How to help your nervous system

Modern life is stressful. Fact. One of the questions on our screening forms is “If your life stressful?” I’m always amazed if anyone ticks no. I actually need to change that question as it does not really matter how much stress is in your life, the important thing is how you are dealing with your stress?

When we are stressed our sympathetic nervous system is working full on. This is the system that responds to a threat or when something big and scary comes along and the body needs to go into “red alert”. For example a car is hurtling towards you and you need to move, you have a huge deadline to meet or the children are shouting and you are trying to get out the door fast! It is often call the “Fight or Flight” response.

The sympathetic nerves arise from the lower and mid-upper back spinal cord. When it is switched on there can be tension all over the body. Some of the main responses that occur in the body are:

  • increase in heart rate
  • dilation the pupils in the eyes
  • need to breath faster and more shallow breaths as the bronchioles dilate
  • contraction of muscles – pumped and ready for action
  • release of adrenaline from the adrenal gland causes you to feel on edge but ready to react
  • conversion of glycogen to glucose to provide energy for the muscles
  • decrease in saliva production: the stomach does not move for digestion, nor does it release digestive secretions.
  • decrease in urinary output, no need to wee as often!

Other processes that are not critical to survival may shut down in the body, so the whole body functions differently. Now whilst this is absolutely needed in a moment of danger it is not a way we want the body to be working long term. If you are living under stress long term then it could affect your breathing, your digestive system and your muscle.

Whilst modern life is indeed stressful and you may not be able to change that… what you can do is to build in techniques to help your mind and body let go of the stress. I think this is vital to do and it’s certainly something I’m working on myself. I’m 100% lucky as I get to practise what I preach daily. Pilates is very much a way I destress. The breathing, mindful movement, the calm space and the concentration needed really calms me and grounds me.

Other great ways to activate your parasympathetic nervous are mindfulness (you can check out apps like Calm, Breathworks and Headspace), meditations (check out free ones online or try a class), a bath, massage, deep breathing and just more resting and crafting. How do you get your chillout time in?

 

 

Hip Releases

Achey hips is something I’m often asked about. There are so many reasons why your hips can be hurting. If the pain is severe then you definitely want to go and seek medical advice. If it is a lower level muscular ache then check out my tips and video below.

The impact of sitting for long periods and standing out of neutral posture all adds up to extra pressure on the hips. Hip pain on the outside of your hip, upper thigh or bum is usually caused by problems with muscles, ligaments, tendons and other soft tissues that surround your hip joint. Something is tight and out of balance. The body likes to be balanced and there are fascial lines that show us how it is all connected. A tightness in your hip could be related to how you sit and stand, but it could also be related to your shoulder. So it is worth making friends with your local sports massage therapist to get a good assessment and then you know what to work on. Having the area worked out in massage can then free it up for you to strengthen the surrounding areas and keep the tight part mobilised yourself.

So here are some yummy release moves that you can use to find those tight areas and start to work on them yourself. Or use these at the end of a busy day, before you get into an exercise session or between massage and pilates classes.

To book in for a sports massage do also get in touch.

Prepare to Plank

Let’s talk planks.

An amazing exercise for building core strength, for working the whole of your body and there is so much you can layer and add into a plank.

Also one of the exercises that therefore needs great technique or a lot can go wrong. All too often people are encouraged to dive head on into a full plank without knowing the hows, why’s and why nots. I love a challenge, but I don’t like the planking challenges. Personally I do not see the benefit to being able to hold a static plank. I have a body that rarely stays that still and so far more useful is a moving plank with levers and motion.

Many people are just not strong enough to launch into planks. These are not beginner exercises. Done incorrectly the intra-abdominal pressure will build up and it has to go somewhere, so if you have weak abdominals these may sag and bulge or the same with your pelvic floor. I remember attending a mums and babies fitness class with mums there 6 weeks after having baby – all being told to plank for 1 minute. If your core is not ready, do not do a full plank, if you have recently had a baby and you are rebuilding your strength, do not plank, if you have a weak pelvic floor, do not plank. Now that may sound harsh and rather black and white… so here is the softer version. There is a version of a plank that everyone can do, it is just finding your level and knowing which muscles to use plus ensuring you breath.

So what about if you really want to plank or if you are in a class with planks and you need a variation? Here are some plank progressions for you, including a standing version that I use with my pregnant and postnatal ladies.

 

I’d love to hear how you find these. For more videos and tips do follow me on Instagram and Youtube.

 

 

 

Knee strengtheners

So we talked about knees and what to check for if you get that pulling in your knee when you do a movement. By this I do not mean constant pain but just a tugging on a certain move, that feels like a tight area. If you have ongoing knee issues, constant pain, popping, grinding, swelling or anything that doesn’t resolve then get it checked out!

So now we are looking at how to strengthen the muscles around the knee.

People image created by Kjpargeter – Freepik.com

The VMO, or vastus medialis oblique: is one of the four muscles of your quadriceps. If you flex your quads, you’ll notice a large muscle toward the inner part of your thigh. That’s your VMO. The VMO attaches to the patella (your kneecap) and to the femur. It allows for normal knee function—especially during squatting and multi-directional movements as well as running and jumping. So you can see why this muscle being weak or too tight would cause knee pain. Good exercises to strengthen it are step ups. Literally climbing stairs or stepping up and down on the same step.

