Baby Boomers and Pilates

May 17, 2011

by Risa Sheppard

I am a baby boomer, and I am proud of it. I was born in July, 1953, in Los Angeles, CA, and will be 58 this year. How did that happen? We have zero control over when we are born and, unless you have a secret the rest of the world does not know about, no one is exempt from getting older. In fact, I believe that it is a privilege to age. Consider the alternative: When someone passes on at an “early age,” we cry that that person left us so young. And yet, the day before, we may have been criticizing the lines on his forehead, or the muffin top above her waist. We complain about it, obsess about it, hate it, fight it, get depressed about it, but, at the end of the day, it is inevitable. It’s not like Jane Smith will stay her age forever, or Joe Blow grows younger each year, and you are singled out by the universe to be one of the few to grow old and die. All that being said, what does being a baby boomer have to do with Pilates?

As the largest population group in history, it has a lot to do with Pilates. The United States Census Bureau considers a baby boomer to be someone born during the demographic birth boom, between 1946 and 1964. I am amused when people talk about the effect boomers have on the economy. Well, in 2011, the economy is the boomers! There are 75 million of us—that is a statistical reality. What are we spending our money on? Us! Our health, youth and staying young with whatever that takes. Whatever is being sold to keep us young and fit, we are buying it.
Why are baby boomers gravitating toward Pilates? Simple; it keeps you young. And we baby boomers are determined to stay young.

“You are as old as your spine is flexible,” Joseph Pilates once said.

The number one complaint among boomers is feeling stiff, all the time! They wake up stiff, and go to bed stiff. Being on a computer all day, working, and living life in general is stressful, and their bodies take the punishment. Plus, the number of years of physical pounding, old-school aerobics, running, or just plain being a couch potato has taken a toll. We thought it would never happen to us, but guess what? It did—and still is.

In Pilates, we strive for a spine that is flexible, articulate and strong. No matter your age or abilities, a spine that can bend forward, backward, side to side and rotate is a young spine. And we can keep it young into our 90’s and beyond. To articulate the space between the vertebrae is the best way to stay healthy, pain free and flexible. We must keep the spine loose and lengthened. Hence the mantra, “one vertebra at a time” that we use to cue Roll-Downs. We must imagine our spine long and lean, like a beautiful string of opulent pearls. This allows all the nerves to freely flow throughout the canals. We keep the musculature in proper alignment with our skeletal system so that the nerve endings do not compress into the muscles. We breathe deeply and fully to allow oxygen to freely flow though out the body, and facilitate the movement. We are so used to using just the front of our bodies; the back rarely moves into extension.

Constant use of computers keeps our shoulders rounded and the spine constantly flexed. It’s as if you are one-dimensional instead of three.

I remember as a young teenager only tanning the front side of my body because I had no awareness of my back! As we age, ignorance of our back side kicks us in the butt, so to speak, and we experience stiffness and pain throughout our bodies.

As boomers, our goal is not to be on the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine, or to have the hottest body at the beach. We want to be comfortable, to look and feel good, and have the feelings we experienced back in the ’60s and ’70s when the world was our oyster. Good news: It still is. Only now we are older and wiser! We appreciate all that we have worked so hard for, and we are not going to let our bodies be the last to enjoy what life has to offer.

Life for us Baby Boomers is just beginning.

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Mind Over Matter

April 12, 2011

by Risa Sheppard

“The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, not to worry about the future, but to live the present moment wisely and earnestly.” —The Buddha

“To learn how to think is to learn how to live.” —Ernest Holmes

We start from where we are—we cannot start anywhere else. Whether you have been working out your whole life, or just beginning a fitness regimen, you cannot lament the past or worry about where you are going to be. Our task in life is to stay centered in mind and body, and to remain focused on our goals and not let anyone or anything deter us from moving forward.

We can apply principles of positive living to Pilates, or any fitness regimen we may subscribe to; what is true for one is true for the other. We get discouraged when something does not go as planned in life. We give up, we get depressed and we stop moving forward. This happens to us all, but it is the ones who pick themselves up, dust themselves off and start all over again who are most successful. So it is with Pilates. Our task, if you will, is to move through space and time in a vehicle that is coordinated, efficient and powerful.

For instance: Ever notice if your hips are stiff or hurting? Many times it is not the physical act of tight hips that bother us (although that may be the case), but (keep an open mind if you will) the hips metaphysically stand for “moving forward with life.” When we feel “stuck” or are unhappy with the “forward movement of life,” our body reflects what we are thinking. As Joe Pilates often said, “it is the mind itself that shapes the body.” Oftentimes when my hip flexors feel out of balance, I ask myself: Where am I feeling stuck? Where is my life out of balance with nature? The answer may be a relationship, job situation or just feeling “out of sorts.”

