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How Pilates Helps to Boost Immunity and Wellbeing

by Lynne Robinson(more info)

listed in pilates, originally published in issue 237 - April 2017

Famous for improving posture, joint mobility and core stability, can we can add to the list of benefits better health and immunity? The answer is a resounding ‘yes’. In addition to working on your musculoskeletal system, Pilates exercises also help you cope with stress and help to make your lymphatic and respiratory systems more efficient.

Let’s start with the immune system. Your lymphatic and respiration systems are crucial to your immune system. The immune system  is a collection of billions of cells that travel through the bloodstream. These cells move in and out of tissues and organs, defending the body against foreign bodies (antigens), such as bacteria, viruses and cancerous cells. When we’re stressed, the immune system’s ability to fight off antigens is reduced. That is why we are more susceptible to infections and potentially cancer.

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Our lymphatic system is basically our body’s waste disposal system. During normal metabolic processes, cells produce waste products, which need to be removed so that the cells can stay healthy and nutrients can reach the cells. Lymph is the fluid that contains the toxins, so lymph has to be removed and cleaned. Toxins are filtered out by lymph nodes situated all around the body (mostly by our joints). The lymph is then carried by vessels back to the thoracic ducts (just by the collarbones), where the cleaned lymph is returned to the bloodstream.

What Happens in a Pilates Class to Improve your Immunity?

Although it has millions of vessels just like the blood system, the lymphatic system has no strong pump to keep lymph moving. Instead, lymph is moved by breathing, walking, intestinal activity, and muscle action. The rhythmic movements of a Pilates session stimulate blood flow and lymph flow. Throughout your Pilates class, as your muscles contract and release, lymph vessels are squeezed and lymph is pushed along and filtered through lymph nodes on its way back to the veins and the heart.

Pilates Scarf Breathing Sitting Exhalation

Pilates Scarf Breathing Sitting Exhalation

Pilates breathing is another key factor in good health. One of the first things you learn in a Pilates class is how to breathe better, as most of us breathe far too shallowly. You must create space for the ribs to expand, by standing or sitting tall, then breathe wide and deep into your back and sides, thus maximising lung capacity. To breathe correctly you must completely exhale and inhale, always trying very hard to ‘squeeze’ every atom of impure air from your lungs in much the same manner that you would wring every drop of water from a wet cloth.’ . Joseph Pilates wrote that this type of breathing  ‘supplies the blood stream with vitally necessary life giving oxygen ...and stimulates all muscles into greater activity. Therefore, above all, learn to breathe correctly.’  Below we have given you some breathing exercises to do. Practice these on their own and then remember this new efficient way of breathing as you do the other exercises.

The link between chronic prolonged stress and illness is well known and anyone who does regular Pilates will be familiar with its beneficial impact on mental health.. For me there is a moment, normally about 5 minutes into a session, when suddenly I feel in control of everything (not just my alignment, breathing and core) and the world seems a better place.

And whilst Pilates devotees have enjoyed this calming effect for years, we’ve never really known why it happens. But in August 2016 neuroscientists at the University of Pittsburgh* discovered something which may explain why  Pilates , yoga and meditation help us cope with mental, emotional and physical stress.

The Pittsburgh researchers traced the neural circuitry that links areas of the cerebral cortex to the adrenal medulla (part of the adrenal gland) . Their experiments revealed multiple cortical areas with the biggest influences arising from motor areas. The relevance of this is linked to our ’fight or flight’ response to stressful situations.  Stress these days tends to be more subtle than the woolly mammoths our ancestors faced and requires more subtle responses. (best not to throw a spear at your bank manager!)

“Because we have a cortex we have options. If someone insults you, you don’t have to punch them or flee. You might have a more nuanced response and ignore the insult or make a witty comeback. These options are part of what the cerebral cortex provides.” says Peter L Strick PhD Thomas Detre Chair of Neurobiology and scientific director of the University of Pittsburgh Brain Institute. Interestingly, the research revealed that it is the motor areas in the cerebral cortex involved in the planning and performance of movement that provide significant input to the adrenal medulla. And one of these areas is the primary motor cortex that, in turn, also controls axial body movement and posture. No wonder we feel so relaxed after a session. Even a few exercises done thoughtfully can promote feelings of calm and happiness.

