Author Archives: Eimear

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.

Foot cramps

HeelLiftOuch! I am used to recognising the distress in someone’s face when a muscle cramp strikes during Pilates class.

These involuntary spasms of muscles are very uncomfortable and will stop you in your tracks. The more intense cramps can take a few days to recover from, but they are generally short-lived.

They mostly happen in the arch of the foot, but people also get toe cramps and calf muscle cramps.

What causes these intense, involuntary spasms of muscles?

There are many possible reasons why you get cramps; it could well be a combination of several. The main things to consider in your quest to reduce your foot cramps are:

● Dehydration?
● Lack of certain minerals, eg, magnesium, potassium or calcium?
● Lack of electrolytes? You lose these when you sweat in hot conditions, either during a hot summer or in an overheated room.
● Tightness in the ankle or foot? This could be due to flat foot syndrome or generally immobility in the feet due to excessive standing or walking in the same pattern.

Let’s face it, few of us think about our feet very much …. until they cause discomfort! Perhaps an ache from high heels, maybe blisters from new shoes or until they cramp painfully when doing Pilates.

Understanding how muscles work can help you understand what causes toe, foot and calf muscle cramps. Most muscles work in pairs – an agonist and antagonist. As one muscle (agonist) contracts, the other (antagonist) relaxes so that you get a smooth, controlled movement. If the antagonist muscle does not relax properly, a cramp develops. Conversely, if a muscle contracts suddenly and then doesn’t relax, a cramp can follow.

During your Pilates class, you are asking your feet to go into a range of different positions that you are unlikely to ask of them during your average daily activity. There is a good reason for this – having mobile, strong feet and ankles is essential for good movement patterns further up the chain, in your knees, pelvis and low back. Stiff feet are common in some elderly people, who have lost the ability to roll through the foot while walking and thus develop a solid ‘plodding’ gait: a recipe for instability and falls.

Working the instrinsic muscles of the foot is what you do during a Pilates class from a variety of positions in order to keep the foot working as nature designed it to work. When you point the toes and lift the arches of your feet, you are lengthening the muscles at front of the leg and foot; when you dorsi-flex (reach through the heel), you are lengthening the calf muscles, Achilles tendon, and so on.

From my experience teaching pilates for seven years, immobile feet and ankles are the most common cause of foot cramps while doing pilates. But if immobility is addressed by the movement that causes you cramps, what should you do?

Steps to reduce likelihood of foot cramps

Massaging the fascia on the sole of the foot before class (and on a regular basis) can release tension. You can do this yourself using a small, sturdy ball, such as a tennis ball (or spiky balls designed for the purpose). Sitting on a chair, you lightly place the weight of your leg and foot down onto the ball. Roll the ball in a linear motion, back and forth, to massage the bottom of the foot.

Self-massage and focused movement of the toes and feet in your own time and own environment will also help. There are lots of foot movements you can do while relaxing by the TV or by the fire! Simple ankle rotation is invaluable –circling one way then the other about eight times each way ( or try writing the letters of the alphabet in the air with your toes!).

You could also try spreading the toes by interlocking them with your fingers, for example; or scrunching the toes to pick up a light cloth off the floor.

Try lifting and lowering the heels up to 15/20 times, while holding onto a kitchen worktop until a kettle boils or holding on a mantlepiece during an ad break?

Another exercise is simply trying to move the toes separately – so from standing and with weight on the heels, you’d lift the big toe first, then the second, then the third and so it…. it gets easier with practice!

Certainly, making sure you are drinking plenty of water encourages healthy muscle (and joint) function; try drinking more water than you currently do and also take a good long drink of water about one hour before class starts.

Also, make sure you are not short of vital minerals!

Bananas have both potassium and magnesium (not the highest magnesium score but they have it); I almost always eat a banana while driving into town to teach my classes!
Other sources of magnesium include dried figs, cashew or almond nuts, pumpkin seeds, wholewheat flour. Dried fruits such as raisins, dates or apricots have potassium.

Sources of calcium include dairy products, green vegetables, nuts, flax seeds.

Finally, if and when a cramp does strike during class, stop doing what caused it, rest out and gently massage the muscle, firmly pressing the tendons at the end of the muscles. If it’s really bad, use a warm compress later on to help the muscle to relax.