Ahh! A light bulb goes off. Perhaps I was not even aware! Admitting to ourselves we have a problem is half the solution. Since we know that thoughts are things, and we attract to us what we give off, we know we must change our thinking. Easier said than done? Of course! It takes discipline, control and dedication. The same that it takes to build our bodies into the fine piece of machinery it is.

Repetition of a new thought pattern, just as the repetition of an exercise, is the only way to achieve results. We all want the quick fix, but we know that is only an illusion. We must work diligently to achieve mastery of body and mind. We must stay with the program and continue—no matter how hard it appears. For when we let go of the resistance, the exercise, whether mental or physical, becomes a part of our inner-most being.

Louise Hay, in her book, Heal Your Body, offers a new thought pattern to replace the negative thoughts and emotions. You may want to come up with your own, or use her affirmations as a mantra until it becomes second nature. In the case of hip problems, say to yourself, I am in perfect balance. I move forward in life with peace and joy at any age. It may be difficult at first, but keep practicing, and you just might see your body, mind and emotions change for the better.


Remember the Center

March 22, 2011

by Risa Sheppard

Before the core (a term Joe Pilates never used), there was the center. With all due respect to the term core, the core is an overused and misunderstood Pilates concept. As a movement specialist, I take offense when others forget the concept of the center. The center is as ancient as life itself. Our Eastern colleagues used the chi to refer to that point within the body from which all movement emanates from. This can be found in tai chi and other Eastern philosophies of fitness. What I love about Pilates is that it combines both Eastern and Western philosophies of movement. That was the brilliance of Joe Pilates, and that is what I ascribe to to this day. I think that mindful living, both physically and mentally, incorporates the best of Eastern and Western thought. One cannot escape the brilliance of both ways of thinking.

What is the Center?
It is one of the basic principles of Pilates, along with coordination, precision, flowing movement and breath. I take each new client—whether he or she has had Pilates experience or not—through the following basic “how to find your center” exercise:

  1. Face a mirror and take a look at the way you are standing. Are your hips in alignment? Are your shoulders square?
  2. Imagine that a laser beam is running through your hips from each direction, keeping your hips stable and aligned. Imagine that your hipbones are like the headlights of a car, each facing forward directly and evenly.
  3. Now, place one of your hands on your lower abdominals, and the other on your lower back. Imagine a laser beam from one end to the other. Then, at the center of your body—where those two points meet—imagine a sphere the size of a ping-pong ball with the energy of the sun. That is the center from which all movement comes from. Instead of lifting your arm from the shoulder blade, or deltoid, imagine you are lifting from the center.

This allows for a more fluid, energetic and aligned movement that will lengthen and strengthen your muscles in a way that is proficient and graceful. Your whole body is activated as each muscle group comes alive. When you are walking down the street, imagine you are walking from your center. Most people move from their heads, pelvis, knees or other extremities. By moving from your center, you stay in correct body alignment. Your posture becomes erect, and you look and feel more confident. Most important, grace, power and beauty exude from your inner spirit and flows into everything you do and feel.


How Pilates Saved My Life

March 10, 2011

by Risa Sheppard

“You have a benign tumor in your right inner ear,” the doctor told me. “It’s called an Acoustic-Neuroma, a growth within your inner ear that presses against your brain, and you need to have it taken out.”

I had been feeling dizzy and nauseous. Something was wrong. Unaccustomed to feeling ill, the doctors had first shrugged it off. They wanted to send me to a dizziness specialist. I insisted on an MRI of my head.

I thought, If it’s not going to kill me, just take it out. I’ll be out of work a couple of weeks, and then I’m back. Little did I know how long the recuperation would actually last.

I was off work for three months. I know it could have been longer, had I not been committed to Pilates for more than 30 years. I also know that this changed my life, confirmed my path, and excited me to tell my story.

It was June 2006. I had expected a busy summer. A friend’s wedding was coming up, along with another Sheppard Method certification in August, and a lot of clients depended on me. I had no time for surgery! But, as the saying goes, life happens, when you’re busy making other plans. So, I “took care of business” and scheduled the operation.

The operation lasted seven hours, after which my brain started to swell. I was put on life support, which necessitated a second operation to install a shunt to drain the fluid from my brain. My scheduled five-day hospital stay stretched to three weeks.

I believe that the constant vigil held by my husband and father and the hope and encouragement offered by an amazing number of my own Pilates teachers, who came by regularly to stretch me out, helped to facilitate my healing process. To this day, I credit the use of Pilates for my physical and mental recovery, knowing it accelerated the healing process and allowed me to get back to work full time faster than the doctors had anticipated.

At home, I knew I had the power of mind to heal. I kept repeating, “Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better,” or as Winston Churchill once said, “The best way to get through hell is by putting one foot in front of each other.”

Some of my friends thought I would never work again. Others were afraid I would never speak well again. I proved them wrong.

