Pilates Inspiration – Balance Acrobatic Gymnastics

Below is a video of the Belgium women’s team winning gold in the group balance discipline at the 2015 Baku European Acrobatic Gymnastics Championships.  A perfect example of all eight principles of Pilates in action

NB: I wonder if judges still dock points for the hem of your pants showing below your leotard…I need to get out more…

How to Improve Your Balance with Pilates

Balance

What is balance?

Balance is our ability to maintain the body’s centre of mass over its base of support.  In other words being able to distribute our weight evenly in order to remain upright and steady whether stationary (termed a static balance) or moving (a dynamic balance).

A properly functioning balance system allows us to see clearly while moving, orient ourselves in relation to gravity, determine direction and speed of movement, and then make automatic adjustments to maintain posture and stability in whatever we’re doing and whatever the conditions, e.g. walking on a pebbly beach, riding a bike, getting out of bed to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, running on a treadmill etc.

How Do We Balance?

Balance is achieved and maintained by a complex set of control systems involving input from the eyes, ears, and from the skin, muscles and joints being sent to the brain for processing:

  • The eyes provide visual cues identifying how a person is oriented relative to other objects.
  • The ears provide sensory information about movement, equilibrium, and where we are in a space.
  • The skin, muscles and joints have special receptors which provide information about any change in stretch or pressure the body may be experiencing. The receptors in the neck and ankle are particularly important.  Cues from the neck indicate the direction in which the head is turned. Cues from the ankles indicate the body’s movement relative to both the standing surface (floor or ground) and the quality of that surface, e.g. hard, soft, slippery, or uneven.

The brain sorts the input received from the eyes, ears, skin, muscles and joints, and integrates it with any previously learned information from past experiences, e.g. repeated automatic movements like tossing a tennis ball when serving, or an awareness we have to use slower, more precise steps when walking on an icy pavement.  The brain then “talks” to the muscles that control the movements of the eyes, head and neck, trunk, and legs, enabling us to maintain balance and have a clear vision while moving.

These complex sensori-motor control systems which enable us to achieve and maintain balance can be impaired if the eyes, ears, skin, muscles or joints are not working properly, e.g. through injury, illness, lack of use or the aging process.

Ballerina Project Hungary

How to improve your balance

There are a number of important benefits associated with having an enhanced sense of stability, e.g. protection against falls, better mobility, fewer injuries when going about our daily lives or playing sport, greater capacity to push ourselves when we exercise, leading to increased overall fitness.

Essential to achieving and maintaining good balance are:

  • core muscle strength;
  • strong, powerful leg muscles, particularly the quadriceps;
  • strong, powerful gluteal muscles;
  • strength and flexibility in the ankle joints and feet;
  • the ability to use multiple muscle groups.  Researchers looking at the human balance system measured muscle use in a group of professional dancers against those of people who had no dance or gymnastics training.  The dancers not only moved with more grace and precision, but deployed more muscle groups, even when just walking across a flat floor, than those with no training;
  • practice and repetition.  A baby learns to balance by practising and repeating movements.  Impulses sent from the sensory receptors to the brain and then out to the muscles form a new pathway. With repetition, it becomes easier for these impulses to travel along that nerve pathway—a process called facilitation—and the baby is then better able to maintain balance during any activity.  This pathway facilitation is the reason dancers and athletes practise so much. Even very complex movements become almost automatic over a period of time.
  • confidence/a positive attitude.  If you think “oh no, a balance, I’m rubbish at balancing” before you attempt a balance exercise in class, you will more than likely execute it poorly;
  • a good night’s sleep.  Sleep deprivation slows reaction time and is also directly related to falls.  Researchers tracked nearly 3,000 people and found that those who typically slept between 5 and 7 hours each night were 40% more likely to fall than those who slept longer.

The Pilates classes I run in Clevedon and Bristol are carefully prepared to provide exercises which build a strong core, improve the strength and flexibility of the leg and gluteal muscles, encourage the correct activation of all the muscles required to perform a movement (nothing overworking, nothing underworking), and increase the strength and flexibility of the ankles and feet.  Balance exercises chosen from a wide range, are also a key feature of the classes.

Just like strength and flexibility, balance can be improved if we continually challenge it. This is achieved in my Pilates classes by performing both static and moving balances, as well as by encouraging people to try and balance:

  • on an unstable surface, e.g. a small Pilates ball;
  • in different positions, e.g. on all fours in table-top, extended kneeling etc
  • with eyes closed;
  • on a smaller surface area, e.g. on one foot or with both feet together rather hip-width apart
  • for increasingly longer periods of time.