Joseph Pilates. Return to Life through Contrology. Bodymind Publishing. 1998.

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences August 2016.

 

The Pilates Bible

 

Exercises to Boost your Immunity and Sense of Wellbeing

  • Scarf Breathing and 100 breathing The Pilates Bible female or Pilates for Life male
  • Relaxation position The Pilates Bible female or Pilates for Life female. Male model  top photo Pilates for Life
  • Chin tucks and Neck rolls Pilates Bible (female) or Pilates for Life (male
  • Shoulder drops The Pilates Bible
  • Arm Circles  Female (me!) Pilates Bible ..could probably find a male or younger model if necessary 
  • Spine curls The Pilates Bible
  • Knee circles Pilates Bible (male model) or Pilates Bible (me again)
  • 100 The Pilates Bible variation so photos 1 and variation only
  • Arm Openings The Pilates Bible
  • Star Pilates Bible (female) 
  • Rest position Pilates for life (female)
  • Side reach Pilates for Life  female

Pilates Scarf Breathing

Scarf Breathing and The Hundred Breathing

The scarf gives you sensory feedback to help you feel your ribcage expanding and closing with your breath.

Equipment: A scarf, stretch band or large towel

Sit or stand tall and wrap a scarf or stretch band around the lower part of your ribs, crossing it over at the front. Hold the opposite ends of the scarf and gently pull it tight.

The Inhalation

As you breathe in, focus on the back and the sides of the ribcage where your lungs are located.  Like balloons swelling gradually with air, your lungs will expand and widen the walls of your ribcage. Do not be tempted to force this inhalation as you will only create tension. You should feel the scarf tightening as your ribs expand.

It is not only the filling up of the lungs that expands your ribcage, but also the descent of the diaphragm, lowering into your abdominal area. Therefore your abdominal area will extend outwards.

Try to breathe in through your nose and keep your shoulders relaxed.

The Exhalation

As you breathe out, feel the air gently being pushed out fully as if from the very bottom of your lungs and eventually exit your body via your mouth with a deep sigh. You may also breathe out through your nose if it feels more natural.

Your diaphragm will begin to rise and you should feel your ribcage reactively beginning to close as your lungs empty.

Do not puff your cheeks or purse your lips, as this will tense the neck, jaw and face and waste energy.

100 breathing ; once you’ve mastered this lateral type of breathing try breathing in for up to a count of 5 and out fully for up to a count of 5.

 

Relaxation Position b

 

The Relaxation Position

Use this wonderful exercise to remind yourself of the Fundamentals of Pilates Alignment, Breathing and Centering and also to help you release unwanted tension. It is also the starting position for many of our exercises.

Equipment: A folded towel

Starting position

Lie on a mat on your back with your knees bent, feet hip-width apart and parallel.  Have a folded towel under your head to keep your head and neck in line with your spine. Check that your pelvis is level (neutral) and your spine retains its natural curves. Arms are lengthened by your sides or resting on your abdomen. Breathe... wide and full into the back and sides of your ribcage, noticing how your ribs expand with the in breath and close with the out breath.

Action

  1. Breathe wide into the ribcage;
  2. Breathe out, and gently engage your pelvic floor muscles drawing from back to front and up inside like an internal zip until you feel your lower abdomen hollow slightly  (this connects your core muscles);
  3. Breathe in and release your ‘core zip.’

Repeat but this time; try adding a few breaths as you hold the internal zip before releasing.

In the exercises below you will use this core zip as when and if you need to in order to control your alignment and movements.

 

Pilates Chin Tucks Neck Rolls

Chin Tucks and Neck Rolls

There are a lot of lymph nodes around the neck and collarbones so we want to gently mobilize the area.

Equipment (a folded towel optional)

Starting position

The Relaxation Position, lengthening your arms by the side of your body on the mat.