I missed my studio. I woke up one morning thinking that if I didn’t go back to Pilates I would go insane. I remember a client saying to me, “Risa, I don’t care if you sit next to me and fall asleep, just come back and let me work.” I agreed to meet her the following week.

I’ll never forget when I walked back into the studio for the first time since the surgery: It felt like I came home.

I was weak at first and started slowly. However, Pilates came back to me—it was like riding a bike. It felt great to be working again. Every session I pushed myself a little more, and little by little, I added a new exercise movement. As my strength started to return, I became less foggy headed and more clear. With the help of my trainers, I was getting better everyday.

For a long time I had been on the opposite end of physical, occupational and speech therapies. A very important thing I learned during my own recovery process was the difference between being a good teacher and a great teacher. Good teachers know what they’re doing, but a great teacher truly loves what they’re doing and really cares for the people they treat.

Today, four years later, I am feeling and doing better than ever. I am able to teach others with a new sense of passion and method. I opened a second studio and continue to teach teacher certifications and seminars. I truly feel that if it had not been for Pilates, I wouldn’t have been able to get back to life this quickly and successfully.

The grace and control of Pilates has shown me that this is the best workout for the body, mind and spirit. No matter your age, ability or circumstances, Pilates can make it that much better. At 57, I feel like I am just beginning.


Remembering Jack

February 23, 2011

by Risa Sheppard

I am honored and privileged to have personally known and worked for Jack La Lanne. I went to junior and senior high school with his daughter, Janet. Elaine La Lanne, his wife of 51 years, was in PTA with my mother. I spent many nights at the La Lanne residence and I remember being awakened at 4:30am by the clanging of gym equipment and Jack doing laps in the swimming pool.

Jack had a larger than life personna, especially to a young junior high girl such as myself. I was in awe of him. I wondered what it would be like to have him as a Dad. Jack was strict, but kindhearted. He was tough with his tongue but soft with his grin. He would not allow us to keep candy for Halloween, but we snuck it anyway. I’m sure he knew. After all, we were kids. Janet and I wanted to be actresses. We went to modeling school together. We did plays together. She was fun and smart and pretty.

Jack never wavered from what he believed. No sugar, no sweets. Exercise, exercise, exercise. I have no doubt, even though I did not come into Pilates until much later, that Jack was a big influence on me back then. Elaine was, and still is, beautiful and always thought of others. Jack was always positive, enthusiastic, and hard working. These are attributes I try to follow now. I learned from the best.

After we graduated from high school in 1970, I went to UCLA to study theater and Janet moved to Michigan to join a theater group. One night after class I heard on the news station that Jack La Lanne’s daughter was killed in a car accident in Michigan. She was 21. I was in a state of shock, and immediately rushed to the La Lanne household. There were Jack and Elaine, still trying to remain positive despite their grief. I remember Elaine saying to me, “Tell me funny things about Janet,” as Jack massaged my neck with a force so strong that I was wincing, but didn’t dare ask him to lighten up. Their faith in a higher power helped us all deal with the tragedy. Their faith has always kept them strong, and I admire that to this day.

Jack and Elaine threw a big “party” for Janet as a goodbye and celebration of her short life. That is what she would have wanted. So now I celebrate Jack’s life with reverence and gratitude. He and Janet are now reunited in spirit and I tip my hat to a father/daughter relationship I always admired.

I later discovered Pilates and fell in love with the discipline. I was  teaching Pilates privately in clients’ homes throughout L.A. Jack and Elaine were doing a live morning exercise show on KHJ-TV in Hollywood. They asked me to be one of their co-hosts, which I did for about two years. It was a thrill of a lifetime, and an experience never to be replaced. I loved waking up each morning and heading for the studio and learning all the things Jack had to teach. It broadened my horizons as a newbie Pilates instructor. Jack’s enthusiasm was infectious. His discipline: awe inspiring.

Thinking back, I can’t believe I was so fortunate. Jack kept his eye on the business side as Elaine concentrated on the co-hosts and guests. One day, she said to Jack (remember, this was live TV), “Give Risa a plug. She goes to peoples’ homes and works them out.”  This was an unusual business back then; no one was going to homes. Jack only knew of his gyms and figured everyone who could exercise should go to his gym. But always willing to help, he looked into the camera and said, “Folks, if you’re confined to your home, if you’re too sick to leave and exercise, call Risa. She has dedicated her life to you.”

I thought, Confined! Oh no! I don’t want confined clients! as I smiled into the camera.

I received calls from all over the country—people writing about their children who where sick and homebound. I wanted to help him all. I then received a call from Reub, a Parkinson patient. I soon began to work with Parkinsons patients and became an expert. I was able to help those who couldn’t leave their homes. Thanks to Jack’s on-air plug, I discovered a whole new area to help those who needed help.

I have many fond memories of a mentor whom I am honored to have known and who inspired me to help others attain heath and fitness and live long happy lives. I only hope to live as long and as well as Jack.