The Art of the Body II

Regular visitors to the website will know that EP HQ is very interested in how the human body influences art.  A trip last weekend to Tate Modern’s stunning new extension, the Switch House provided some great examples.  The Artist Rooms are currently devoted to the work of Louise Bourgeois, who explored the theme of the human body regularly in her art.

Here are a couple of her pieces hanging in one of the Artist Rooms…

Louise Bourgeois body parts Tate Modern Artists Rooms

Another of the galleries in The Switch House currently features a retrospective of Rebecca Horn’s work, an artist who often incorporates the human body in her sculptures…

Rebecca Horn Body Sculpture

This weekend I came across a dance piece, bODY rEMIX gOLDBERG vARIATIONS by the controversial Canadian choreographer, Marie Chouinard.  Included in the work are dancers using various devices normally associated with physical disability, e.g. crutches, prostheses, to extend their bodies and create unusual shapes and movements.  The result is surprisingly beautiful…

Body Remix by Marie Chouinard

Another recent mini adventure, this time to The Eden Project in late June to see P J Harvey, I came across this sign which, if I was wearing a bigger coat, I would have nicked so I could bring it back and hang it on the Pilates studio door…

Sign for The Core at the Eden Project

Finally, here’s Polly Jean herself performing in all her glory at this year’s Glastonbury, a couple of days before I saw her Eden Session gig.  Unlike Pilton, we had wall-to-wall sunshine…ha!  Take that, Glasto!

Note: I would KILL for PJ’s hat…assuming no birds were harmed in the making of it of course…






Pain Relief Using Ice and Heat Treatments

Iceland, island of ice and fire

Both heat and ice treatments are useful ways to reduce pain.  There is, however, a lot of confusion about which to use at any given time.


Use COLD treatment (cryotherapy) for a new injury where there is inflammation to the more superficial tissues of the body (e.g. a sprained ankle tendon or knee ligament), resulting in sensitivity, redness, swelling and acute pain.  Ice numbs the injury. Cold narrows blood vessels and slows down blood flow, which can reduce inflammation and fluid build-up in the affected area and thus relieve the pain.

Use HEAT treatment (thermotherapy) for chronic (i.e. persistent or recurrent) pain, or for an injury that’s more than a day old.  Heat can ease the pain of muscle spasms and knots (trigger points) in the muscles, or conditions that are dominated by them like back and neck pain.  Heat is relaxing which is why overworked muscles respond best to heat. Heat stimulates blood flow, helps eliminate toxins, e.g. excess lactic acid, relaxes spasms, and soothes sore muscles.  It also soothes the nervous system; helpful given stress and anxiety are major factors in many chronic pain problems.


If you’re supposed to ice injuries, but not muscle pain, what do you with injured muscles, i.e. a muscle tear or muscle strain? The answer is to ice but only for the first few days at most, and only if it really is a true muscle injury. A true muscle injury usually involves an obvious trauma during intense effort, and sudden severe pain. If the muscle is truly torn, then use ice to start with to take the edge off the inflammation. Once the worst is over, switch to heat.

With lower back and neck pain it is best to err on the side of heat therapy rather than icing. The majority of low back pain is not caused by inflammation or any kind of trauma, but by the pain of muscular trigger points or knots.  Trigger points generally dislike cold. Chilling the skin is actually a well known risk factor for the formation and aggravation of trigger points.  Cold applied to the skin stimulates a reflex that causes muscles to contract; the last thing you want to happen if your back pain is caused by tight muscles.  Applying heat to the skin triggers a mild reflex that reduces muscle tension.

Some back or neck pain caused by an obvious trauma, e.g. a fall can benefit from icing then heating immediately afterwards.  A client experiencing lower back pain as a result of a fall, applied an ice pack locally in the area around her SI joints for 20 minutes to reduce the inflammation of the soft tissues caused by the impact trauma.  Immediately afterwards she applied a hot water bottle to the same area to try and avoid the back muscles nearby spasming in response to the ice.  This provided relief from the pain and assisted the healing process.

volcano with snow on the slopes

General rules and exceptions to those rules out the way, let’s consider the two treatments in a bit more detail.


There are two types of heat therapy…

Local heat is applied to a specific area by means of a hot water bottle, heating pad, hot, damp towel or a heat wrap.

Systemic heat involves a hot bath, sauna, steam bath or hot shower to raise the temperature of the whole body.

