Archive for the ‘Pilates’ Category
I am so glad to be back. Much work to be done. Pilates (in a 1- or 2-person session with a trained instructor who has a good studio with the various apparatuses Joseph Pilates invented to focus on various parts of the body) is sort of a cross between physical training and physical therapy. One thing I noticed, being freshly back after a 6-month layoff, is how much of the work (at least in this session) was exercising one’s trunk in various ways: twisting, arching, bending, etc., against resistance (the pull of springs or one’s own weight). Of course, I knew as an abstract statement that the focus of Pilates was on strengthening the core—that’s commonly known—but today I noticed (and felt) it in practice: my trunk was well exercised, and it felt very much that distinct layers and groups of muscles in the trunk were being exercised separately.
Of course there were exercises of arms and legs, but even in those the focus was on how the muscles in the trunk controlled those movements or provided the support or balance for doing them. In a chair exercise, for example, we (The Wife and I) each stood on one leg in front of a Wunda Chair (pictured), arms folded flat and held in front of us, the other leg raised so the ball of the foot rested in the middle of the cushion on the paddle, heel raised in high-heels position. The exercise was simply to push down the paddle and then let it return.
Obviously, this exercises one’s balance—I had a lot of trouble with this when I first started—but the deal is to feel how the legs sort of are connected: the straight leg holding the balance and providing support for the leg pushing up and down, and she emphasized how we should feel in our lower back the connection as the leg moved up and down. We also had to focus on the muscles on the inside line of the supporting leg.
One doesn’t do Pilates exercises to exhaustion—that would really impact form—and the whose session moves directly from one exercise to another, with lots of groups of muscles getting their turn. We did this one with about 8-10 paddle pushes per leg, then sat on the edge of the chair and pushed paddle down from that position, first with balls of feet, then arches, then heels, arms straight down at our sides, trunk upright, and then into next exercise.
It sounds sort of simple, but by the end of the one-hour session of exercises I felt a warm glow all over from the muscles that had been worked. Great stuff. We also did a lot of work on the Cadillac today (shown below), but no Reformer work. We used the bar at the left end, the swinging wooden bar at the other end, springs attached to the end-poles (feet in slings so legs stretch the springs) and so on: quite a few exercises for various muscle groups in the core, including bending to the side (each side), kneeling and leaning trunk back, lying on back, etc.: lots of different exercises.
To give you an idea, the following video shows a series of exercises on the Wunda Chair. The first time I did the exercise the instructor calls The Swan (5:08-5:32 in the video), I got stretched out, my arms holding down the paddle, and when my instructor told me, “Now bend your arms,” I could not do it—somehow I could not figure out how to make my muscles do that. It was if I could not find the wiring in my mind to send the order. It was the same feeling I get when I’m trying to lift one eyebrow (something that, say, Stephen Colbert can do readily): for me, the communication channel to that muscle is somehow blocked, or I can’t find it. Same with trying to move the muscles that wiggle my ears: don’t know how to reach them. But this time it was bending my arms. I was able to do it after a brief (10 second?), confused pause, but the feeling of not knowing the pathway to get to those muscles at that time was quite strong.
Which is one of the things that Pilates develops: new neural pathways in the brain for controlling muscles. A lot of activities do this, of course: learning to play a musical instrument (the piano, the clarinet, the guitar, whatever); learning martial arts; learning various sports. Pilate simply does it with respect to general movement. Joseph Pilates called his discipline “Contrology” because it was learning to control the body.
UPDATE: As I thought about it, it occurs to me that the various exercises are designed to focus on a particular muscle or group of muscles, and that the difficulty I had was that The Swan’s focus was a muscle I had not generally used by itself—in moving my arm, I had probably developed a pattern to calling on other muscles, and this particular muscle—the one I couldn’t readily command—just went along for the ride in my normal activities. Being called out specifically showed that I had sort of lost contact with that one. This is consistent with both The Wife and I finding that after some sessions we’re sore in strange places, like inside our thorax at various places—places where we didn’t even know we had muscles. “Strengthening the core” means strengthening (i.e., locating and exercising) muscles that we’ve allowed to atrophy somewhat, but the apparatuses and exercises find those guys—with a good instructor. You’ll not in the video the instructor is constantly offering little corrections and also touching the student’s body lightly—my instructor does the same, instructions and the light touch, which she uses to make sure the right muscles are engaged and working and not slack and resting.
I resume my Pilates today, a duet session with The Wife. I’m looking forward to returning to that. It’s not aerobic (as are the walks), but it definitely helps strength, balance, and flexibility, all important parts of fitness and things that the aging must pay close attention to.
Weight today is down from yesterday’s 185.8 to 184.3. I did finish off about 12 oz of cured ham that I bought along with the duck and pancetta. You’re probably wondering why a guy who’s trying to lose weight would order smoked duck breast, cured ham, and pancetta. I am, too. But it’s gone now, save for the pancetta, which will remain in its wrapping until I arrive at 175 or lower.
