Author Archives: Eimear

There can be no ‘return to normal’

The worldwide pandemic of Covid19 is a strange and uncertain time. Entering SEVENTH week now in lockdown!

It’s a serious and deadly virus for some. I sincerely hope no-one reading this has lost a loved one. My dear brother-in-law was on the critical list, but now appears thankfully to be on long road to recovery.

One thing is certain – there can be no ‘return to normal’; my hope is this virus will result in a new value system where humans – led by enlightened government – recognise environmental issues are more important than economic growth.  Did you know that the climate crisis has already caused more deaths than the worst predictions for Coronavirus? (Irish Times, 17/4/2020).

Satellite images are showing a marked decline in air pollution as billions of people stay home. Noxious gases from heavy industry and traffic have declined. The earth has been allowed to breathe again!

Families are realising it’s actually pleasant to hang out at home without always rushing kids (mostly in cars!) to after-school activities. The material things we are sucked into feeling we need are mostly discarded as waste.

Like many, I am worried about my economic stability into Autumn and next year, that I won’t get back to where I was before this abrupt disruption.  In my tenth year as a pilates instructor, things were going very well and then – wham bam –  nothing! But I feel lucky and resilient enough to believe I can transition to a new model of sharing the movement system I so love and believe in.

I started Pilates classes on Zoom in week two, faltered due to broadband issues, and have been back doing classes since week four (broadband better, not perfect).  Now in week seven, I am putting a monetary value on my time delivering these classes in an attempt to adjust to the new world order. I also look forward with excitement to welcoming smaller groups in my new private pilates studio at Lagganstown Schoolhouse – 2 metres apart of course!

Especially here in south Tipperary, we have the privilege of space and gardens; embrace the ‘gratitude attitude’!

We have time to ponder, walk at leisure, cook more thoughtfully, read more and realise what is truly important.  Stay home, think positive, count your blessings!

 

Walking with sense of centre and lift!

You may have noticed the #100daysofwalking campaign– it started on 1st January and motivates people to walk every day for 100 days and thus improve their mental and physical well-being. While a fantastic initiative, especially as it helps people get through the dark month of January, I aim for #365daysofwalking myself! Even on bad days, I almost always force myself outside for even a brief walk. No such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing. Too dark, go walk in your nearest town. I average about 3 miles a day, but on those darkest, coldest, wettest days, it might be only 0.5 miles. I’d like to build up my walking, but I know a little regularly is better than none!

Feeling the fresh air, observing nature and the skies, along with listening to outdoor sounds are my favourite things about walking. A good walk undoubtedly clears the head and helps you sleep better. The more you walk, the more you feel like walking. The more you walk, the stronger you become. Good for cardiovascular health and for your bones and your mood. Plus it’s free!

At first, it takes a bit to find your stride or comfortable pace. I call this finding the rhythm of your walk. There can be an urge to rush and get the walk ‘over’ for the sake of it, but I really recommend walking mindfully with awareness of your body as you go. Quietly applying the pilates principles to your walk – working on alignment and good gait – is easy to do and totally changes the walking experience.

  • Firstly, comfortable walking shoes with space inside for your toes are vital. Your toes should be in line with your heel as you step forward (not pointing outwards), so you have good tracking of your knees. Aim to land on your heel and roll over your foot, pushing off through the big toe and all toes as you transfer weight to other foot. Become aware of each foot’s rolling movement in turn.
  • Find a connection to your pelvic floor muscle (a slight lift) and have your torso upright over a neutral pelvis. This is easier if you are not rushing your walk and leaning forward or hanging back!), but relaxed and centred. Aim for about 15% lift of pelvic floor muscle which pulls in low abdominals closer to the spine. This gentle activation of the core muscles makes you feel stronger and centred as you move your legs from a stable, neutral pelvis. Feel your inner thighs as you move your legs. You should also have some activation of your gluteal muscles.
  • Lengthen up from the waist. Lift your heart while having sense of your ribs being flat to the front body (not flaring). Have a sense of connection from ribs to pelvis.
  • Check in your head and shoulders! Your skull should ideally be balanced on top of your cervical spine, not forward so that your upper back and neck muscles are straining to hold it there. Retract your skull a bit as you organise your neck and shoulders to feel relaxed; lift sternum and imagine your head is a helium balloon floating upwards with minimum effort, your ears over your shoulders and reaching up to the sky. Chin parallel to ground, eyes looking straight ahead.
  • The arms should be hanging down from well-placed scapulae – ie not rounded forward. Your arms should swing forward and back with palms facing inwards (your thumb to the front and your little finger to the back). As you step forward with, say the left foot the right arm should swing forward and as you lead with right leg, the left arm comes forward.