Pilates works.

Many of my weekly mat clients regularly report with guilt that they haven’t done anything since the last week’s class. STOP FEELING GUILTY! CONGRATULATE YOURSELF ON DOING ONE GOOD WORKOUT A WEEK! The good news is that one a week makes a difference over time. See the following testimonials just in:

TESTIMONIAL ONE

“I’ve been doing Pilates with Eimear for one year now (recommended by a physiotherapist) and my back is stronger and more flexible, I’m more toned in general and I can see the progress I’m making over time which I like. I highly recommend Eimear’s classes.”

Maighread Casey, Cashel

———————

TESTIMONIAL TWO

“I have attended Eimear’s  weekly Pilates class for just under a year. My reason for signing up to Pilates was mainly due to back problems – stiffness and poor mobility. It is without doubt the most beneficial exercise I have done for my body.  I can now get out of bed with ease and have become much more aware of good posture.

Eimear is an excellent practitioner/teacher. Her instruction is clear and concise. Movement is gentle with particular attention paid to spine mobility and core strength.  There is particular emphasis on movement to one’s ability and forcing  beyond a person’s comfort zone is discouraged.
I would encourage anyone thinking of doing something positive for themselves in 2017 to consider a weekly hour long Pilates class with Eimear.

Margaret Murphy, Thurles

————

Obviously, the more frequently you stretch and move though pilates, the faster you see results. But the bottom line is that one class a week will do you a world of good!  So make the commitment. Take on a realistic new year’s resolution. Take up a weekly pilates class. (But book sooner rather than later as there are just a few places left!!).

 

Finding energy and awareness

hulahoopingSummertime?! With the wet, drippy weather on the Monday of the holiday weekend, it’s hard to believe it’s early August. But I am happy to report that my batteries are recharged after a wonderful July…… I am really energised and excited to be starting another new term of pilates and movement classes in early September.

I admit that I often find summer a bit challenging. I am sure I am not alone in that? All the hopes for good weather, kids off school, holiday expectations, insect bites, noisy tractors on small roads, and so on. I generally prefer the in-between seasons of spring and autumn.

But this summer was different for me. I am just back from a deeply relaxing, inspiring break. With my husband and one daughter, we were camping with about 500 others off-the-grid for nine days (no electrical power whatsoever), sharing great food cooked over open fires. The weather was kind to us: no heavy rain, no really chilly days and some warm sunshine. Another positive aspect is that we didn’t have to travel far from home, no stressful airports or long journeys.

Every day was full of wonderful music and interesting exchanges of ideas. My days mostly started with the ancient ‘Dance of Life’, symbolic of our connection with the earth and nature. I did lots of fantastic yoga and movement workshops; I did multi-part harmony singing that often took me into a deep meditative state; I learnt basic drumming techniques (loved it) and I heard seasoned drummers and percussionists that made me dance, dance, DANCE!

I will sustain this energy in positive ways throughout the coming days, weeks and months. I feel empowered by all I have learned this summer. I feel aware and conscious in my body and my life.

Life can be hard. We all have to learn how to be kind to ourselves, how to love ourselves so we can love others. There are little things we can do everyday to nourish our bodies and souls. Good movement and good food, along with learning to relax and bring loving thoughts into your heart.

On a practical note: I am taking bookings for my pilates and movement classes from Monday 22nd August onwards; existing clients get first option and then I’ll be opening to anyone who wishes to join in. I look forward to meeting my pilates peeps again soon and welcoming new joiners!

Eimear x

Taming the beast: intensely interesting+physically rewarding

In the background (behind me relaxing!) is a Reformer: the largest piece of Pilates equipment devised by Joseph Pilates himself and first patented in 1924. A slightly off-putting name! But please don’t let that put you off….. it is an amazing piece of kit.

I bought this beast in March 2014 during my training period. Having first used a Reformer two years before that, I found the experience intensely interesting and physically rewarding.

Some more perspective: I did my first Pilates class in 2004 and – at a career crossroads – decided to train with STOTT PILATES as an mat instructor in 2008 becoming certified in 2009. I became Reformer certified with STOTT PILATES in 2015.

So, I’ve been teaching group mat classes since late 2008 and teaching Reformer privately since for about 14 months.