I’ve already taken the walk: 5400 steps so far, 20 flights of steps climbed (Fitbit counts each 10′ of ascent as 1 flight). I walk to Pilates as well, and I have to do shopping this afternoon, so comfortably over 6K steps today.
William James famously wrote that we learn to ice skate in the summer and bicycle during the winter, meaning that the acquisition of skills is facilitated by fallow times. I’ve now had a 3-month break from Pilates, with today my first session back.
Some strength has been lost, as I would expect. That will return. Also some flexibility is gone—the tops of my ankles are less flexible now. But, on the whole, it felt good and I felt I could often respond correctly to the instructor’s directions. The studio is a 10-minute walk, and the return is uphill, all to the good.
I’m extremely happy to be back at it.
Tiny bubble still present, will be gone soon. (The time it takes is for the gas to be absorbed; the doctor say the vitreous fluid can be regenerated by the body rapidly—like if he drains the fluid from the “front part” of my eye (whatever that is), it will be replaced within half an hour.
But: no new prescription for glasses for another 5-6 weeks. Even after the bubble’s gone, it takes time for the eye to settle, and his concern with my getting a new prescription next week, say, is that my eyes will change enough that the prescription will have to be redone.
However: I can return to Pilates. I’m hoping to start Wednesday if my instructor still has a spot for me.
From a letter I wrote to a friend:
In the movie Ordinary People, a family has lost their older son in a boating accident, and the younger son (played by Timothy Hutton) goes to see a psychiatrist (Judd Hirsch). It’s a town in Illinois, and Hutton goes upstairs in an office building to a hallway where the psychiatrist’s office is located. He’s standing front of the door (psychiatrist’s name on the frosted glass) when another door, farther down the hall, opens and Hirsch sticks his head out. He says that he’s the psychiatrist Hutton is to see, and to come on in.
So Hutton goes in and they begin the session. Hutton sees his (emotional) problems as a lack of control, so he’s telling Hirsch that he’s come in hopes of increasing his control of his emotions. Uh-oh. Hirsch explains that first, perhaps, they should explore what’s happened and see whether more control really is the answer.
And, of course, it turns out not to be the answer. The movie has nicely symbolized this: Hutton expects that he will go through the obvious door, but it turns out that a different door is opened and is the one he needs to go through.
That sort of thing happens with Pilates: you think you’re just going to get more fit, but it turns out that other doors open.
One thing that I (and, apparently, many Pilates novices) struggle with is that when I am exerting effort with my body I tend to focus my movements and efforts in my upper body: throwing back my head, raising my shoulders, throwing out my ribs. That response is not merely unhelpful, it’s counterproductive: in most of the exercises in which I do this, I should be keeping my spine flat, not arched backward, and the upper body should be more relaxes, being carried along.
Yesterday I was listening to my instructor conducting a class for two other students—I had arrived early—and she was talking about focusing one’s weight and effort away from the upper body, and suddenly I had an image of a bowling ball nested in my pelvis. The image alone immediately made me consciously of my lower-body weight and musculature, the wrappings of muscle that constitute the core.
When my own session started, I kept this image in mind and returned to it repeatedly when my attention drifted and I started to arch my upper body: I would focus again on the bowling ball weight in my pelvis and use that as the anchor and center of my effort and movement.
It seemed to work. The instructor repeatedly said I was doing the exercises with the best form I have shown so far. I did tell her at the end of the lesson the image I was using, which she liked—indeed, she said she’d be using that one. So I offer it for your own consideration.
As I’ve mentioned previously in talking about Pilates, our bodies are tensegrity structures: the bones held in place by tensions along the myofascial merdians: stretchy “ropes” of tendons, ligaments, and muscle fascia providing the tensions, the bones providing the rigidity. Like this:
Cool Tools today discusses some useful (and inexpensive) tools to create your own tensegrity structures.
Tom Myers wrote a book on the tensegrity structure of the human body: Anatomy Trains, which was reviewed at Cool Tools—a review that’s definitely worth reading. In the video below he provides more information on the tensegrity structure of the body—watch it and you can see how Pilates work, which recognizes and exploits the way the strips of muscle, tendons, and ligaments determine our posture and movement, can have such a profound effect on the body.
If you’re interested, you can watch more YouTube videos on tensegrity structures; that list includes some specifically on Tom Myers and his work.
The Man With Two Brains stars Steve Martin (as Dr. Michael Hfurhuhurr) and Kathleen Turner (as his second wife—he’s a widower—who switches from passionate to sociopathic once vows are exchanged). Not a bad movie—I especially like the scene in which he pleads, fruitlessly, for a sign from his dead wife as to whether he should marry Dolores (Turner’s character).