TEST: Sit on the floor with legs outstretched. Squeeze your kneecaps and release whilst feeling the inside of your knee. Ideally you should feel a muscle working called VMO.

The Hamstrings:  If your hamstring is optimal there should be a right angle between your 2 legs with leg in the air straight up to the ceiling and the other leg stretched out on the floor. If your leg will not go to this range you need to work on releasing those hamstrings. A good stretch with a band will help.

TEST: Lie on the floor with 1 leg in the air and one leg on the floor. In order for you to straighten you leg will and knee where does your leg have to be.

Think about what you feel when you try to stretch your knees? Is there a pull or tightness in the front, back, side or in the knee joint itself? If so it could mean you need some massage, release work and then strengthening. See a sports massage therapist for help with this.

Posture, as always is king: You can do all the release work in the world and then undo it with poor posture. So if you are doing work and not seeing the benefits get checking out your regular and habitual sitting and standing positions. Specifically think about taking regular posture breaks. Don’t remain in any one position for too long, if you are working at a desk take regular movement breaks. Check your pelvis, in seated and stood, your ribcage should be over your pelvis. You want to be sitting and standing tall and in neutral alignment.

 

 

Why you could live longer if you can sit and rise properly.

Recently I’ve been looking more at how functional exercises equip us for everyday life and how important that is. Being able to sit down and get up from a chair or the floor unaided may not sound like much but actually it can make a huge different to your quality of life and your mortality risk.

A study in 2012 looked at this in 2002 adults, following them for a median of 6.3 years. Those who had lower scored in the sitting-rising test had a higher mortality risk.

Go on, try it now. Can you get down to the floor using no levers (arms/body parts) to assist you and then up again? In the research they asked people to sit all the way to the floor crossed legged and then get up.

If you can’t do it, then hey there is a great challenge to work on.

Ideas:
Maybe start by using a curtsey lunge and focus on your alignment as you go up and down to the floor. This is also a great move for picking up things off the floor without hurting your back by the way.

Have a pile of cushions underneath you so it is not as far to get down and up.

Practise makes perfect, the more you try it the easier it will become.

So in your next pilates class when you are told to get down to the mat, try crossing your legs and just sitting straight down with no props.

Pilates is more than just Exercise.

I feel so totally blessed in my job. Pilates is so much more than just exercise. Yes there are always times I don’t fancy going to teach a class and moments I get that “rather be on the sofa” feeling but on the main I love what I do. 

Here is why. 

Movement heals and keeps me working.  

I’ve taught my way through 3 pregnancies and put my body back together postnatally. The demands of young children and breastfeeding and not sleeping on my body are huge. I’ve been pregnant 3 times in 6 yrs and fed babies now for 4 out of the past 6 1/2 years. A woman’s health Physio told me that the functional movement I do in pilates is what has saved me. It has fixed me and because I move so much it keeps me strong. Without it I know I would have lower back pain, aching shoulders, neck and hips. In short I would be needing massage and Physio!

Pilates is mindful movement.

Mindfulness is so in at the moment.  A chance to switch off the thoughts of life outside the studio, of family, of my other quite stressful work and instead focus on breathing and concentrating on controlling body movements. Switching on certain muscles and relaxing others. I always leave with a calmer mind. A calmer mind leads to clearer thoughts. 

Community and friendships.

I meet such amazing people. Pilates has built up a fabulous community around us. Having small children can be lonely. Even though you can be out with them in a crowd you don’t always get the chance to talk to adults. Pilates gives me that adult company that I don’t always get in the rest of my day (husband excluded!). I pick up tips, local knowledge and find out what is going on in the world from the chatter in my classes! Friendships have been made in classes but also in 1-1 sessions and our postnatal cuppa sessions. I have made some wonderful connections through this and am super lucky to have added to my mummy friendship circle and also to my supportive friendships through what I do for enjoyment and work. 

 

Pilates practise overspills into my everyday life.

My posture is something I am constantly working on. I totally loved studying but wasn’t aware of my posture in University days and suffered with a very tight upper back, shoulders and neck away. I know now that how I sit, stand and move creates patterns in my body, creates muscle tensions and so working on my shoulder and neck position helps me trendously. It is all about making the subconscious become more conscious.

Having a job that you enjoy is important. Having a job that provides so much more just makes me very lucky. I hope you get more from your pilates practise than just going through the motions. 

Are my hip flexors tight or weak?

The hip flexors are a complex group of muscles that play a huge role in posture, pilates and day to day life. They are also a muscle that I often see people struggling with when undertaking curl up, roll ups, sitting up and any exercises with the legs in the air!

By Beth ohara – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=545389

What are they are where are they?

The hip flexors are the:

Psoas

Iliacus

Sartorius

Tensor Fascia Latae

Rectus Femoris

Pectineus 

Adductor Brevis

So a whole host of muscles. They attach to the vertebrae of the lower back, the inside of the femur in the top of the thigh, the hip bone and some run down the inner thigh. 

