Why my Pilates doesn't look like your Pilates (and why that's a good thing)

When I started out on my (first) Pilates teacher training 6 years ago, I really had no idea of the journey I might be heading on. Back then I viewed Pilates as  an exercise modality. It felt good. It solved or alleviated a whole host of physical ailments. I did get stronger, more mobile and more agile. It did help me run better, without injury. It did help me recover from the rigours of childbirth and early motherhood. All good stuff.

I didn't think it was that complicated.

About a month ago, I stopped running (bear with me, this is related). My relationship with running has always been love / hate. I ran because it was a cheap and convenient way to maintain my CV fitness, it provided head space and it was social to run with friends. The flip-side was that it made me anxious. What if I didn't run for a week? What if my pace didn't improve? Should I enter more races? Be more competitive?

I'm unclear at what point I realised the ironic unhealthiness of my running attitude but it was clear that it was not serving ME. This was a light bulb moment not only for my running but also for my Pilates practice (and life more generally). How was my practice serving ME? There were definitely parts of my practice that were less enjoyable than others; movements that I didn't feel at ease with; that I didn't feel benefited me as much; variations of movements that weren't classified as 'Pilates' but that felt really good! So throughout my more recent practice, I have been much more mindful about how a particular movement or sequence of movements serves ME. This is now the question I ask my clients to consider asking themselves.

 Our exercise/fitness industry is saturated with advice and instruction on the 'best' ways to exercise. We been sucked into a vicious cycle of  exercising in order to eat what we want; cramming our movement into short bursts because we lack time. I feel that when it comes to 'exercise', we are 'done to'; we're following the herd. Our exercise culture is too prescriptive, too one dimensional and too concerned with aesthetic outcomes. As a consequence many of us are out of touch with our actual movement experience.

Historically clients have come to my classes because they want' to be more 'flexible' or they want to 'improve their core (that's a whole other blog) and during group classes,  clients are concerned about 'getting it right', breathing the 'right' way or contorting themselves to perform a particular movement ("why can't I roll up, I've been doing Pilates for years!"). Clients can be apprehensive about not being 'good enough', always keeping one eye on the person next to them, making sure they 'look' like doing the same thing, at the same time. But, I ask them this: is that way of practicing Pilates (or anything) truly useful for YOU? What if you really tuned in to how YOU were feeling about a particular movement/ exercise; what if you forgot about how something looked and focused on how it felt? What if you momentarily forgot about your goal of being more flexible or having a stronger 'core' and instead gave yourself the freedom  and the permission to explore moving your body in a way that served YOU? Initially, you might not know what to do with that permission; to not be given a cue or an instruction; to take responsibility; to actually go inside your own body and truly feel the movement; to change it of your own accord, without judgement,  so that your shoulder bridge might end up looking nothing like mine. Heck,  might not even call it a shoulder bridge and that's Ok by me!

MY version of running is now walking (interspersed with running, throwing sticks for the dog, occasional dawdling, balancing on a log, mindful breathing, noticing my surroundings, connecting to my environment). This serves ME better for now and the irony is, I feel healthier for it.

When  I moved away from  prescriptive 'exercise' and turned my attention inward to my movement experience (which is now not limited to 'exercise') the freedom was liberating.  Finding strength, mobility, energy and endurance that I didn't know I had. 

Giving myself the opportunity to be my own version of ME has been the best gift to myself and my body. I invite you to come and explore a more mindful Movement practice - to find the best version if YOU.

The foundation of whole body wellness

Even if you only know a little about Pilates, you would not think it unusual when I say that I see a lot of clients  with some level of injury, discomfort or pain. Whether that be ankle pain, knee pain, hip discomfort, low back pain, shoulder twinges or neck ache (and every body part in between).  After all, most people view Pilates as a form of rehabilitative exercise and most come to it after being injured and/or in pain (myself included). What not many people realise though - and it's really why I'm writing this blog- is that these bouts of pain, the niggles and the longer term discomfort that clients are experiencing in all body parts can often be traced back down to their feet and ankles. Yes, you read that right, their feet!