Of course, though we must make do with one brain, we do have two minds, more or less: the conscious and the unconscious. Sometimes they’re in step, sometimes they’re at cross-purposes, and sometimes they seem just a little disconnected.
I was emailing my sister that I seemed to be able to lose weight at a rate (tops) of 2 lbs/week with good compliance to sensible eating, though my actual rate in practice (with some unsensible eating) is more like 1.5 lbs/week. Still, I’m now being extra careful with my meals because I’m just 175.8 lbs and I want to get to 170.
She emailed back to say that was good, that I could reach my goal in 3 weeks.
“Three weeks?!!” I thought. “What the hell? I was sort of thinking by Thursday.” But then I realized: ~6 lbs to lose at 2 lbs/week = 3 weeks.
Clearly my conscious mind—analytic and good at math—”knew” that it would be three weeks, but this had not be communicated somehow to my unconscious mind, so my “gut feeling” (those hunches and feelings that are communiques from the unconscious, as when you “just know” something) was that it would take 5 or 6 days.
That explained why I would get so discouraged: the typical pattern is a plateau for x days, and then amazingly rapid loss for a day or two, then back to slow—averaging out, for me, to around 1.5-2 lbs/week. But my unconscious seemed to be paying attention mostly to the dramatic-change days—naturally enough, those are the days I especially note and enjoy—so it was still with the notion that I could drop pounds rapidly.
Now that I realize the discrepancy and have been back and forth over it, I find that my “gut feeling” is no longer that I’ll achieve goal by Thursday. Indeed, my weight the past three days: 175.8, 175.8, 175.7. And rather than frustrated, I am now feeling, “That’s fine. Progress. It’s going to take three weeks anyway, and a few more days of hovering between 175 and 176 and I’ll suddenly drop to 174 or 173 and hover there for a while. But by mid-October, I’ll hit my 170.”
Live and learn.
So long as we’re talking about minds and brains, I had a little insight last night. Yesterday’s Pilates session was particularly good: I still required almost constant correction, but now I can correct, and am able to quickly adjust. I still can’t quite feel when I’m out of proper form, but on being told what to do, I can make appropriate adjustments. Moreover, my breathing was quite good for the whole session: I was aware of it and could control it, but mostly it just happened, and without effort. And time passed differently: it neither dragged (look at the clock after I feel 20 minutes have passed and see that it’s only been 10) nor went by fast (the reverse). I felt that time was passing at exactly the right rate, so that I felt neither hurried nor that things were dragging along. I’m not sure what being in the moment entails, but I really did enjoy that session.
And the rest of the afternoon and evening, I seemed to move around much better: more controlled, more assured, more economically. Hard to characterize, as you see. And I noticed, as I thought about various things, that I seemed internally to perceive things a little differently, as if from a slightly greater distance or perspective—as if being at a slight elevation, giving me a broader field of view. Again, difficult to describe, but somehow new and different.
It occurs to me that the mind is intimately intertwined with the brain—the mind, near as I can tell, is emergent from the brain’s regular activities (controlling our muscles and bodies and monitoring internal and external stimuli). And it’s perfectly obvious that changes in the brain produce changes in the mind, most notably in brain injuries. One painful example is the personality changes suffered by those whose brains suffered trauma due to explosions, as from IEDs.
Similarly, one expects that new structures, synapses, and networks in the brain would result in some sort of changes to the mind, even if subtle. And changes in the brain’s wiring—new synapses, connections, and networks—regularly occur as we learn new physical skills: those changes are exactly how, for example, we can play fluently a piano piece that was once totally impossible. It takes time to learn the piece because it takes time for the brain to develop the new structures and connections required.
In the case of Pilates, the new connections concern the entire body and a great variety of movements and postures. In addition, Pilates works on specific muscle groups and through the various apparatus helps one locate, train, and control muscles that have been long neglected and over which we had lost conscious control.
With the changes in the brain that result, one would expect some sort of evidence of those changes in the mind. And they do seem to happen—slowly, over time, if one persists.
I mentioned already how Joseph Pilates recommended the use of a no-handle body brush in the shower: brush every bit of your skin, which results in twisting, bending, stretching, stooping—a good little flexibility/balance workout every morning, and we know from shaving that daily practice produces rapid improvement. The skin serves as the mnemonic to ensure you’ve done the job: it’s easy to notice unbrushed skin when you’re inside the skin.
So yesterday I got this brush at Whole Foods. The handle is easy to remove: it is held in the slot only by friction. The bristles are made of tampico fiber: the unbleached skin of the agave plant. The instructions at the first link, like those attached to the brush, have you brush your entire body (face excluded) with the brush before you step into the shower. They claim that dry brushing works better. I liked it because I didn’t like the idea of squirming around in the (slippery) shower (though I do have non-slip stickers on the floor of the tub). Brushing in the bedroom seems safer.