Try these adjustments next time you go walking, slowing down a bit to feel lifted and centred, and once you’ve got it, build your pace.  Let me know if this works for you!

 

Having trained with Rebekah Rotstein in London recently, I am now a ‘Buff Bones’ instructor and from September will be offering Buff Bones classes along with my regular Pilates mat classes.  I am also running taster classes in Cashel on Wednesday 19th June at 9.45am and 6.30pm.

What is Buff Bones? Buff Bones is a medically-endorsed, full-body exercise system of movement for joint and bone health. It integrates Pilates with functional movement, strength training and therapeutic exercise for bone strengthening and balance techniques.

It is safe for those with osteoporosis or anyone who must avoid spinal flexion for any reason, e.g. disk degeneration or risk of herniation. A Buff Bones class involves more standing work than a regular Pilates class. Along with a range of carefully chosen Pilates moves, Buff Bones classes involve lots of squats, low impact from standing moves and hand weights – it’s a lot of FUN and a GREAT WORKOUT for anyone!  Spot me in the accompanying photo from training course!

Why worry about bones?

Everyone begins to lose bone mass in their early 30s!  During childhood and adolescence (if diet is good and childhood is not sedentary), we build more bone than we destroy, reaching peak bone mass as a young adult. However, sometime in our early 30s, we start to lose more bone tissues than we are forming (because more resorption occurs than formation on the cellular level.) For women, menopause means less oestrogen which means even more bone tissue may be lost since oestrogen regulates resorption.

Excessive bone loss is known as osteoporosis, in which there is also altered architecture of the bone tissue making the bones weaker and more susceptible to fracture. Osteopenia is the precursor to osteoporosis and indicates lesser bone mass than that of a healthy individual but more mass than that classified as osteoporosis.

Exercise to strengthen bone

The good news is that – regardless of age and even in the presence of osteoporosis – bone is constantly regenerating, even if at a slower rate. Bone tissue strengthens in response to pulling and pushing forces from muscle and connective tissue as well as compression from gravity and other forces. We can build bone through weight-bearing exercise, resistance exercise and impact. The Buff Bones® workout integrates this in a specific systematic method!

Look forward to you joining me soon for fun movement for bone health!

Eimear x

One of the often-quoted sayings of Joseph Pilates is that “in 10 sessions you will feel the difference, in 20 you will see the difference, and in 30 you’ll have a whole new body”.

Through teaching pilates, I meet lots of people who would indeed like to “get a whole new body”. For some, the impetus for doing pilates is to relieve backache, sciatica or some other niggling pain; for others, it’s to lose some body fat and shape up. Often, it’s a bit of both.

But I have always been uncomfortable with the idea that pilates will give you a “whole new body,” because your body’s shape and weight is the result of the calories you consume (food and drink) less what your burn off (through everyday and other physical activities).

Into this equation comes the tricky issue of metabolism. While some people appear to have a slower metabolism than others, for what it’s worth, I think people who have a “fast metabolism” are probably more just active – more fidgety maybe – than others?

Clearly, the more active you are, the more calories you burn. You can control how active you are – decide to be more active! and you can control what you put into your body –  decide to put good things in your body.

Back to the idea of putting good things in your body: my suggestion is to cut back on bread and to choose to eat only really good bread.

Commercially produced white sliced pan may taste good in the mouth for a few minutes (especially toasted!), but makes me feel bloated before long. In my house, white bread is a rarity – often bought by my other half if we are on holidays!  I tend to seek out a good, wholemeal brown or rye bread. But lately, I’ve been baking this bread – it’s got no flour at all in it and it’s full of really good things like nuts and seeds. Very nutritious and does not cause bloat.

It is heavy, but it is very filling and you don’t need much. And you can toast it and put delicious things on it! My two daughters are starting to like it; my other half, now he’s another day’s work!

[Thanks to both Helen Costelloe and Vanessa Pearse for sharing this recipe with me in the first place.]