So, why in a culture that is obsessed with exercise and fitness have our feet been left out of the equation? I believe that part of the reason is because we don't see our bare feet very often. In the UK, where the weather is less than fantastic for most of the time, our feet might move from slipper, to work shoe, to gym shoe, to social shoe an then return to bed. Essentially, since you could walk your feet have been cast or bound into a restrictive mechanism and while you've been perusing the latest fashionable shoe, your feet have been unlearning their evolutionary task -  to move, to adapt to load, surface, temperature and to maintain their natural alignment.

Here's a little experiment for you to try: take your shoes and socks off. Stand up and tense your feet so that they become like planks of wood. Now attempt to walk around for a bit. Notice how your whole body is affected by this; how stiff your movement looks and feels and how much tension there is in your knees, hips and lower back especially. Essentially, that's what you shoes are doing.

Our culture of 'quick fix' exercise solutions (you know the ones - '30 days to a leaner you'; '5 days to flat abs'; 'exercise in cellophane' (true apparently!)), are also a problem. So consumed are we with muscle 'tone' and body aesthetics, we're losing the true understanding of functional movement and the inter relationship of our body parts. For example, squatting, which is very fashionable at the moment as a 'glute strengthening' exercise is a whole lot nicer and more useful when you view it as a whole body movement, starting from the ground up - ankles flexing well and in good alignment, knees bending in alignment with ankles, hips hinging , spine staying stable etc. The same applies to hip extension (taking your leg behind you), which is more achievable in a lunge (or walking and running), if your toes can flex. Essentially, what I'm saying is, movement (or lack of) in one part of your body, has implications- positive and negative- on other parts. So if one part of your body is being restricted (by a shoe for instance), the chain of movement - and any benefit you might derive from it - is altered further up the body.

Similarly, by restricting our feet in shoes we miss out on vast quantities of sensory information. The skin on the bottom of our feet provides masses of information to our nervous system.  There are an estimated 100,000 – 200,000 exteroceptors (a sensory receptor which receives external stimuli) in the sole of each foot, meaning that your feet are among the most nerve-rich parts of your body. So, the feet are a great place to start when it comes to improving proprioception (a sense of the ones own joint movement or position in relation to neighbouring joints)

So, of course I  would love to advocate for you to transition to minimal or no footwear and perhaps adapt your 'exercise' regime for one that involves whole body movement and balance in a more natural environment.  But I know from personal experience that it doesn't(and really shouldn't) have to be such a dramatic change of lifestyle. Here are some options for occasional barefoot time, better and varied shoes choices and also some foot and ankle exercises to help get your feet and the rest of your body back on track.

 1) Be barefoot more often! Start on surfaces you know won't be too uncomfortable but gradually experiment with textures, temperatures and gradients. Easy to do in your garden or park. Any transition from one sort of shoe to another or from shoes to no shoes, should be gradual. The shape of your bones an the length of you tissues have adapted to certain positions and habits and these cannot be altered over-night.

 Going au natural in the foot department is not only great for allowing the foot to find its natural shape and alignment but there have also been links documenting how conductive contact with the Earth, which is also known as Earthing or grounding, is highly beneficial to your health. Earthing can minimise the consequences of exposure to potentially disruptive fields like electromagnetic pollution or "dirty" electricity (electrical pollution)

2) If going barefoot seems a little extreme for now, try altering your shoes. Choose shoes that are negatively heeled. By that, I mean shoes where the sole does not get thicker towards the heel. Even some ballet pumps and most men's shoes and training shoes have a thicker heel. The more heel your shoe has, the more your ankle is forced into a position called plantar - flexion - where the angle between the shin bone and the top of the foot is greater and the calf muscles and surrounding tissues are continuously contracted (ever wondered why your calves feel a little rigid!?). You could also try giving your toes some room - avoid shoes that squish your toes toward each other - you can avoid bunions that way too!