I found a couple of things: you do indeed do a fair amount of twisting and bending; it doesn’t take long; and it feels great. I immediately called The Wife to let her in on this new information, and it turns out that she’s been doing this for years and thought everyone knew about it (thus never once telling me). Indeed, perhaps she’s right, and telling you about this is carrying coals to Newcastle, but it was new to me and I can’t be the only naïf on the planet.
I haven’t done a Pilates post for a while, and I had a thought this morning as I initiated mat exercises at home. (More on them below.)
I don’t know how people view Pilates. I think some see it as a physical fitness thing, which I guess it is, but it is more physical fitness for daily life, with the exercises translating rather directly into daily activities: Pilates teaches you how to hold yourself (posture), how to stand, squat, sit, twist, etc. Certainly there’s muscle strengthening, but they’re strengthened in the course of natural (though systematized) movements: the kinds of movements you make daily. And the strengthening is focused at much at the small muscles as at the large.
In other words, the exercise programs that include things like jumping jacks, push-ups, burpees, and the like are a different kettle of fish altogether. For some of those, fitness is required already.
I think Pilates is much closer to physical therapy than traditional fitness training. The Wife and I were talking to someone recently about Pilates, and they said, “Oh, I have a bad back, so I probably can’t do it.” It was an interesting remark because The Wife herself has a bad back, and Pilates has helped remarkably. The month she was in Paris she was walking constantly, and for the first time in years her back did not bother her. Vacuumiing is something that really hits her back, and this weekend she vacuumed her entire apartment without a break and with no tinge of back problems.
So it’s therapeutic (with the usual caveats: if properly done with a good instructor, yada yada yada). And, as I mentioned, the controlled finish to each exercise helps in the segue from exercise to daily life. But—interestingly—it goes the other direction as well: daily life activities construed as Pilates-like fitness exercises.
For, as I mentioned earlier, one can move and stand in a Pilates manner, and thus that becomes an exercise—as in “you’re exercising what you’ve learned” but also in the sense that doing them right is a good exercise in improving your form.
And it’s even more than than. Pilates in his introduction to A Pilates Primer: Millennium Edition discusses how one should shower. I sort of rolled my eyes as I read. He talks about exfoliation of the skin, using a natural bristle brush, brushing the skin vigorously—I can’t believe I’m reading it, at that point—and then specifies that the brush have no handle. It must be a brush that you grip in your hand. (My eyes are rolling so much that probably only the whites are visible.) But then he explains, and I stand in awe of the economy of his idea: “…[T]his type of brush [no handle - LG] forces us to twist, squirm, and contort ourselves in every conceivable way in our attempts to reach every portion or our body which is otherwise comparatively easy to reach with a handle brush.”
I suddenly get it: Brushing every part of your skin is (in a way) just a mnemonic, like dropping pebbles from your hand as a way of counting laps: drop one pebble as you complete each lap, and when your hand is empty, you’re done. Much easier than trying to count.
And as you twist, stretch, bend, and stoop, using the brush, your skin serves the role of the pebble: did you miss any skin? Well, then, twist, squirm, and stretch to reach the spot you skipped.
It’s so simple: a daily flexibility exercise, easily incorporated into one’s routine, self-checking (did I miss any skin?), and progressive: I can readily see how spots impossible to reach at the outset become easier and easier over time, until we can knock off a complete body brush in no time at all. Moreover, since one is doing that in the tub or shower, it also calls on balance, and I would expect over time that balance will also improve, being exercised as it is.
Very cool. The scrubbing clean and exfoliation can almost be seen as secondary to the flexibility exercise.
I settled down to do the mat exercises after the shower, and I quickly confused myself. So I’ve decided to do only the first mat exercise (the hundreds) initially, and I’ll ask for my instructor to check my form. Once I get it solid, I’ll add the second exercise, similarly getting coaching. And so on.
You may think I’m rather late starting the at-home exercises, and you’re doubtless correct. But I did want to be sure that I was doing things in good form (I wrecked a shoulder doing a kettlebell with bad form). Now that I am actually starting to feel my posture and skeletal structure in movement—or at least to become aware of those feelings—I think I can start exercising at home and rely somewhat on my awareness to correct mistakes—along with specific coaching from my instructor, exercise by exercise, over the next few weeks.
I’m also using The Complete Book of Pilates for Men, which has the same exercises as the book listed above, but with slightly different explanations, sometimes quite helpful. Moreover, in this book exercises are specified for beginning, intermediate, and advanced exercisers. So right now I’m doing only the beginning, and only the first one of those. So far as I can tell, nothing about the book is specific to men: women could use it equally well. It’s just the Pilates exercises.
For those coming in late, I started Pilates last November. I recently took an enforced month off (sprained ankle) and for the past couple of weeks have been doing 3 sessions a week (one joint session with The Wife, two private sessions) at Lighthouse Pilates. “Pilates” classes are available inexpensively at the Monterey Sports Center, but they are classes of 20-30 and use none of the Pilates equipment.