The Life Changing Bread

1/2 cup sunflower seeds

1/2 cup flax seeds

1/2cup hazelnuts or almonds (put into a sturdy bag and smash with rolling pin to break up)

1 ½ cups oats

2 tbsp chia seeds

4tbsp psyllium husks

1 tsp sea salt

3 tablespoons olive oil or coconut oil (changes the flavour a bit)

1 ½ cups water

Optionally, add two spoons of maple syrup or honey in with the water (again, changes the flavour)

 

Mix all dry ingredients

Add oil and water (maple syrup/honey); mix well.

Allow to stand for 1 hour, at least.

 

Put into greased and lined standard loaf tin; press down so it’s about an inch thick.

Bake in 180 degree oven for 40 minutes, then turn over and bake again for 20 minutes.

Cuts really well when cool. Keeps for a good few days in the fridge.

(If you feel like a biscuit, cut off a little bit instead and put some honey or jam on it!).

Starting pilates: tips

There is so much to take on board in the early classes that there isn’t always time for me as instructor to ‘say’ it all; I find it’s better to get clients moving and for them to embody the principles along the way. But it helps to have some background knowledge, so here are some tips for those new to pilates:

All about the deep abdominals
Getting in touch with the deep abdominals – especially the transversus abdominus (TA) – is the most important. This TA muscle is involuntarily fired up when you gently contract and lift your pelvic floor muscle. It’s a sensation of lifting the floor of the torso inwards and upwards, gently contracting all sphincter muscles to achieve this lift. When the deep abs are working, you are creating a very stable torso; the front body is pulled closer to back body.

The breath in is about creating space in torso and expanding rib cage to sides, to front and to the back. The breath out is about pulling low abs inwards and upwars as you contract sphincter muscles. Use every breath out (‘exxxxxhale’) as an opportunity to re-engage your abs and pull them in towards your spine with a little lift up though the pelvic floor.

Slow and with control Doing things slowly and with control yields more results than rushing the moves. The Pilates method was originally named Contrology (the study of control) to emphasise this very concept. Slower pace means you’re turning on stabilising muscles. You are thinking about which muscles you are using/isolating. You are concsious of creating isometric contractions as you push and lengthen and eccentric contractions as you decelerate and shorten muscles. Pilates is not a race.

Chin holding egg against chest  A series of abdominal exercises takes place in a typical mat class with the head held off the floor unsupported, as in Ab Prep, Hundreds or Single Leg Stretch. In these challenging moves, it’s common either to jam the chin down to the chest (leading with the head) or to stare at the ceiling with the chin jutting up.

The chin should be a little closer to the chest than usual (slight head nod) as if you’re gently holding an egg between these two body parts. This head and neck position also helps to round the upper spine. The head nod precedes the lift of the shoulders off the floor. When lifting your head and shoulders, feel like something is pulling your chest towards your knees. Eye line to knees.

If your upper abs are weak, the correct position will be challenging. Avoid neck tension at all costs! A very valid option is to keep the head and shoulders down or support the head with your hands.

About ‘imprinting’
In pilates exercises when both legs are off the mat, you will often be asked to round your low back (‘imprint’) and gently get your lumbar vertebrae to make contact with the mat. This protects your lower back when the load is great. However, think of it as using your abs at front of your body to lengthen your back rather than jamming your vertebrae to the mat. If you can stabilise you low back without imprinting, when your legs are in the air, that is even better. At all costs, avoid your low back arching away from the mat when your legs are in the air!

Where are your shoulders?
Your shoulders should be anchored down your back. It’s very normal to overuse the neck muscles and take the shoulders up towards your ears. Hunched shoulders create undue tension in the neck and upper body. Focus on the shoulder blades sliding down your back, giving you an elegant swan-ike neck. Think of your head as a helium balloon and of your shoulders melting down your back.


Not just while on the mat

Take the sensations, body awareness and posture cues you get in your class with you into your week. Lessons learned on the mat can help you sit, walk, hike, bike and run better; they will also help you avoid back pain on long car trips and neck pain from spending too much time sitting at a computer.

Returning to my roots

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”  ― Albert Einstein

I have always loved this quote; this particular January, however, it has special resonance for me as I slip my full attention back to the world of pilates, conscious movement and relaxation.