Action

  1. Breathe in, preparing your body to move;
  2. Breathe out as you lengthen the back of the neck and nod your head forwards, drawing the chin down. Keep your head in contact with the mat;
  3. Breathe in as you tip your head back gently, passing through the mid-position without stopping, to slightly extend your neck. Once again keep the back of the head in contact with the mat as the chin glides upwards; this is a small and subtle movement.

Repeat the above five times and then find the mid-position where your head is neither tipped back or forwards and your neck is neither flexed nor extended. This is neutral, with your face and your focus both directed towards the ceiling.

Neck Rolls

Follow the above directions then ..

  1. Breathe out as you keep your neck released and roll your head to one side. Again, make sure that you keep your head in contact with the mat;
  2. Breathe in as you roll your head back to the centre.

Repeat to the other side and repeat the Neck Roll up to five times before returning your head back to the centre with even length on both sides of your neck.

Watchpoints

  • Maintain length in your neck, especially as you tip your head backwards;
  • As you draw the chin down, ensure that the back of the head slides along the mat as opposed to simply pressing the back of the neck into the mat;
  • Alternate which side you roll to each time you include the exercise in a workout.

Shoulder Drops

 

Shoulder Drops

Fabulous for releasing tension in the shoulders. Enjoy!

Starting Position

Relaxation Position. Raise both arms vertically above your chest, shoulder-width apart, with your palms facing one another.

Use your core (zip) appropriately to control your alignment and movement.

Action

  1. Breathe in as you reach one arm up towards the ceiling, peeling the shoulder blade away from the mat.
  2. Breathe out as you gently release the arm back down, returning the shoulder blade back onto the mat.

Repeat up to ten times, alternating arms.

Watch points

  • Keep your pelvis and spine, stable and still throughout;
  • Keep your neck long and free from tension; your head remains still and heavy throughout.

Arm Circles

Arm circles

Once again we are targeting an area with a lot of lymph nodes.

Starting Position

The Relaxation Position, lengthening your arms by the side of your body on the mat.

Use your core (zip) appropriately to control your alignment and movement.

Action

  1. Breathe in wide and full to your back and sides;
  2. Breathe out as you raise both arms firstly above the chest, and then reach them overhead towards the mat. Focus on softly closing down the ribcage as you exhale;
  3. Breathe in as you circle your arms out to the side and down towards the body. As the arms return to the starting position, turn your palms to the mat;

Repeat up to five times and then reverse the direction.

Watchpoints

  • Keep your pelvis and spine, stable and still throughout. Be particularly careful not to allow your upper spine to arch as you reach your arms overhead;
  • Fully lengthen your arms but avoid locking your elbows;
  • As the arms circle, keep them on the same plane to help maintain openness in the front of the shoulder joints. 

Spine Curls

This feel good exercise works your abdominals and tones the buttocks.

Starting position

The Relaxation Position as above.

Use your core (zip) appropriately to control your alignment and movement.

Action

  1. Breathe in wide to the ribcage;
  2. Breathe out and tilt your pelvis back, curling first the  tailbone, then peeling each and every bone up from the mat until you reach shoulder blade level;
  3. Breathe in at the top;
  4. Breathe out as, one by one, you return the vertebra to the mat, lengthening as you roll out the spine until your pelvis is level again.

Repeat 8 times.

Watchpoints

  • Keep both sides of your waist equally long;
  • Keep the weight even on both feet and do not allow your feet to roll in or out.

Knee Circles

Knee Circles

The groin is another area with a high concentration of lymph nodes.

Starting Position

The Relaxation Position. Fold one leg in towards your body with stability and bend the knee further, fully relaxing the lower leg;

Use your core (zip) appropriately to control your alignment and movement.

Action

  1. Breathing naturally and at your own pace, begin to circle your leg towards the midline of the body and then continue to circle the leg down, around and back up to the Starting Position. Draw your leg in as close to the body as is possible without disturbing the pelvis.

Repeat up to five times and then reverse the direction.