While Joe Pilates said that everything can be done with mat exercises, he also spent considerable time, effort, and ingenuity in creating various apparatuses to isolate various muscle groups and/or enforce certain postures. As you can see at the link, LIghthouse Pilates is a fully equipped studio.
Moreover, form is everything, and the first few months I did my exercises the instructor would correct my form when that was needed. So I did my exercises accompanied by a more or less constant stream of corrections.
But lately that has changed, and more and more I’m starting to get it.
For one thing, as William James observed, we develop our habits and skills during fallow times—as he said, we learn to ice skate in the summer and to bicycle in the winter. After working hard to master a skill, taking a few weeks off and then resuming is highly enlightening. It’s as though the time off allows the movements and motions to be digested and integrated, so that when you return, things are better.
For another: Sometimes a chance remark will open a door, as it were, so through that small remark you enter into a vast new understanding. I blogged earlier that my instructor told me that, on ending an exercise, you do not simply relax and go loose: you instead maintain the control, muscle activation, and posture from the exercise. The point of the exercise is to teach you/your body something about how it should move and stand in daily life—that’s the point. The exercise is just a way to get there. So as you end the exercise, you enter the Real Deal: daily life. So use what you’ve just been exercising.
Man, those two things—the time off and the new understanding about the exercise (gained through the simple statement, “Don’t just relax when the exercise is over. Keep using it.”) have made a huge difference. Today I kept doing things right.
Not that I didn’t require correction. On the contrary, I still needed a lot of help. The big difference is that (a) I now understand the help, and (b) I can actually do some of the things the instructor tells me to do.
So: If you’re interested in Pilates, my advice is to find a highly qualified instructor with a well-equipped studio, take lessons at least twice a week, and better thrice a week for the first month or so, and after about 10 months, take four weeks off (spraining ankle is optional, and I advise against it) and then return to thrice a week for a while. And, from the outset, attempt to end each exercise with a continuing sense of control.
That’s my experience, at any rate. Amazing discipline. It’s not exactly fitness, but I don’t know what to call it. Pilates called it “Contrology.”
UPDATE: After writing the above, I continued to putter about the apartment, made dinner, and so on—always consciously trying to move and stand with posture and movement as learned on the equipment. I could really distinctly feel the difference when I was standing or moving correctly, in good alignment, with my spine stacked, arms hanging relaxed, shoulders relaxed instead of tense. (Like one huge category of people, I focus a lot on my upper body, keeping my shoulders tense, my chest raised, and so on—difficult to describe and difficult to feel until you feel an alternative through something like Pilates.)
So I sort of played with it, of course, slumping into my usual posture, then standing straight in good Pilates form. The differences in how it felt were, as I indicate, remarkable.
Later, sitting in my chair, I repeated a move from one of the exercises today: turning my head slowly from one side to the other without moving my shoulders: just turning my head on my spine.
I was able to do it, and I was observing how smooth the movement is. The idea is that the skull simply turns in its position atop the spin, with the neck turning but nothing else: no shoulder movement.
As I said, very smooth from side to side, so I added tilting it down and then back, then side to side, then sort of rolling it, visualizing still shoulders, skull moving at the top of the stacked spine.
And then I suddenly felt, in a strange, novel way, my skeletal structure: I could sort of feel (internally) the rigidity of the bones in there—skull, spine, clavicle, scapula, arms simply hanging at the sides. I was aware of the way I pulled, using muscle attachments, to move the framework.
I tell you, it was pretty weird. Once I had the feeling and could focus in on it, it became more distinct. I got up, stood, walked some—all while feeling this skeletal structure and how my muscles/ligaments would pull this way and that to keep the framework aligned and doing what I wanted.
I admit that it freaked me out a bit. A totally novel body sensation, a body awareness of a type I had not experienced. I called The Wife to report this in case someone should be keeping an eye on me, and I was reassured to learn that she had had the same experience from time to time while doing Feldenkrais exercises: as you pay attention to posture and movement, doing specific exercises and working toward good form, you naturally strengthen and increase your awareness of what you’re doing as you bring your consciousness to bear on what normally are actions taken unconsciously. Doing this frequently seems to sort of expand the range of consciousness, to include some body control options that previously were handled totally by the unconscious, with no conscious awareness.
People who are more involved with their bodies and have practiced control may well be familiar with these sensations, and doubtless their consciousness has long since expanded to allow more conscious control of movement—I’m thinking here of dancers, athletes, practitioners of things like yoga, Feldenkreis, and (apparently) Pilates. But I’m not one of those people—at least I haven’t been. I’m bookish. Marching band rather than football. In fact, no sports participation at all until college, where I did some fencing. But, let’s face it, St. John’s is a bookish college.