Some of you know that I explored another job option during 2018 – the safe, secure work of a public library. While I loved many aspects of library work, I have chosen to listen to my heart instead and go with my love of helping people move well through the discipline of pilates.

I sincerely thank my loyal clients who are returning to me in their droves despite the teaching gap – I went from nine classes a week to just two while I was working full-time in the Source Library in Thurles and most recently in Clonmel Library.

For starters in 2019, I am concentrating my group mat teaching in my favourite venue of Cashel Lodge and running five classes per week. I have spaces still in just two classes – in a new class on Monday evenings at 6pm and in a gentle morning class on Wednesdays at 11am.

I am generally available for private teaching using reformer and tower in my home studio on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.  You can see my availability and book via my website – and do call me to discuss discounts for committing to four private pilates classes taken in three weeks!

Fridays are reserved for me to go to both yoga and pilates classes in other studios myself, thus continuing my own learning & practice, and also for visiting my elderly parents in Dublin. I have dreams of more reformers and a better group teaching space in my home space  – got to have dreams, eh!?

But, for now, I am excited and very happy to be back teaching in Cashel Lodge and from my small home studio. Looking forward to seeing some of you for the mindful movement of pilates very soon!

Are you still breathing well?

I’ve had a wonderful summer this year – I loved the warm weather and made the most of it even if just at home, i.e. not on holidays.

I discovered the joy of immersing myself in the normally freezing water of a nearby stream! I revelled in the feeling of warm air on my skin at 10pm. I enjoyed seeing flowers thrive differently in such unusual conditions – some blooms outdoing themselves while others shrivelled and died.

I also got away for the third year running to a community ecocamp, (earthsong.ie) where we lived close to nature, sleeping under vinyl (wouldn’t canvas sound better!?) There, I got the chance to do lots of different movement classes, yoga and others. Very interesting…. I’m always learning. There is always some nuance to take on board.

The one common thread to so many movement disciplines is the breath. Keep coming back to your breath. Use it to ground yourself, to be in your own body. Without the exchange of oxygen that takes place automatically as we breathe, we’d be dead within a few minutes. Most of us don’t pay any attention to the act of breathing.

I’m not recommending that we breathe with awareness all the time, no, but do stop periodically and ask yourself whether you are still breathing well. This is especially useful if you’re engaged in some stressful activity – preparing to go to work, facing a load of laundry, thinking about the shopping (… I could go on!)

Lift your heart and crown, drop your shoulders and lengthen your neck, focus on making your exhalation longer each time and the inhalation will naturally become fuller.

Look at a diagram of your lungs – visualise the air you take in coming into all the little alveoli. These are the tiny, balloon-shaped air sacs at the end of the respiratory tree and are arranged in clusters throughout the lungs.

Further along, notice the involvement of your pelvis, abdomen and ribs in the breathing action.

As you exhale, draw your low abdomen in and upwards. As you inhale, imagine you are in fact breathing in through your perineum (between anus and genitals). As you exhale next, seek again the in and upward pull of your low abdomen. Keep it gentle, about 20% of maximum.

The breath of life. Learn to breathe deeply and calmly.

 

 

 

Tips for office workers

Here are tips for people whose work or lifestyle means they are forever staring at a screen. Sedentary work and computer use means you are liable to become stiff in neck and hips. You can take steps to improve your own office ergonomics by working with desk height, chair type and height and position of your screen.

Avoid your hips being higher than your knees

If your chair’s height means that your knee joint is higher than your hip joint, your pelvis will tilt backwards. Your sitbones will be pointing forwards (instead of straight downwards); this make it difficult to stack the bones with your ideal spinal curvature. Your muscles have to work hard to stabilise you, leading to fatigue, tension and pain.

Sitting upright is less about core strength and more about stacking your bones properly. You need a good foundation for any structure, most of all your own body! This is the essence of pilates.

Keep both feet on the floor

With your hips higher than your knees you can distribute your bodyweight into your feet, so that you get additional support from the ground up to hold your spine the way it was designed.

Bear in mind that stacking the bones of your pelvis, spine and skull in a neutral alignment allows your muscles to relax. Both feet being grounded gives your spine support. Whether standing or sitting, postural awareness starts with good placement of your feet.

Place your screen at eye level or above.

