Pilates and Stress Management

May 3, 2011

How stress affects your health and helpful techniques to stay slim, fit and feeling good

by Leah Stewart

Stress is a reality of everyday life. While nerve-racking situations are difficult to avoid, our chances of remaining healthy and feeling good greatly depend on how we manage, cope with and recover from stress. In order to combat the effects of stress, we must understand the role it plays in our physical health.

Clients come into a Pilates studio seeking the numerous physical benefits that are associated with the method. What they might not realize at first is that the physical benefits of a consistent and meaningful Pilates practice can go well beyond external body aesthetics. I have learned, through studying with and teaching for BASI Pilates, that stress reduction is a profound benefit of a regular Pilates practice. Pilates helps to ease the effects of stress through the implementation of its central principles: breathing techniques, body awareness, relaxation, concentration, mindfulness, balance and harmony.

Many professionals in the health industry—both medical and fitness—work with patients and clients that often express frustration with symptoms such as fatigue, weight gain, muscle loss, weakness and depression. A high-stress lifestyle and an inability to self-manage stress is a major contributing factor to these symptoms. We must ask ourselves the following questions: How much stress and what types of stress do we have in our lives? How do we handle and recover from these stresses? Exploring and discovering the answers to these questions can significantly change how we remedy these physical symptoms.

When we feel stressed, our bodies release cortisol (via our adrenal glands). When secreted in normal amounts, cortisol gives us baseline energy throughout the cycle of a day. Cortisol is also reserved to help us meet the challenges of acute stressors. When we feel threatened, the adrenal glands release cortisol, setting the body into a “fight or flight” mode. Cortisol secretion appropriately alters metabolic function through the release of stored sugar into the blood stream for quick energy. Cortisol also acts in suppressing immunity functions and increasing heart rate and blood pressure.

The release of cortisol is meant to be a short-term response to stress. When released during stressful situations, cortisol helps the body return to its stress-reduced state. Unfortunately, if we are in a state of chronic stress—without any appropriate time for rest and recovery—the adrenal glands become overworked and no longer appropriately supply our bodies with its baseline of energy. This can lead to a host of unpleasant effects, including:

  1. Impaired metabolism and digestion, causing increase in appetite; accumulation and storage of body fat (particularly around the abdomen area); and weight gain
  2. The destruction of healthy muscle and bone, which contributes to weakness and fatigue.
  3. Increased blood pressure
  4. A weakened immune system and slower healing processes
  5. The impairment of chemicals that are needed to make other hormones (i.e. serotonin).
  6. Fatigue

Medical professionals prescribe lifestyle changes that promote stress reduction to those patients suffering from chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels. One specific prescription is the integration of a regular, moderate exercise program. Other stress management techniques include breathing exercises, imagery, meditation and self-awareness. Pilates is a form of exercise that improves the functional strength and flexibility of muscles and bones, has the ability to slim your waistline and helps to correct posture. As previously mentioned, a meaningful and consistent Pilates practice opens the possibility for a permanent lifestyle transformation. Next time you feel stressed, try implementing and focusing on the following into your Pilates practice:

Breathing techniques

Breathing is the life force of the Pilates method. Breath promotes focus, oxygenates the blood, improves circulation and encourages relaxation.


The use of imagery fuels creativity. The visualization used in Pilates imagery helps to calm the mind and encourage concentration providing better movement and anatomical understanding.

Concentration and Mindfulness

Concentration and mindfulness helps keep distracting and stressful thoughts at bay. With the promotion of precision in movement through concentration and mindfulness, individuals will experience advancement in movement clarity and execution. Confidence and a positive sense of well-being can be directly improved.

Body Awareness

The use of imagery, concentration, and mindfulness in Pilates will improve body awareness. Body awareness heightens a conscious communication between body and mind. Awareness allows for strong self-perception and self-management of what is and is not productive for the body both physically and emotionally.

Meditation and Harmony

With the combined efforts and integration of breathing, imagery, concentration, mindfulness and body awareness, a Pilates practice can transform into a meditation practice that can help promote the maintenance of a balanced and harmonious lifestyle. A Pilates session is a sacred time for oneself to place everything else aside several times a week and engage in an energizing and relaxing meditation of body, mind and spirit.