So all this is highly novel to me. People experienced in this sort of thing are doubtless amused by the newcomer’s delight in things that have become common to them: I’m like the city boy on his first trip to a farm. “My God!” I shout, “That bird! It’s enormous!” The farmers turn to look and see a chicken. But I do want to report my journey and discoveries.
I feel a little embarrassed at how long it took me to grasp that the exercises are supposed to be put into practice. Obviously, in my daily life, I don’t lie on my back on a little carriage held in place by springs and push it back and forth using my arms pulling straps through pulleys, or my legs pushing on a bar. But that position and apparaturs is just to allow me to pay attention to (and develop) muscles and ligaments moving my body in a particular posture. Though I won’t have carriage, spring, and straps as I go about my daily life, I certainly will be using muscles and ligaments to arrange my body in particular postures, and part of the point of Pilates is to learn to do these correctly—all of it: muscles, movement, and posture.
I suppose I was viewing the sessions like band practice: go in, do it, and then you’re through until the next session. (I wasn’t much for practicing at home, even then.) But in fact, I finally realize, that sessions are instructions and all non-session time is practice time. When I’m not in sessions, I should be paying attention, with instructor corrections in mind, to my posture, movement, and body. I’m finally starting to do that, apparently, just by the accumulation of awareness from the sessions. Now that I grasp I can do this on purpose, as it were, things should improve faster.
[Update: I had a little insight this morning: My previous exercise routines in search of fitness included many exercises that were NOT directly related to daily activity: I don't occasionally find in my daily routine that it's necessary to do jumping jacks, push-ups, burpees, or the like. But the Pilates exercises all involve movements and movement patterns that occur in daily life: standing, bending, squatting, leaning, and the like. - LG]
If this catches your interest, I highly recommend A Pilates Primer: The Millenium Edition, by Joseph Pilates and William Miller. It includes a complete set of mat exercises and also discusses awareness of the sort I’m gradually developing.
I’m (very) gradually becoming aware of how these movements and exercises work. One interesting lesson today: at the end of the exercise, recovery must be as controlled and balanced as the exercise itself. For example, I was standing with “Cossack arms” (folded in front of me as if for a Russian dance) in front of the Wunda chair, standing with one foot on the ground, the other, heel raised, ball of foot on the springboard. The exercise is to stand straight, and move the springboard up and down, while you are completely balanced.
I do a number of these, and then when the exercise was over, I raised the springboard, then relaxed and went floppy and got off.
No. Wrong. Instead, raise the springboard, then remain balanced with muscles working to maintain stance, remove foot from springboard once the board has returned to its rest position and place foot next to the unmoving foot, all the while maintaining posture and control.
Very different. The instructor said that a lot of learning takes place in the controlled finish of the exercise and that sometimes that finish is the point of the exercise: you do the movements to get your body ready to hit that note, as it were.
This reminds me of the flashcard idea that you continue to keep a flashcard in the current session until you get it right, even if you’re down to that one card, saying the answer, looking, getting it wrong, then do the card again—you don’t top until you get the answer right because at that instant, getting the answer right sort of cements the answer in place.
I got my MacBook Pro back. They replaced the mother board. Hard-drive data unaffected. So I guess it wasn’t a switch. It’s a great relief to have it back, but having it gone forced me to the PC, so I made good progress on the 5th edition.
Yesterday I went to Pilates—it felt great to be back at it—and today I bicycled to downtown for a haircut. So gradually physical exercise is returning to the picture. I also got my Rebok wobble board, as advised by a commenter. It’s really quite cool—and just $16 (no shipping for Prime people). I have just stood on it (while clinging to a chair).
While I was out I looked for the stuff that Steve talked about, but I couldn’t find it, so I guess I’ll have to order some.
The Pilates session today went quite well. Surprisingly (to me) often, I could make the appropriate correction when it was pointed out, and in a couple of instances could sense the difference from making a small adjustment of angle in posture. And we did a lot of work—some of the exercises become much harder when you do them right (as opposed to, say, weightlifting: easier when done right, harder when done wrong).
The result was that I came home, tilted back in the chair, and fell into a profound (and restorative) slumber for an hour.
Yesterday I went a little overboard with the yogurt and the olive oil in the tomato-watermelon salad, so today I’ve been scrupulous. Standard breakfast, one plum plus one apricot for each snack, and a green salad for lunch with tuna. Coming in to make dinner, I was definitely peckish, the no-bites rule in full effect. And I didn’t want any more added oil. So, time for food improv. I started adding to my two-quart sauté pan:
1/4 large sweet onion, chopped
6-8 large cloves garlic, chopped finely (but larger than minced)
1/2 small can tomato paste (opened to show Terry the Rösle can opener in action)
1/2 cup red wine
1/2 cup water
2 small yellow zucchini, diced
1 small Italian eggplant, diced
3-4 oz boneless skinless chicken breast, cut into chunks
1 bunch Italian parsley, chopped
At this point I added more water, mixed the above, and started looking around for more to add. Some discoveries were made in a search for mushrooms, which I unfortunately did not have.