When applying local heat, avoid direct contact with the heating device, e.g. wrap a hot water bottle in a towel to prevent burns.  During systemic heat therapy, remember to stay hydrated and avoid prolonged exposure.

If you suffer from an ongoing muscle injury, applying heat before exercising can be helpful. However, applying heat after exercise can aggravate existing pain.

For a more detailed look at heat therapy, check out this article on the Pain Science website.


Cold therapy is mostly applied locally. It should never be used for more than 20 minutes at a time because an excessive use of cold can cause tissue damage. You can apply cold using an ice pack, an ice towel (a damp towel that has been sealed in plastic and placed in the freezer for about 15 minutes), an ice massage, a cold gel pack or a bag of frozen vegetables.

It’s often beneficial to apply cold locally immediately after injury or intense, high-impact exercise to help relieve any inflammation or pain that occurs; this is a form of acute inflammation. Unlike heat, you can apply ice after going for a run. Cold treatment can reduce post-exercise inflammation.

Always wrap ice packs in a towel before applying to an affected area. It’s safe to repeatedly ice painful or swollen tissues but give your body a break between sessions. Do not use ice in areas where you have circulation problems.

Cold therapy can be applied systemically after an intense period of exercise.  Ice baths are often used by athletes to reduce inflammation and pain that occurs after a sports activity. Again, this should not be done for an excessive length of time.

For a more detailed look at cryotherapy, check out this article on the Pain Science website.

Andy Murray Ice Bath Wimbledon Trophy


Both ice and heat are pointless or worse when unwanted, i.e. icing when you’re already shivering, or heating when you’re already sweating. The nervous system may interpret an excess of either one as a threat and in response, increase the pain.

Heat and inflammation are a particularly bad combination. If you add heat to a fresh injury, e.g. an injured knee, it will most likely increase the pain and swelling.

Icing painful muscles can cause a similarly adverse reaction.  Cold therapy can aggravate muscle pain and stiffness, which are often present in low back and neck pain. Trigger point pain can be surprisingly intense and as such, easily mistaken for an “iceable” injury and inflammation. But if you ice these painfully sensitive spots in the muscles, they may burn and ache even more acutely. This mistake is made often with low back and neck, the very condition people often try to treat with ice.

Ultimately, it’s important to use whatever treatment feels best and works well for you. Your own preference is the most important consideration. Heat won’t help if you already feel hot and don’t want to be heated. And ice is unlikely to be effective if you have a chill or are cold and hate the idea of being iced.  If you start to use one and you don’t like the feel of it or it doesn’t seem to be relieving the pain, try the other.

And if all else fails, you could take Jolie Holland’s advice…here’s a good cover of Holland’s fab song by Tom McKean & the Emperors…










Pilates Inspiration – Akram Khan

Akram Khan and Sylvie Guillem performing Sacred Monsters

The video below is an excerpt from the hour-long dance piece, Sacred Monsters, choreographed and performed by Akram Khan with Sylvie Guillem.  It’s a fine example of all eight principles of Pilates in action.  The dance explores the dynamics and language of two great classical dance forms, kathak and ballet.  Kathak is a form of Indian classical dance and has its origins in the nomadic bards of ancient northern India, known as Kathakars or storytellers. Its form today contains traces of temple and ritual dances.

Take a look at this short section from Sacred Monsters and learn how to argue via the medium of dance…


Understanding the anatomy and inner workings of your spine will help you be mindful of how best to look after it as you go about your day-to-day life.

Helen Redman's painting Singing the Bones

The Neck

Your neck supports the weight of your head and protects the nerves that go from your brain to the rest of the body.

The cervical spine has seven vertebrae that get smaller the closer they get to the base of the skull. Only the top two segments rotate so you can turn your head.

Acute neck pain is most often caused by a muscle, ligament or tendon strain, e.g. from a sudden force or from straining the neck.  These injuries usually heal with time and non-surgical treatments to alleviate the pain, such as ice/heat, medication, chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation etc.

If neck pain lasts longer than two weeks to three months, or if you experience mainly arm pain, numbness or tingling, there is often a specific anatomical problem in this area which needs to be addressed.

The Upper Back

The 12 vertebrae in your upper back make up the thoracic spine. The firm attachment of the rib cage at each level of the thoracic spine provides stability and structural support, allowing very little motion.  This means that thoracic disc injuries are rare.  However, irritation of the large back and shoulder muscles can be very painful.