Pilates is certainly not the sole remedy, nor a cure all, for a lifestyle consumed with chronic stress. It is, however, one of many positive agents that assist in making permanent lifestyle changes that include physical activity, relaxation and meditation. Most importantly, the true nature of Pilates is one of dynamic balance and harmony, making Pilates a positive way to reduce stress—and opening the gateway for successful efforts in staying slim, fit and feeling good.


Get Your Powerhouse On!

April 26, 2011

by the BuddhaBabes

In keeping with the theme of our previous post, let’s discuss you and your fabulous core, and how to shed those pesky winter pounds. Our solution: It’s time to kick up the cardio—and core concentration!

The Pilates Powerhouse never stops, whether you’re riding a bike, hiking the trails or even on vacation. Here are some tips for keeping it even more active while enjoying your favorite activities:

  • Cycling: Find that deep Pilates curl and resist the urge to unfurl your abs. Keep them tucked in as you draft behind the dude in front of you, then pass him because you’ve efficiently used your energy from the inside out!
  • Running: When you’re going the distance, it’s easy to think about your tired legs or labored breathing. So, flip the switch—when you’re chasing down that last mile, engage your abs to make your legs feel lighter and your breath more powerful, and you’ll cross the finish line in no time.
  • Swimming: Feel like you’re sinking? Think about tightening a virtual belt around your waistline as you complete your laps. When you fully engage your Powerhouse, your strokes will become streamlined and your laps will be a breeze.
  • Surfing: Popping up (to stand) is simple if you energize your lowest and deepest abs.

Chair Pose
We’ve taken our two favorite topics, posture and Powerhouse, and put them together in this easy, take-it-anywhere, total-body toner, which will enhance the performance of your Pilates practice and other sports. For best results, do it three times a week.

    Setup: From a standing posture (either toes touching or feet fist-distance apart), inhale as you tuck your tailbone and lift your arms overhead.

  1. Exhale as you lower your body into a squat. Hold for 8 breaths, inhaling in through your nose and exhaling out through your mouth.
  2. As you’re holding, focus on:

lower body Keeping your weight in your heels, try to sit a little deeper, feeling your quads engage.
upper body Are your arms as straight as possible? Are your shoulder blades reaching long down your back? Is your head resting on your neck in proper alignment, or are you looking down?
core Are your abs engaged? Are you popping your ribs? Is your tailbone tucked slightly?
breath Are you breathing, or are you holding your breath?

  1. Inhale, and rise to the standing position. Take a few deep breaths, shaking out your arms and legs.
  2. Do 3 repetitions of steps 1–3.
  3. Advanced: On your 4th repetition, hinge at the waist with your arms outstretched and parallel to the floor into Half-Chair pose. Hold for 5 breaths, return to full Chair for 3 more breaths, then rise up to standing.

Off the Mat, On the Menu: Integrating our practice and our diets

April 18, 2011

by Frances Sheridan Goulart

Novelist E. M. Forster once observed, “The body says what words cannot.” And that body, when properly trained, often speaks louder than words. As Joseph Pilates promised, “In ten sessions [of Pilates], you will see the difference and in thirty, you will have a whole new body.”

What is the key to this transformation? I believe it is integration. One of Pilates’ nine principles, integration is the ability to see and use the body as a comprehensive whole, engaging all of the body’s network of muscles simultaneously.

Similarly, integrating the ingredients of your diet can gradually (but surely) produce a whole new body from the inside. Just as you can rethink the focus when you perform a movement on the mat, you can rethink the focus when going to the market and when coming to the table. If your goal is to build a long, lean, disease-resistant body to last a lifetime (and whose isn’t?), your focus should be on the creation of a powerhouse diet.

Integration starts with selection. “Don’t put anything in your mouth that doesn’t build health,” counseled ’70s heath guru Adele Davis. Every time we open our mouths we need to ask, “Is this slice of orange, this latté or this buffalo wing making me more or less healthy?

And it continues at the store. Our focus every time we shop (and make sure you shop the store’s outer perimeters, where the healthier foods like fresh produce, dairy and other perishables, can be found) should be on that whole, new body. Load up your shopping basket with fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables, limit the frozen and/or prepared, ready-to-eat foods. And let the new Mediterranean Diet–influenced Food Guide Pyramid, which advocates more fruits, vegetables and whole grains with moderate amounts of healthy oils like olive and flaxseed and less meat, be your guide.