If your computer monitor or phone screen is below eye level, you’re likely to tilt your head forwards to see it. The average human head weighs between 4.5 and 5 kg (about 10 lbs). Tilting this weight forwards on top of a poorly stacked spine puts a considerable pull on your neck and can bring your shoulders into the dreaded computer hunch. Elevate your screen! I have an old encylopaedia under mine!)

If you have a laptop, it’s tricky to place it at or above eye level. Short stints on a laptop are probably not a big deal, but if using for long stretches, consider getting an external monitor to plug in. so you don’t compromise your neck and shoulders.

Move regularly – take breaks

When you are concentrating on getting a task done at your desk, it’s easy to stagnate and forget to stretch. While a 20-second neck stretch won’t combat eight hours of computer work, getting up once an hour for about five minutes to walk around and stretch neck, arms, shoulders, spine, feet and hips really does help. Develop a routine of quick and effective moves.

The human body is meant to move, flex, extend, twist and squat. It is not designed to sit still for hours on end. So, just do it.

Rest and move your eyes

Eye strain from looking at screes is a real thing. When your eyes are fatigued, the muscles in your neck are often also tense and painful. The combination of resting the eyes and moving the eyeballs with awareness also soothes your nervous system.

Not rocket science: organise your sit bones to point downwards thus finding neutral pelvis, place feet evenly on ground, lengthen up through spine, shoulders back slightly and try to unweight your head by moving it slightly backwards while keeping lifted through crown of head; watch that your bottom rib has not lifted off your abdominal wall! Then close eyes, keeping head still, move eyeballs nice and slowly to the left and to the right, then upwards and downwards, then diagonally upwards and downwards both directions. Do each move about three times each way!

Six secret wonders of your skeleton

(Reblog from the The Better Bones Blog [weekly bone health advice] by Dr. Susan E. Brown, PhD)

Our skeletons are composed of hard tissue that provide us with a sound infrastructure allowing for upright posture, complex movements and amazing dexterity. While many people look upon their skeletons as little more than scaffolding — hard structures that hold us up and give shape to our bodies — many don’t realize that this is but one of the many ways our skeletons serve us.

For a fun analogy to help illustrate this point, consider this: our skeletons are not like a small store selling one kind of widget — they are more like a mini-mall offering us multiple goods and services. Your amazing skeleton offers:

  • ‘Parking’ in the form of support for softer tissues and attachment points for skeletal muscle to assist in movement.
  • ‘Security’ in the form of mechanical protection of internal organs.
  • A ‘supermarket’ where the body can shop for “groceries” such as key minerals that play essential roles in cardiovascular function and overall health. This includes calcium (97.9% of which is in the skeleton), magnesium (50%), sodium (35%), and phosphorus (85%), as well as “specialty foods” — alkalizing compounds like citrate and carbonate, which attach to the minerals in bone and provide for the essential maintenance of minute-to-minute blood pH balance.
  • A ‘hardware store’ in the form of bone marrow that offers blood cells (for moving nutrients and oxygen), platelets (for fixing leaks and patching holes), and ‘batteries’ (reserve energy in the form of fatty acids).
  • A ‘locker room’ for toxic metals, keeping these hazardous substances out of circulation.
  • And there’s even a ‘courier service’ in the form of hormones that send messages to the tissues about glucose control, energy metabolism, body mineral balance, and body fat (Martin 2017).

Our skeletons are a wonder, and with so much to offer, it’s no surprise most of us are satisfied customers!

Reference
Martin C. Bones make hormones that communicate with the brain and other organs. Science News 2017;191(13):12.

Two great pilates tips

1. Tighten from inside out and bottom up! When you engage your core muscles (starting with a squeeze of the pelvic floor muscles, then recruiting the lower abdominals), you can visualise your strength growing from the inside out and spiralling upwards. You can do this even from sitting (waiting for traffic lights to change, for example).

2. Stand tall and notice your breath! If standing in a queue waiting for somebody or something, practice standing tall and watching your breath. Elongate your spine by lengthening up through crown of your head. Feel even weight on both feet, lift your sternum and bring shoulder blades a bit closer together at the back, allow your arms to relax down by your sides. Gently draw your lower abdominals inwards and upwards a bit, towards your spine. You will look taller, your heart will be lifted, your waist will reappear and your stomach will look flatter. Then lengthen your outbreath slightly; just notice the breath flowing back in. Stay with the breath just watching it coming in and out, like waves at the shore.