~2 Tbsp homemade pepper sauce
multiple lashings of freshly ground pepper
~1-2 Tbsp Mexican oregano, crushed
2 Tbsp capers
4 leaves red chard, with stalks, chopped
5-6 anchovies packed in a jar, chopped (for umami, obviously)
~10-12 pitted Saracena olives, drained and chopped
~3/4 c grape olives, whole (last-minute discovery and addition)
I stirred that up and decided that it was too thick for my first thought, which was to add some cut pasta to cook in the sauce. So instead I got out my little 1-qt saucepan and made 1/2 cup converted rice (low glycemic index), which is two servings: eat half for dinner tonight, let the rest dry a bit for stir-fry tomorrow.
After 20 minutes the rice was done, and I turned off the burner let the pan sit covered for 10 minutes more. (Hunger is the best sauce, so the delay has gastronomic goals.)
A serving spoon of rice into a bowl, fill with the sauce, and the thought of shaved Parmesan struck me—but I have none. OTOH, I do have Pt. Reyes Blue leftover from the tomato-watermelon salad, and I thought, “Blue, gorgonzola, Parmesan, what’s the diff?” and crumbled some on top.
OMG it’s good. Incredibly rich tasting—a combination of the tomato paste, red wine, anchovies, Pt. Reyes Blue, and all the rest. I added no salt at all, and it didn’t seem to need any. I felt I was dining high on the hog tonight.
It makes a tremendous amount, as well: two large meals, at least. Yet in theory that’s food for one meal.
Tough session today. It’s very hard for me to be body-conscious—knowing which muscles are working and which are slack, and how to activate a muscle. Obviously, I know the overt ones: working my bicep with a curl and the link. But when you start talking about muscles in and around my chest and abdomen, I’m not so connected with those. And in particular when you talk about effort along myofascial meridians—an effort that starts in the foot and exerts tension along a myfascial linkage up into the middle of your back: that I don’t feel so well.
I asked my instructor today, who was laboring mightily to get my form correct, whether it was the case that athletically oriented people grasp the Pilates moves more quickly. I learned (a) not necessarily: she was quite athletic when she started Pilates—skiing, bicycling, swimming, and the like—and it was incredibly difficult for her and for a long time she knew she was the worst student in a group, though after a year she had begun to learn good form and finally another student joined who was even worse than she; she also found it was necessary to acknowledge that she had a lot to learn, which for a successful competitive athlete is not so easy an admission; and (b) quite a few athletes simply never consider Pilates. She said she can watch tennis matches and tell which players have done Pilates and which have not, and the same for dancers. Those who have not are not so effective in their movements and lack a core of stability.
I am doing exercises now on my own, but I think I’ll be continuing with the formal coaching sessions for a long time—otherwise I’m quite sure I’d be doing the exercises ineffectively, with bad form.
If you are interested in doing Pilates, see if you can find a good instructor and get some professional coaching along the way. At least for me, correct form has been quite elusive, though more and more frequently I am able to do it for a repetition or even two in succession.
As I learned with Spanish and with learning the practical lessons of weight control: slow and steady wins the race and persistence pays off. Impatience is the enemy of success, especially since it seems frequently to lead to quitting (because the rate of improvement is not so fast as we want it to be).
After learning for the 10th or 20th time that restricting food intake without exercising doesn’t lose any weight, I went for a 30-minute walk. Lovely sunny day, light breezes, on the warm side (72ºF), and I have recently learned how to walk—my Pilates teacher spent some time showing me, and I realize that I’ve not really been using my feet but rather swinging them at the end of my legs like sacks of sand. The feet should be doing considerable work—and my stride shortened when I tried walking per her instructions.
I also broke the ice on Pilates mat exercises: this morning I did just two, and only two repetitions of each, but that’s enough to get me going. Tomorrow I’ll do more reps of each and perhaps add one. I have The Everything Pilates Book, but I started the exercises from The Complete Book of Pilates for Men: The Lifetime Plan for Strength, Power & Peak Performance. It garnered good reviews, and the first two exercises seem quite good. I particularly like (and find useful) the paragraphs describing what your various muscles should be doing. Sometimes it’s hard to grasp.
I’m gradually starting to understand the power of persistence. I tend to develop new interests quickly, and these can eat up available time, crowding out earlier interests. I had not thought much about the benefits of sticking with the old. But now I’m experiencing success not from intense effort, but from moderate effort sustained over weeks and months.