The Lower Back

Your lumbar spine has the least structural support and endures the most strain, making it the most frequently injured area of the spine.

The movement in the lower spine is divided between five motion segments, although a disproportionate amount of the motion is in the lower segments (L4-L5 and L5-S1). Consequently, these two segments are the most likely to be injured. For example, a herniated disc in this area can cause pain and possibly numbness that radiates through the leg and down to the foot (sciatica).

Most episodes of lower back pain are caused by muscle strain. Even though this doesn’t sound like a serious injury, pain in the lower back can be severe.

Below your lumbar spine is a bone called the sacrum, which makes up the back part of the pelvis. This bone is shaped like a triangle that fits between the two halves of the pelvis, connecting the spine to the lower half of the body.  The sacrum is connected to part of the pelvis (the iliac bones) by the sacroiliac joints. Pain here is often called sacroiliac joint dysfunction, and is more common in women than men.

The coccyx (tail bone) is at the very bottom of the spine. Pain here is called coccydynia and again, is more common in women than men.


The Intelligence and Life-Force of the Spine

From an energy point of view, life revolves around the spine. Our nervous system is the body’s information gatherer, storage centre and control system. Its function is to collect information about external conditions in relation to the body’s internal state, to analyse this information, and to initiate the proper response. The Central Nervous System (CNS) includes the brain and spinal cord, which is housed inside the spinal column. The Peripheral Nervous System (PNS) connects the CNS to other parts of the body and is composed of nerves that emanate from the spinal column. The skeletal alignment of our spine is key to us accessing the body’s energetic resources.

To unlock this energy we must balance the curves of the spine and lengthen them in two directions.  The sacrum and tailbone move down, and the lumbar spine and everything above it extends up. It’s important to lengthen the spine, while maintaining all of its natural curves in order to pull the spinal column to its maximum length.

To visualize a healthy lengthening of the spine we need to understand the muscles involved in this action.  The pelvic floor is an important yet often overlooked group of muscles.  Energetically this muscle moves upward into the core of the body. The big gluteus maximus in the backside, is a muscle that wraps down the leg to extend it. Energetically it flows downward towards the ground. These muscles, the pelvic floor and gluteus maximus, have specific functions that work in opposition to each other. Unfortunately this functionality is undermined because we tend to overuse the gluteus maximus and under-use the pelvic floor, and the spine suffers as a result.

Overuse of the gluteal muscles tends to shut down energetic movement through the spine. In standing, the gluteus maximus should not be working. In walking it works a tiny bit to take the leg back, unless you are walking up hill or up a flight of stairs, which is when it really kicks into gear. Unfortunately our posture usually shifts the gluteus maximus into a different role. If your legs are underneath your pelvis, the gluteal muscles can do less. If the thighs begin to sink forward and the pelvis tucks under, as they do for most people, the quadriceps (the big thigh muscles) and the buttocks begin to work to try and provide stability.  This is a false sense of stability, however, and results in the gluteal muscles gripping and its energy moving upwards. Releasing the glutes and engaging your pelvic floor creates the upward energy that allows the sacrum and the tail bone to move down.

Spine sculpture by Rebekah May-personal-velvet

Engaging the pelvic floor is a key part of the Pilates Method of course.  We do this between every exhale and inhale in order to strengthen the pelvic floor and to fire up the trans abs, the deep abdominal muscles that stabilise the lower spine. Not sure how to engage the pelvic floor?  Think of holding in your pee, gently engaging between the anus and the genitals.  When you engage your pelvic floor, you should get a sense of movement at the base of the pelvis and a shift in the bones as well as the muscles. Your tail bone at the very base of the spine should move forward ever so slightly towards the pubis (the front of the pelvis) as the sacrum lengthens down.

To lengthen the spine effectively, we engage the pelvic floor, draw in the abdominals and extend from the back of the throat (hyoid bone) and the neck.  This helps the spine lengthen up into its full extension at the top. When the pelvic floor engages, the sacrum and tail bone move down.  When the abdominals are also engaged, the spine starts to lengthen upwards with the help of the erector spinae muscles in the back.

However, if the relationship between the buttocks and the pelvic floor is not harmonious the spine will only lengthen in one direction, usually from the lower back and above.  This means that the nervous system’s access to everything below the lumbar spine is diminished.

To close, here’s Bjork doing weird and wonderful things with her skull…