To finish, return your knee so that it is in line with the hip joint and then, maintaining a stable pelvis return your leg to the mat to finish in the Relaxation Position.

Repeat with the other leg, five times in each direction.

Watchpoints

  • Keep your pelvis and spine, stable and still throughout; focus on the independent movement of the thigh bone in the hip socket;
  • Remain still in the supporting leg, without tension;
  • Keep your chest and the front of your shoulders open and avoid any tension in your neck area;
  • Begin with small circles, about the size of a grapefruit, and work up to larger circles as you learn to gain more control.

The Hundred

The  Hundred 

This is a challenging exercise so please only attempt it if you have Pilates experience and good stability and flexibility. A good alternative is the variation for Scarf Breathing above.  The rhythmical breathing and beating of the arms gets your heart pumping and the blood flowing.

Avoid if you have neck problems.

Starting Position

The Relaxation Position. Fold one knee up at a time with stability, keeping your heels connected and your feet softly pointed, open your knees slightly. Pelvis stays still.

Breathe in wide and as your breathe out, nod your head and sequentially wheel your neck and upper body off the mat into a Curl Up position.  Maintaining the length in the arms, raise them slightly from the mat

Use your core (zip) appropriately to control your alignment and movement.

Action

  1. Breathe in for a count of five, and remaining curled up, beat the arms up and down five times;
  2. Breathe out for a count of five, focus on a full exhalation, and again beat the arms up and down five times.

Repeat ten times.

To finish, roll your upper spine and head back down to the mat and then maintaining a stable pelvis return your feet to the mat to finish in the Relaxation Position.

Watchpoints

  • Focus on the ribs gently expanding on the inhalation and drawing together on the exhalation;
  • Allow your collarbones and shoulder blades to widen, but keep a connection of the shoulder blades to the back of the ribcage;
  • Keep your shoulders and neck free from tension throughout;
  • Maintain length in your neck, and keep your head still. Focus down onto your abdominal area;
  • Keep your arms straight and lengthened but be careful not to lock your elbows;
  • Lengthen through your hands and fingers. The arm, wrist, and hand move as one and the movement comes purely from your shoulder joint.

Arm Openings

Arm Openings

Probably the most popular Body Control Pilates exercise ever. It ‘opens’ out your upper body and teaches you to control your spine as it rotates (Great for golfers!)

Starting Position

Lie on your left side and place a pillow under your head. Bend both knees in front of you so that your hips and knees are bent to a right angle and stacked over each other. Lengthen both arms out in front of your body at shoulder height.

Use your core (zip) appropriately to control your alignment and movement.

Action

  1. Breathe in as you raise the top arm towards the ceiling, keeping it straight, simultaneously roll your head and neck;
  2. Breathe out as you continue to rotate your head and upper spine to the right, carry your right arm with your spine and open it further towards the mat. Your knees and pelvis remain still;
  3. Breathe in as you rotate your head, spine and arm back to the left until it is above your shoulder;
  4. Breathe out as return to the Starting Position.

Repeat up to five times, and then repeat on the other side.

Watchpoints

  • Ensure correct alignment in your side-lying starting position: shoulder above shoulder, hip above hip, knee above knee and foot above foot;
  • Ensure that your pelvis remains stable throughout;
  • Keep lengthening the spine; avoid arching in your back or shortening in your waist.

Star

Star

We are still working on opening both the chest and the groin area.

Starting Position

Lie on your front, rest your forehead on the mat. Your legs are straight, slightly wider than hip-width and turned out from the hips. Reach both arms above your head, slightly wider than shoulder-width and resting on the mat, your palms facing down.

Breathe in, preparing your body to move, and, as you breathe out, lift your head and chest slightly off the mat to extend your upper spine.

Use your core (zip) appropriately to control your alignment and movement.

Action

  1. Breathe in and lengthen your lifted spine;
  2. Breathe out and, maintaining the position and stability of the spine, raise one arm and the opposite leg slightly off the mat;
  3. Breathe in as you lower your arm and leg back down to the mat, again maintaining the lift and length of the upper body.