What, no bacon? Give the saturated fat, calories and cholesterol a rest and experiment with chewy, high-fiber substitutes like seitan (wheat gluten), which has as much protein as a steak, or tofu and tempeh, which are both bean-based and contain fiber, antioxidants and only a fraction of the calories in a burger or hotdog. It’s easy to integrate meatless meats into your meals by simply substituting them for the animal protein in your favorite entrées.

Read on for a seitan-based recipe that is great as a main course, side dish or even a party snack.

Barbecued Seitan
Makes 4–6 servings

½ cup low sodium soy sauce or Braggs Amino Acids Seasoning
1/3 cup sugar
¼ cup sake or other dry wine
4 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup cold water
Black pepper to taste
1 tablespoon sesame oil

1 pound seitan strips
6 Portobello mushroom caps
1 large, red bell pepper, seeds and membrane removed and sliced into strips

  1. Whisk all marinade ingredients together and pour into small saucepan. Heat for 5–6 minutes until sugar is dissolved. Cool.
  2. Pour over seitan and mushroom caps.
  3. Marinade for 1 hour (or longer).
  4. Drain marinade. Sear seitan over high heat until caramelized around edges.
  5. Top with chopped green onion and toasted sesame seeds.
  6. Serve over any steamed whole grain such as brown rice, quinoa or kasha if used as an entrée.

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.

From Corsets to Core Strength

March 30, 2011

by Tannis Kobrinsky

Joe Pilates was born into a world of corseted women. Fact: Well-bred ladies wore some form of corset starting in the 14th century. By the 1800s, extreme lacing of these core-crushing contraptions took hold. Remember in Gone with the Wind when Scarlet and Mammy struggle to squeeze Scarlet’s postpartum waist down to 18 inches? Then there’s the GWTW scene with the southern belles napping, corsets unleashed, literally taking a much-needed breather. Imagine forcibly cinching your waist down to 18–22 inches daily, all your adult life. People in the 1800s suspected corsets caused health problems. When a lady grew faint, the cry went out to loosen her laces and she was led to the fainting couch and administered smelling salts. Health experts warned that extremely tight lacing displaced organs and compressed the spine, not to mention the fact that it prevented proper muscle development and prohibited vigorous exercise. 19th century corsets were so rigid that women were forced to sit upright and could barely bend over. But women endured corsets from adolescence on in order to have fashionable figures.

It was in this social climate that Pilates introduced his method. He advocated building a powerhouse, which he called a “deep-muscle corset.” The inner corset consisted (and still does) of the pelvic floor, transverse abdominus, multifidus, diaphragm, inner-thigh muscles and all muscles surrounding the pelvis. When we practice Pilates properly, we construct our deep inner muscle corset by hollowing our center (core) and activating the muscles of the pelvic floor and girdle. We gain control over our bodies, and this leads to health in mind and spirit. But the mindset of the general public had to change before this concept could be widely accepted. When you look at the last hundred years, you will see the journey from corset to core strength parallels the emancipation and liberation of women.

March 8th 1911, when women celebrated the first Women’s History Day, most women wore corsets. By 1914 the modified corselet hit the market and so did looser clothes. On May 16, 1916, the first annual swimsuit day took place at Madison Square Garden in NYC. Women, freed from corsets, began to enjoy recreational activities. In the ’20s, rebel-rousing flappers with boyish figures danced risqué Charlestons. But the majority of ladies clung to undergarments with stays and laces. My grandmother, who was born in 1893, wore her corselet into the 1970s. She felt indecent if she didn’t wear it.

For decades she suffered from chronic indigestion, later diagnosed as a hiatus hernia. Corselet caused? Seems likely. My mother, in her 20s during WWII, wiggled into a compressing girdle until the late 1960s. Then, suddenly, it was women’s lib time and everything changed in a flash—at least on the surface. Mom threw away her girdle, hung up her dresses and put on a pantsuit. When I came of age, bra burnings were in the news. My mom and grandmother were fine with me wearing mini-skirts to high school and tiny bikinis to the beach. They’d accepted the changing societal attitudes toward women’s bodies. Amazing when you realize this transition happened in just 50 years, after 500 years of required corset wearing!

