLE IN THE HUNDRED! That’s when I realized that they had gotten so strong that the goal position was no longer enough to challenge them; they would have to learn to create the challenge within their own bodies.

The Pilates method is based on creating oppositional forces in the body radiating from a strong center. This means the work is never-ending if you know how to create these opposing forces. Obviously we could spend hours (months!) discussing how to do that, correctly and efficiently, in great detail. But in a nutshell, here are four ways to create opposing forces:

1. Squeeze the juice out of an exercise: As you move through flexion and extension (the basis of the work), push the limits of the movement. For example, in Double-Leg Stretch, as you extend, reach as far as you can between your fingers and toes, make the waist and long and strong as possible. Then, when you bring the arms and legs in, make the ball as small as possible.

2.Pick a principle: Each time you teach, pick one of the six fundamental principles to be the focus of thworkout. You’ll be amazed at what happens. For example, the workout changes when you focus on fluidity instead of precision. The dynamics change when you concentrate on breath or centering (that all comes from the powerhouse). The challenge is different when you bring your full concentration (awareness to everything you are doing) to the work and when you focus on the control over the body and do not allow gravity or momentum to take over. Different Principle: different workout; different muscular response, full benefit of the work!

3. Mix it up: Change the rhythm of your work. For example, on the Single-Leg Stretch, play with the counts. Hold each position 4 counts 2 times, 3 counts 2 times, 1 count 2 times.

4. Alter your attention: Always engage your powerhouse first and align your box second: but then what? Some days focus on keeping the waist long in all your exercises, other days focus on using your bottom or engaging the back of your legs. The possibilities are endless.

Above all else, keep the work in your workout! That is how after 26 years of practice and 18 years of teaching I have never had a moment of boredom in the studio.