Quite a while back I realized that when people change it doesn’t happen with the speed of insight but at the pace of plant growth. Because of my interest in novelty, I’ve tended to overvalue insight—when one suddenly grasps an overall pattern or an explanatory connection. Insights are a great pleasure and quite useful, but they don’t get the job done. A friend who was a product manager for computer games valued a great game idea at somewhere around 2%-4% of the game’s worth. The idea is important, but 96%-98% of bringing the game to market and making it a success belongs to the effort to realize the idea: test the concept, design the interface, write the code, test everything, write supporting materials and develop a marketing campaign, etc. The idea amounts to less than the tip of the iceberg. There must be an idea to start the process, but—let’s face it—ideas are a dime a dozen. The value almost always in the work that transforms the idea into a real product.
I enjoy having ideas, but quite often my work in bringing an idea into practice has been interrupted by new ideas, making it difficulty to stay on task. And even when I could stay on task, I generally had in mind making a big push for a week or so: a sprint rather than going for distance and duration.
What I’ve experienced over the past year is that quite substantial changes can follow from a persistent albeit low-key effort. For example, my weight loss: it took one year to reach my current weight and, more important, my current habits and perceptions. Learning Spanish: It will take 18 months for three semesters of Spanish, along with a modest daily time investment (the Anki review each morning: once around 20 minutes a day, it’s now about 10-15, but it is indeed a daily exercise). Pilates I do twice a week now (though for a couple of months early on I did three times a week—I’m going to add a couple of sessions a week of floor exercises at home Real Soon Now.
But those three examples are enough to convince me of the value of persisting and the magnitude of what a persistent effort can accomplish even if the daily gains seem small.
I just became aware that my sleep requirement has dropped 20%: a year ago I required 10 hours a night, and now I’m fine with 8. I can think of three factors that probably contribute:
a. I have had mild sleep apnea, which disrupts sleep and prevents sufficient deep sleep. Extra fat exacerbates sleep apnea, so losing this much weight undoubtedly reduced or eliminated the apnea. I think this is probably the major factor.
b. Because I now weigh less, it takes a lot less energy to move around, so I’m not so tired—and,
c. What with the 30-minute walks and the Pilates, I’m in significantly better shape than I was, so again: not so tired. And a more efficient body would not require so much down time to rebuild, it seems to me—i.e., a more efficient body even rests more efficiently.
Anyway, it’s nice because I find myself needing more hours than the day holds. I started running through in my head the things I want to do each day, and finally had to make a list: study Spanish (I want to learn well all the second semester vocabulary this summer, so I need to work at that daily), write letters, blog, keep up with a few Go games on Dragongoserver.net, read books (top of queue currently: The Will of Zeus, L.A. Noir, and Incognito, but then things get added, typically references from books or magazines I read (I subscribe to (and regularly read) New Yorker, New Scientist, Atlantic Monthly, The Week, BusinessWeek, and Wired and keep up: get the magazine, read what I want, and toss, with about an 80% success rate—plus, of course, I have my regular daily on-line reading (NY Times, LA Times, Salon.com, Pogonotomy shaving forum, and a slew of feeds from blogs and on-line columnists))—and, I suddenly remember (see how I’m already getting better at this memory thing?) that I want to read, but even more, to study and learn—memorize, if necessary—the three books I have on memory technique: Higbee, Buzan, and Lorayne), watch movies, take the 30-minute walk, go to Pilates and also start doing some Pilates mat exercises at home, which means having to read the excellent book The Everything Pilates Book (it’s out of print, but inexpensive used copies are available at the link as of the time and date of this post), write the weight-loss book, revise the shaving book, shop for and cook interesting lunches and dinners (breakfast is more or less fixed), putter, relax, and take time to smell the roses. Plus I want to somehow work in getting back to Esperanto—perhaps once the Spanish feels solid in a year or two.
Maybe I’m biting off more than I can chew?
Very good Pilates session today, moving into the 7th month. Today I finally figured out some moves, doing them correctly for the first time. This was a private session, and the instructor took me through a carefully selected sequence of exercises, carrying forward into each some things I learned in the previous one in the sequence.
What I got is hard to explain, especially for me who lack full understanding, but the first thing I noticed was that I was able to tighten some abdominal muscles that are very low in my abdomen, just above the pubic bone, and that seemed to do good things. Also I was finally able to relax my head and neck and upper body, which continually demands to be part of the action, even if I’m working with my legs.
At any rate, I felt a definite sense of progress. That six-month point seems to hold. In this case, I think it has taken quite a while for the muscles I was never using to develop to the point where they could take on their proper role, and a little more time to convince my head, neck, and upper body that everything was under control and that could relax.
It’s still intermittent, of course. Just like any change of habit (and certainly we follow habitual patterns of body movement), at first you recognize that you’ve done it wrong again, and then that you’re doing wrong at the time you’re doing it, and then that you’re about to do it wrong. Slowly things get learned.
If you go for Pilates, which certainly has worked for me, give it at least 8 months.