By the late ‘70s, everyone slithered into Spandex and fitness became an industry. I was one of the countless women pumping iron, sweating in aerobic classes, getting strong (at least on the outside). Yoga and mediation were catching on, but Pilates work that developed those deep inner corset muscles wasn’t mainstream yet. Then, as those of us in the Pilates community know, Pilates went public in the early 1990s and it caught on like wild fire.

As of 2011, more than 40 years after Joe passed away, 12 million people worldwide practice Pilates, and approximately 30 thousand people teach Joe’s methods. The deep corset muscle building methods Joe introduced right around 1911 are now the foundation of mind-body movement and fitness practices throughout the entire world. They’ve been embraced by both sexes, but do seem to mirror the century-long empowerment of women. Joe’s life view wasn’t just about constructing the deep muscle corset. It was about taking control of the body and empowering it and, allowing the whole being—mind, body and spirit—to flourish.

As we come to the end of the centennial anniversary of Women’s History Month, let’s think about how the Pilates lifestyle has empowered women to this point in history, and how practicing and teaching the Pilates method to women of all ages and future generations of women can help them evolve toward even greater emancipation and accomplishment. I invite you to weigh in on this topic from your own experiences as one who practices Pilates and/or teaches it.

OFF THE MAT, ON THE MENU: Cueing Your Imagination

March 24, 2011

by Frances Sheridan Goulart

One of the most important Pilates principles that (hopefully) guides us as we master our mind/body connection is imagination.

We’ve got to have an imagination to reap the rewards of Pilates and to rear a healthy, well-nourished body. Test: Do you eat the same bowl of oatmeal every morning? Do you do the same 45-minute Pilates workout three times a week? Do you always work out on the mat? Have you never tried working on the Cadillac or the Reformer?

Just as our bodies adjust to an exercise routine (which in turn becomes cozy and no longer challenging), our palates adjust to an unimaginative diet. Your diet may look balanced, but if your repetitious food choices do not challenge your imagination and senses, they may stop nourishing you as well—and even encourage the development of allergies. Indeed, the most allergenic foods in America are not parsnips (which few of us eat, nutritious as they are) or Tempeh (a high-protein, fat- and cholesterol-free meat substitute), but wheat, dairy and corn, three foods Americans eat with far too much regularity. Food allergies resulting from being in a “food rut” can also lead to excess weight.

Conversely, imagining our bodies moving in different ways is the first step toward actually moving in those ways. Imagining our bodies in Jackknife or Boomerang sets the stage for actually performing those exercises one day. As author and Pilates instructor Brooke Siler observes, “We can literally spur on bodies to action through an undercurrent of creative thought.”

Ditto with our diets. When your roll off your mat or hop off that apparatus after an imaginative practice, challenge your senses and honor your metabolism by ordering something new and different when you dine out. When you go grocery shopping, buy something you’ve never eaten or cooked before, something with a new taste, aroma and texture, then find a new recipe and prepare it. Or grow your own windowsill herbs and see how fresh herbs can reinvent (and add antioxidant power to) your favorite dishes.

You may or may not enjoy doing challenging exercises like Jackknife and Boomerang, but at least you’ve used your imagination and stretched your mind.

Liven up your imagination with your next salad. Why toss the same old romaine or mesclun lettuce if you can imaginatively (and deliciously) roast and shred some Brussels sprouts? If you’ve never liked them before, the following recipe may change your mind.

Brussel sprouts help protect the body against cancer, and provide ample amounts of vitamins K, C, A and folate.
Serves 4

1 tablespoon mayonnaise (low-fat or dairy free)
½ teaspoon spicy mustard
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1/8 cup olive oil
¾ pounds Brussels sprouts, trimmed and shredded
1 small tart apple, cored, diced and shredded
1 shallot (or 3 green onions), chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
¼ cup micro greens, watercress or fresh mint

1. Make the dressing: Whisk together mayo, mustard, lemon juice and zest. Add the oil.
2. Combine Brussels sprouts, apple, shallot or green onion. Toss with dressing.
3. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Chill for at least 1 hour to soften sprouts and blend the flavors.
4. Serve over greens, mint or watercress. Enjoy!

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.