Stress, anxiety and tension are part of all our daily lives and can’t be totally avoided, but there a few things we can do to help manage the feelings that modern life brings. Whether you favour meditation, Yoga, listening to music, a bicycle ride, cooking and baking, gardening, talking to a friend or a brisk walk in the fresh air – or a combination of these – finding a regular low-cost opportunity to ‘switch off’ can help.
Stress doesn’t have to be what many think of as feelings such as sadness, anger or frustration. It could manifest in physical ways too, for example tension headaches, stomach problems, dizziness or feeling light-headed, skin complaints and back aches. The mind and body are a finely-tuned pair and our emotions can often be expressed in our bodies, without us really seeing the cause and effect.
The first thing we instinctively tend to do in stressful situations is to stop breathing properly, which adds more and more strain and tension into the body. When we stop breathing deeply, the body becomes very tense so we hold ourselves in a way that puts more pressure through our joints and muscles. If we continue to do this for long stretches of time, our bodies learn to move in that way and it becomes harder and harder to relax.
In addition to regularly enjoying your favourite stress-relieving activity, Pilates is one of only a few ways to provide not just temporary relief, but corrective, long-term help as well.
Learning to breathe deeply and fully is the first step. Unlike in Yoga practice, where you may learn one of the many ancient breath patterns, in Pilates it’s best to master the core principle of what we call ‘lateral breathing’ – where the ribcage expands as you breathe into the sides and back of the lower lungs. Crucially, the stomach and shoulders should remain still and the core engaged, as you breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth.
First, understand the movement: try lying on your back with a cushion under your head, knees bent and feet on floor, one hand on your ribcage and one hand the lower abdomen. Breathe in through the nose and into the upper back – not the upper stomach. As you breathe out through a relaxed, open mouth, imagine the breath starting in the centre of the chest passing through the ribcage to close the ribs and into the lower part of the abdominals. These draw together like a corset or belt and then down to the pelvic floor which zips up inside.
This style of breathing has other benefits because deeper, more mindful breathing of any kind sends more oxygen throughout our bodies, to our muscles and blood, it increases cellular turnover, it helps all our organs to work more efficiently, including our heart, lungs, digestion system and can boost energy levels too.
The mind-body connection
Pilates is a mind-body exercise: your mind must focus totally on the part of the body that is being worked, so not only do you contract the muscles, you allow the out breath to relax the other parts of the body that aren’t currently working. In doing so you learn to isolate muscles, move better and improve your posture. You should generally breathe out for the exertion part of a Pilates exercise, and in on the return to the start of the pose.
Concentration is something that really improves your Pilates exercises, and in turn this is made possible with correct breathing. When you give the mind permission to switch off from the worries and stress of everyday life in a class, you can focus on your body and how it works, becoming more ‘body aware’ outside of the studio.
Pilates relaxation exercises
The Autumn/Winter season can feel little stressful, so we’ve put together five exercises that you can do at home whenever you need to re-set your mind-body connection:
- Pelvic lift / the bridge – Lying on your back with feet on the floor, hip distance apart and with a neutral spine. Breathe in and as you breathe out, peel the spine vertebrae by vertebrae off the floor up to the bottom of the shoulder blades. Take an in breath and then as you breathe out, reverse the movement, feeling each part of the spine imprinting on the floor move. Repeat five times.
- Leg lifts – Lie in the same position and prepare in the same way as the previous exercise. Engage your core and pelvic floor, then float one foot just off the floor, keeping the whole pelvis still. Try and imagine the leg is like a feather, without transferring extra weight to the floor-based foot. Alternate and repeat five times.
- Core and hip rotation – Again on your back with knees bent, now take the feet as wide as the mat. On the out breath, allow both knees to go to one side as the hip on the other side lifts. Keep your shoulders on the mat and use the opposite side of your core to bring the legs back on the out breath.
- Cobra – Lying on your front with your hands by your ears and elbows wide. On your out breath, press into your hands to raise your head, neck and shoulders, keeping your elbows on floor. Don’t lift your eyes too high. Repeat five times.
- To really relax the whole body, take a few minutes to lie on your back, rest legs up on a low coffee table or unit. Working through the body from your head to feet, tense each part of your body in turn and on the out breathe. Really release each area until you reach your toes, then take a couple of breaths to tense the whole body and release everything on the out breath completely.
These are suggestions to do at home and there are plenty more to try on Pilates equipment. Please ask in your next studio class!