I can honestly say that it has taken me a long time to assimilate all the training, knowledge and experience I have about bodies and movement in relation to the using the Reformer to teach Pilates sensitively on a one-to-one basis. I finally feel I have tamed the beast.  I have learnt how to be intuitive about how I use the Reformer with people who haven’t ever done pilates ever before.

Or whether to use it at all – often clients need to do nothing but lie in a supported position in neutral pelvis and neutral head and shoulder position for some time, completely relaxing all their muscles and ligaments, before they can move further. I have got wonderful tools to facilitate you in doing that (the Oov is my newest find….more later!)

Taming the beast that is the Reformer means really understanding the essence of each move….. not necessarily doing the moves as they appear in the training manual. It means moving according to each person’s innate needs. It means embodying not just my pilates training, but my knowledge of other wonderful movement patterns from the yoga and Feldenkrais worlds to really help people find their way to healthy movement patterns.

Come join me – connect to your body! One love.

Common mistakes in a group class

Whether you are starting your pilates journey or if it’s an ongoing thing (wonderful!!), it’s good to go back to basics. Here are some of my best tips for anyone doing group pilates mat classes.

All about the deep abdominals Getting in touch with the deep abdominals – especially the transversus abdominus – is the most important. This is fired up when you gently contract and lift your pelvic floor muscle. Use every breath out (‘exxxxxhale’) as an opportunity to lift up though the pelvic floor and engage your low abs, pulling in towards your spine. (Think about pulling in low belly as if you were getting into a pair of too-tight jeans!). Use every inhale as a opportunity to create length, space and girth in the upper torso.

Expecting too much too soon The best change happens slowly, especially when it comes to bodies. Pilates teaches you to change movement patterns that may be embedded in your muscle memory for years. It takes a while to take the pilates way of thinking on board, so DO NOT BE SELF-CRITICAL if you cannot do it all perfectly in the beginning. Do not compare yourself with your neighbour. Work with what you have and to see change within yourself over time. Have a sense of humour!

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 concept. Slower pace means you’re turning on deep stabilising muscles and you’re creating more isometric contractions. Pilates is not a race nor a competition. Good form is more important than the number of repeitions. Try to sense the particular muscles that I mention during class.

Necks get compromised, over-flexed or over-extended The head should always be sitting at the top of the cervical spine with the normal cervical extension. 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 and over-flexing) or to stare at the ceiling with the chin jutting upwards (over extending).

When lifting head off the mat, the chin should be a little closer to the chest than usual (slight head nod or ‘cranial vertebral flexion’) as if you’re gently holding a ripe peach 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 goes to your knees.

NOTE: The correct position can be very challenging if a) you have existing neck or shoulder problems, b) you are carrying a baby/toddler around a lot or c) you have weakened neck extensors (happens as we age!). Avoid neck tension in pilates class at all costs! A very valid option is to keep the head and shoulders down on mat. Or to support the head with your hands and really focus on the chest lift!

Watch out for neutral or ‘imprinted’ pelvis In pilates exercises when both legs are off the mat, you may be asked to round your low back (to ‘imprint’) and gently make your lumbar vertebrae contact the mat (‘lose the lumbar curve’). If you are unable to stabilise in neutral, ‘imprinting’ protects your lower back when carrying the load of your legs. However, rather than jamming your vertebrae to the mat, engage your abs at the front body to slightly flatten your lower back. (NOTE: if injured or very weak in abs, you would not be lifting both legs at one time.)

Shoulders rise up and the neck gets tense  Your shoulders should be anchored down your back. It’s human to engage 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 swanlike neck. Think of your head like 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 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.

 

 

Thinking positive

FlowersDecThe weather is still grey and January is long. If like me, you are prone to feeling down at this time of year, you may benefit from reading the following, taken from book (The How of Happiness) by positivity psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky.  I come back to these points whenever I need a lift. Get outside of your negativity