Right, time to go practise my balance beam routine.  Here’s one I did earlier…when I was Chinese…and a bit younger…

How to Treat the Most Common Cause of Vertigo

Vertigo photography

A number of clients have spoken to Melissa about problems they’re experiencing with vertigo. There was a feature on Radio 4’s Inside Health last week on this subject, looking at the best way to treat vertigo. It is a common complaint and the accompanying nausea and unsteadiness can be very unsettling. Below are the key points from the programme which might be of help for anyone suffering from this problem.

There are a number of possible causes of vertigo ranging from migraine and Meniere’s to strokes and tumours, but by far the most common cause is a condition called BPPV – Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo. It results from debris floating around in the fluid in the balance sensors of the inner ear and typically affects people over 40. Fortunately there is a relatively simple way to treat it, albeit much underused.

BPPV sufferers will usually describe episodes of intense vertigo provoked by certain characteristic head movements, e.g. turning over in bed or when looking up. If you find that reaching up to get something off a high shelf, changing a light bulb or washing your hair in the shower provokes an episode of vertigo then you may be suffering from BPPV. GPs or other health professionals do a simple diagnostic test, which involves putting the patient into a position that will trigger the symptoms.  They also look for a characteristic movement in the eyes called nystagmus.

Vertigo photography

The good news for anyone diagnosed with BPPV is that it’s easy for the doctor to treat there and then in the consulting room. The problem in BPPV is  loose chalk crystals in the inner ear. The chalk crystals are there naturally but they can break off. The crystals float around the fluid-filled spaces of the inner ear, bouncing into the tiny hairs found inside this very delicate mechanism, which then sends spurious signals to the brain. The inner ear balance organ is your head movement detector.  When these crystals get loose they cause false signals to be sent to the brain, telling it that your head is moving when it is not.

Treatment for BPPV involves guiding the crystals out of the narrow part of the inner ear where they cause trouble and into the wider part where they do not. The doctor does this by carefully manoeuvring the patient’s head around, a little bit like a child’s toy with a ball in a maze in a box where you’re trying to get the ball to go where you want it to by moving the whole box. The doctor moves the patient’s head to guide these crystals around the bends of the inner ear into a place where they’re not going to cause a problem. The procedure takes about five minutes. The commonest manoeuvre is called the Epley manoeuvre, which involves putting the patient’s head in four positions. The chance of curing BPPV with this method there and then is 80%.

Unfortunately BPPV sufferers are often misdiagnosed and put on medicines instead of being treated with the Epley manoeuvre. BPPV is one condition where medicines like Prochlorperazine or Stemetil, the vestibular suppressant medications, don’t have much of a role to play in curing the problem. Indeed such medicines are potentially quite damaging to take long term, with side effects that can make people feel even more unsteady. It’s very important therefore that such medications are used only for very short term episodes of nausea or vertigo or dizziness.

 

Pilates For Feet

Ballerina Project

Feet have a key role to play in achieving balance in the body.  With twenty-six bones, thirty-three joints and more than a hundred muscles, ligaments and tendons in each one, the foot is a marvel of engineering and yet it is often overlooked by anatomists and medical students, indeed by all of us. When our feet go wrong then we pay attention to them.  Only when they stop working properly do we appreciate what they do to keep us upright and move us around all day.

According to anthropologists, the development of the arches of the feet allowed us to step into our humanity more than two million years ago. It is the evolution of this part of our anatomy more than any other that enabled man to walk upright, freeing up our hands and our brains to focus on other more complex tasks.

Footprints of two people walking in the sand

Feet not only provide insight into how we developed as humans, they tell the story of our overall physiological health. When the foot hits the ground, everything is affected. Conversely, an imbalance in the pelvis places strain on the knees and ankles, which can be seen in our feet, even when they are not weight bearing.

When we run approximately half the energy used in each step is stored in the elasticity of our Achilles tendons and released via the arches of the feet. The arches, two along the length of the foot and one across its width, also bear our weight. They are necessary for strength, just like the spans of a bridge. Without the arches, the feet can’t support the weight of our bodies.

The feet need to be flexible in order to reduce the impact of postural imbalances and to improve stability when we move around. As we age the foot becomes less flexible increasing our susceptibility to ankle sprains, knee and hip pain, and to falls due to poor balance. Similarly, repetitive movements such as walking and running, inappropriate footwear and a sedentary lifestyle, can all contribute to a loss of flexibility in the feet.

textured-ball-foot

Tension in the feet can affect the legs and hips. This is because the muscles of the calves run all the way down into the feet. These in turn connect via fascia to the muscles of the upper leg and hip.