Repeat up to ten times, alternating arms and legs.

Watchpoints

  • Raise your arm and leg only as high as you can maintain a stable and still pelvis and spine;
  • Keep your chest lifted away from the mat and the chest open. Your lower ribs should remain in contact with the mat and should also remain square; avoid any rocking in this area;
  • Lengthen the arm forwards as it rises up, but avoid your shoulder over elevating and creating tension;
  • Fully lengthen your arms and legs but avoid locking your elbows and knees.

Rest Position

Rest Position

Here we are focusing on deepening your breath and gently stretching out your back.

Starting Position

From your Star position come up into Four-point Kneeling

Action

  1. Breathe in, prepare your body, lengthen your spine and bring your feet slightly closer together;
  2. Breathe out as you begin to fold at your hips and direct your buttocks backwards and down. Maintain the position of your hands on the mat and lengthen your arms. Ideally rest your sitting bones onto the heels, your chest onto the thighs and your forehead onto the mat;
  3. Breathe in and direct the breath into the back and the sides of your ribs and feel the ribcage progressively expand;
  4. Breathe out, fully emptying your lungs and focus on closing the ribs down and together.

Repeat up to ten times.

To finish, breathe out and begin by rolling your pelvis underneath you and then sequentially roll and restack your spine to an upright position, sitting back onto the heels.

Watchpoints

  • Although this is a resting position, avoid total collapse, maintain a sense of length and activity in the position;
  • Avoid opening your knees too wide, the thighs should be slightly apart and underneath the ribcage;
  • If your spine is a little stiff or if you have any knee problems it may be necessary to place a cushion in between your bottom and the heels to allow the torso to release.

Standing  Side Reach

This is a fabulous feel good exercise to both stretch and work your sides. It also mobilizes your spine and  shoulders.

Starting Position

Stand tall on the floor with your feet slightly wider than hip width apart.

Use your core (zip) appropriately to control your alignment and movement.

Action

  1. Breathe in and raise one arm out to the side and above your head, Feel the shoulder blades widen as you raise the arm and make sure that you do not hunch the shoulder up;
  2. Breathe out and lengthen through the crown of the head to reach to the upper corner of the room. Keep your weight central;
  3. Breathe in to the ribcage focusing on the side you have stretched;
  4. As you breathe out, close down that rib, keep lengthening through the head as you return to upright;
  5. Breathe in and lower the arm.

Repeat 4 times on each side.

Watchpoints

  • Ensure that you have moved in one plane only and not bent forward or back; it’s as if you are sliding between 2 planes of glass.
  • Think up and over to avoid collapsing at the waist;
  • Your head moves naturally as part of the spine, so do not twist it any further . Your gaze remains forwards.

Disclaimer

As with all exercise methods it is advisable to check with your medical practitioner before exercising.

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About Lynne Robinson

Lynne Robinson was at the forefront of creating the boom in Pilates in the UK and her name and image have become synonymous with Pilates. Her books and videos being sold in over thirty countries and has contributed to, and featured in, many articles in national and specialist press, radio and television. Her first introduction to Pilates came in 1992 whilst living in Sydney, Australia, after being recommended to take up classes as a solution to the severe back problems that Lynne had experienced for many years. Lynne was a student with Penny Latey in Sydney, and then completed her formal Pilates training after returning to London. She co-founded in 1996 Body Control Pilates in Sevenoaks, Kent where she works closely with osteopaths, physiotherapists and sports injury clinics. She is a Director of the BCP Teacher Training Programme. Lynne has specialized in developing programmes for people with chronic back problems and stress-related conditions, and in compiling mat-based programmes to enable Pilates to be taught outside of the studio environment. Lynne holds an Honours degree and a Postgraduate Certificate of Education and is the author of Pilates for Weightloss and founder of Body Control Pilates. Lynne may be contacted on Tel: 0207 636 8900; info@bodycontrol.co.uk  www.bodycontrolpilates.com To find a teacher near you visit www.bodycontrolpilates.com.

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