  1. Express gratitude. – When you appreciate what you have, what you have appreciates in value.  So basically, being grateful for the goodness that is already evident in your life will bring you a deeper sense of happiness. And that’s without having to go out and buy anything. It makes sense.  We’re gonna have a hard time ever being happy if we aren’t thankful for what we already have.
  2. Cultivate optimism. – Winners have the ability to manufacture their own optimism.  No matter what the situation, the successful diva is the chick who will always find a way to put an optimistic spin on it.  She knows failure only as an opportunity to grow and learn a new lesson from life.  People who think optimistically see the world as a place packed with endless opportunities, especially in trying times.
  3. Avoid over-thinking and social comparison. – Comparing yourself to someone else can be poisonous.  If we’re somehow ‘better’ than the person that we’re comparing ourselves to, it gives us an unhealthy sense of superiority.  Our ego inflates – KABOOM – our inner Kanye West comes out!  If we’re ‘worse’ than the person that we’re comparing ourselves to, we usually discredit the hard work that we’ve done and dismiss all the progress that we’ve made.  What I’ve found is that the majority of the time this type of social comparison doesn’t stem from a healthy place.  If you feel called to compare yourself to something, compare yourself to an earlier version of yourself.
  4. Practice acts of kindness. – Performing an act of kindness releases serotonin in your brain.  (Serotonin is a substance that has TREMENDOUS health benefits, including making us feel more blissful.)  Selflessly helping someone is a super powerful way to feel good inside.  What’s even cooler about this kindness kick is that not only will you feel better, but so will people watching the act of kindness.  How extraordinary is that?  Bystanders will be blessed with a release of serotonin just by watching what’s going on.  A side note is that the job of most anti-depressants is to release more serotonin.  Move over Pfizer, kindness is kicking ass and taking names.
  5. Nurture social relationships. – The happiest people on the planet are the ones who have deep, meaningful relationships.  Did you know studies show that people’s mortality rates are DOUBLED when they’re lonely?  WHOA!  There’s a warm fuzzy feeling that comes from having an active circle of good friends who you can share your experiences with.  We feel connected and a part of something more meaningful than our lonesome existence.
  6. Develop strategies for coping. – How you respond to the ‘craptastic’ moments is what shapes your character.  Sometimes crap happens – it’s inevitable.  Forrest Gump knows the deal.  It can be hard to come up with creative solutions in the moment when manure is making its way up toward the fan.  It helps to have healthy strategies for coping pre-rehearsed, on-call, and in your arsenal at your disposal.
  7. Learn to forgive. – Harboring feelings of hatred is horrible for your well-being.  You see, your mind doesn’t know the difference between past and present emotion.  When you ‘hate’ someone, and you’re continuously thinking about it, those negative emotions are eating away at your immune system.  You put yourself in a state of suckerism (technical term) and it stays with you throughout your day.
  8. Increase flow experiences. – Flow is a state in which it feels like time stands still.  It’s when you’re so focused on what you’re doing that you become one with the task.  Action and awareness are merged.  You’re not hungry, sleepy, or emotional.  You’re just completely engaged in the activity that you’re doing.  Nothing is distracting you or competing for your focus.
  9. Savor life’s joys. – Deep happiness cannot exist without slowing down to enjoy the joy.  It’s easy in a world of wild stimuli and omnipresent movement to forget to embrace life’s enjoyable experiences.  When we neglect to appreciate, we rob the moment of its magic.  It’s the simple things in life that can be the most rewarding if we remember to fully experience them.
  10. Commit to your goals. – Being wholeheartedly dedicated to doing something comes fully-equipped with an ineffable force.  Magical things start happening when we commit ourselves to doing whatever it takes to get somewhere.  When you’re fully committed to doing something, you have no choice but to do that thing.  Counter-intuitively, having no option – where you can’t change your mind – subconsciously makes humans happier because they know part of their purpose.
  11. Practice spirituality. – When we practice spirituality or religion, we recognize that life is bigger than us.  We surrender the silly idea that we are the mightiest thing ever.  It enables us to connect to the source of all creation and embrace a connectedness with everything that exists.  Some of the most accomplished people I know feel that they’re here doing work they’re “called to do.”
  12. Take care of your body. – Taking care of your body is crucial to being the happiest person you can be.  If you don’t have your physical energy in good shape, then your mental energy (your focus), your emotional energy (your feelings), and your spiritual energy (your purpose) will all be negatively affected.  Did you know that studies conducted on people who were clinically depressed showed that consistent exercise raises happiness levels just as much as Zoloft?  Not only that, but here’s the double whammy… Six months later, the people who participated in exercise were less likely to relapse because they had a higher sense of self-accomplishment and self-worth.