To address this tension and inflexibility, Melissa now incorporates foot exercises into the Pilates classes she runs at The Wellbeing Studio and the Complete Health Clinic in Clevedon. The exercises, using special textured balls are easy to do and feel good.  Doing them at the start of the Pilates class helps maintain proper foot alignment for the rest of the session, which improves the recruitment of the muscles in the hips, pelvic floor, and abdominal area.

Burning Man Festival Marco Cochrane sculpture

Pilates Inspiration – Lara Jacobs

Lara Jacobs as the Balance Goddess

Balance is something we strive for in our professional and personal lives.  When we practise Pilates we’re aiming to achieve a balance in the way our body works, nothing overworking, nothing underworking, everything in the body taking its fair share of the load.

Lara Jacob’s performance in Cirque de Soleil’s Amaluna can teach us a lot about harmony and stability. The Balance Goddess act creates a world in equilibrium with a mobile made of thirteen palm leaf ribs. The soundtrack to the routine is beautifully spare, largely using the sound of Jacob’s breathing. Her movements are slow, deliberate and almost meditative as she concentrates all her attention on building the mobile.  The Balance Goddess act reminds us of the fragile nature of harmony.

Lara Jacobs was born into an artistic family. In fact it was her father who created the Balance Goddess act and he continues to perform it himself all over the world.  At the age of six Lara Jacob’s began performing and touring as a trapeze artist with her parents’ theatre, Rigolo Nouveau Cirque. When she was 16, Lara went to New York City and enrolled at the prestigious Alvin Ailey Dance Centre. She later travelled to Istanbul where she trained in dervish dance, a traditional Islamic dance also known as Sufi whirling, which consists of spinning the body in rapid, repetitive circles. With this new talent, she began performing a solo fire burning skirt routine for Rigolo Nouveau Cirque, for numerous galas worldwide, as well as the famous German circus, Circus Roncalli.

Honing Your Seventh Sense – Pilates & Proprioception

Back flip on a beam

The human body has more than just the five commonly known senses. There are three categories of senses. The first is the “special” senses, which include sight, hearing, taste and smell. The second category consists of the somatic senses, normally referred to as “touch.” This involves our perception of pressure, heat and pain. The third category is less well-known. These are the interoceptive senses, which deal with information originating in the body itself.

Essentially there are three interoceptive senses. The first, balance, is a sense of the body’s alignment. This is what helps keep us upright and stable. The renowned ability of a cat to always land on its feet is also due to this sense. The second interoceptive sense is the organic sense, which alerts the body to its internal condition, telling us when we’re hungry or thirsty for instance. The third interoceptive sense is known as proprioception. This, put simply, is the brain’s knowledge of the relative position of different parts of the body in space.

Tightrope walker on a slack wire

To experience proprioception, close your eyes and extend your hand in any direction. Now identify in your mind its exact position and open your eyes. Note that your brain was well aware of your hand’s position, even though none of the classic five senses were being used to detect it. This is proprioception. Without it we would have no concept of where our bodies are, or how they feel when we move them, thus leaving us vulnerable to accidents and potential injury.

The proprioceptive sense is perceived using our nervous system. Connective tissue, i.e. our ligaments, tendons and fascia, is far more innervated than muscle, having ten times as many sensory receptors. For this reason proprioception is associated mainly with our connective tissue rather than with our muscles. This means that when you think you’re feeling your muscles moving, you’re more likely to be tuning in with the movement of your connective tissue.

Proprioception has another interesting property. It is believed that pain and proprioception cannot exist at the same time. This means that a person in pain is less aware of their body and as such, more susceptible to moving awkwardly or falling over.

Acrobatic tumble

For all the above reasons , it’s important to ensure our connective tissue is healthy, works well and that we hone our proprioceptive sense. Pilates, with its emphasis on executing controlled, flowing movements in alignment, can help us realise both these objectives. For example, lying semi-supine in neutral pelvis gives us feedback, or a proprioceptive sense of how our back is positioned. When we perform a spine curl, we can feel the pressure being placed at different points along the spine and across the upper back. When a leg is lifted to table top, or an arm moved in an arc over the head, we experience a change in the way the body’s weight is distributed.

When a beginner to Pilates is asked how their back felt when they performed a certain exercise, e.g. a roll down from standing, they often find it difficult to know how to reply. This is because their proprioceptive sense has not yet been honed. Indeed, many beginners associate pain with movement, insisting they can’t feel anything unless it hurts.

Over-time, a well-designed, well-taught Pilates class will help clients develop their proprioceptive sense, leading to a greater awareness of the body, how the different parts of it feel and move, thus avoiding accidents and potential injury.

Dancer on points