These muscles interact with each other, so if one is tight or weak it can affect the others. The same goes if one is too strong or overstretched. Ideally we want these muscles to be at the correct strength, length and position. 

What happens if these muscles are not working optimally?

The peso and iliacus are commonly know together as the iliopsoas. These muscles stabilise the spine and if out of balance they can affect your posture. A tight iliopsoas causes an anterior tilt of the pelvis (bum sticks out behind you and a curved lower back). This can result in lower back pain and pelvis issues.

A weak or long iliopsoas can mean the pelvis is pushed too far forward (posterior tilt). The person may feel the hamstrings are tights and pull and the lower back weak. 

Testing:

Try this out at home. Lie down on the floor with legs outstretched. Hug a knee into your chest. Now you are in a posterior pelvic tilt. If the iliopsoas is of optimal length the leg stays on the mat and knee stays down on the mat. If the foot flops out to the side or the knee lifts up it is tight. 

Signs in class:

The hip flexors can try to take over and do the work of the core in certain exercises.

For example if your legs lift up off the mat in a roll up or your legs lower and ache in a teaser. 

To fix this it is a case of going back to basics. Strengthen the core more and mobilise the lower abdominals by using a half roll up. Use a band for a teaser and focus on working through the spine going back down to the mat.  To strengthen the hip flexors practise those knee folds and any exercise with the legs in the air. To rest the hip flexors practise being in neutral letting go of any tension and just being there for 5 minutes or try out some of the hip flexor stretches – there are so many of these so find one you like and be consistent with it.

I’m going to be focusing on this in class for the next few weeks. Join me on the mat!

Children’s Pilates is Starting!

Pilates with Priya: Children's Pilates Classes

 

After much nudging and poking from my own daughter and other mummies, I’ve finally taken the plunge to put on a children’s Pilates class. My own girl loves Pilates and often asks to come into a class. She actually really gets the concept of it and it helps her move more, stretch and slow her busy mind down too.

Theses classes will be focused on partner work, posture, stretching, functional movements and chilling out. Mindfulness is the buzz word right now, we will be using body movements in a calm, flowing way to relax the mind and hopefully the children will really benefit from this and sleep well!

Get in touch if your child would like to come along.

Pilates at Riverfest

May bank holiday weekend is festival weekend. Well in Southampton anyway. Whilst Common People had all the big names over on the Common, our local park, Riverside Park,  had it’s own first festival called Riverfest. This was a wonderful event that brought together so many from our local community and worked to highlight our local businesses, science, arts and celebrate our river and park.

Pilates with Priya: Riverfest 1

With music from many bands (my fav being the Southampton Ukelele Jam), puppet shows, stalls, cafe’s, spoken word, fruit and vegetables, scientific experiments, boating, whisking (swapping of items you no longer need), yoga and of course, pilates.

Pilates with Priya: Riverfest 2

This was the first time I’d taught Pilates outside. I’d often thought about it, Pilates in the Park sounds fabulous, but a studio with a comfortable floor, mirrors and easy access to equipment is always easier! We bundled some mats up into our pram and set off to the park with the whole family to give it a whirl. Setting out mats on the grass instantly attracted lots of children, so I actually ended up teaching quite a few small people. It was so nice to see them get involved and enjoy it, showing their parents what to do. I think we need a children’s class added to our studio timetable now!

Pilates with Priya: Riverfest 3

Pilates with Priya: Riverfest 4

The event had a real community spirit to it. It was lovely to see so many people (about 4,000 attended) come along, lots we knew, lots who knew who we were. It showed the local talent and amazing businesses we have.

So would I teach Pilates outside again? Totally YES. It obviously presents its challenges, but it was such a beautiful setting and so nice to be in the fresh air doing our thing.

 

The research into Pilates and Mental Health.

There seems to be an obvious link between Pilates helping people wind down, relax, sleep better and reduce their stress levels. Just the act of slowing down your breathing, movements and bringing more awareness into your body is such a helpful principle. I love checking out the actual science on these things, so I’ve had a little search around and found a few articles. Here is a summary.

Pilates helps your brain function:

30 volunteers had their cognitive function tested after a yoga class, a treadmill workout and a baseline assessment. After the yoga session their cognitive function was significantly improved. This sounds like it would also translate over to Pilates. So Pilates could help keep your brain working, it definitely makes you think hard about what you are doing and teaches you a new skill.

Pilates with Priya: Pilates and mental health 2

Pilates and Mood:

There is a specific Pilates study on just over 300 subjects comparing Pilates and a “special recreation” exercise class which was a class suited to the subjects exercise ability and needs. This showed that Pilates led to a better ability to regulate mood, a more relaxed state and a better sense of wellbeing.

Taking this to look specifically depression a group of 146 women followed a 16 week Pilates programme. Depression scores were measured before and after, showing that Pilates lowered depression.

So Pilates is not just great for core strength, for all over body conditioning and for helping rehabilitate after injury. It is also helpful for keeping you mentally alert and is a great way to help regulate your mood.

Pilates with Priya: Pilates and mental health 1