3) You can also change your footwear and the task you perform in it, more often. For instance, if you always wear the same shoes when you go walking, choose a different pair. Varying your terrain is also great for the feet. If you've ever transitioned from road running to trail running, you'll know how the varying terrain means your feet and ankles have to work extra hard. This applies to any movement. If there is a habitual route you walk everyday (walking the dog, walking to school/work), you could alter the side of the road you walk on, opting for a grass verge or a more uneven surface, which would in turn give your feet more work to do.

4) Joseph Pilates was way ahead of the game when it came to feet. Over 50 years ago he designed the Toe Corrector and Footwork on the reformer (the Pilates Reformer is an exercise machine used to incorporate the Pilates exercise technique using springs, leverage and body weight). His method of whole body conditioning, was exactly that. WHOLE body. He recognised the importance of the alignment of the feet through this work. However, If you don't have Pilates apparatus available, its not a problem. Here are a few easy foot and ankle exercises to keep your feet and everything above them, aligned and well.

-     Tennis ball rising - an exercise to mobilise the ankles, knees and hips to good alignment and to challenge stability and balance. With the legs parallel and slightly closer together than hip distance, place a tennis ball just below the inside ankle bones. Keeping the pelvis and spine stable, raise the heels off the floor and rise into the balls of the feet. Lower the heels back down to the floor with control. Bend the knees, keeping the heels on the floor and the pelvis and spine stable. Repeat.

-     Ankle circles - exactly what is says on the tin - but ensure pure movement from the ankle joint and avoid toe articulation. Attempt to create full and even circles.

-     Cherry picking - this is my favourite foot mobility exercise - it's really challenging but also very hard to explain - so here goes! This exercise mobilises the feet, the arches and the ankle joints and to increase the articulation of the foot. Lie on your back with both knees bent. Lift one leg away from with floor and bring it towards the chest. Clasp the hands around the back of the thigh so long as a still pelvis and spine can be maintained - if not utilise and yoga strap, theraband or scarf to keep the leg lifted without straining. The lifted leg is slightly extended so that the foot and ankle and be seen. Doris- flex the ankle (bring the toes towards the shin bone) and spread the toes wide and long. Maintain the extension of the toes and pantar-flex (point) the ankle, pressing through the ball of the foot. Point the toes (imagine picking a cherry from a tree - because we all do that! - by claspingit with the toes. Maintain the clasp but draw the foot back towards the body. Extend the toes, dropping the cherry! Repeat

-     Working the arches - an exercise to mobilise the arches and the joints of the foot. Either stand or sit in a chair with the soles of tine feet on the floor. The legs are hip width apart and parallel. Keeping the toes long and not allowing them to scrunch up, draw the base of the toes back towards the heel increasing the arches - its trickier then it sounds! Release and retreat.

-     Passive toe separation massage- this is glorious! Interlace your fingers between your toes, aiming to get the widest part of your fingers between each toes. Using your hand, gently circles your toes and forefoot around in both directions.

-     Tennis ball / spiky Ball massage - a fantastic way to re-hydrate and mobilise the connective tissue on the sole of your foot. There are a couple of great ways to do this. My favourite is to stand with the feet hip distance apart. Place the ball under one foot, behind the ball of the big toe. Very gently and slowly, transfer your body weight onto the foot with the ball underneath it and then release. Do this a few times in one spot and then move the ball. Work between the balls of the toes and the heel. Move slowly and breathe!

-     Single leg balance / cushion balance - it always amazes me how quickly our balance deteriorates with age. Practice makes perfect! Stand tall, with the feet parallel hip distance apart. Without shifting the pelvis or spine, lift one leg away from the floor to balance on one leg. Maintain and nice even waist on both sides. Hold each balance for a couple of breaths, alternating sides. Challenge yourself by balancing on a cushion or uneven surface. Feel those glorious tremors and oscillations in your feet as you go!

Many thanks for reading xxx