As I was re-reading Greg Wells’ excellent book, Rest, Refocus, Recharge, (reviewed in last week’s blog), I remembered a trip I made to Italy early in my teaching career. I’d wanted to see where the fitness balls I used were manufactured. The factory was located near the small town of Udine, in Northern Italy, five hours by train from Florence and almost at the Slovenian border. After my visit, I was invited to a nearby studio to observe how local teacher Enrico Ceron worked with the balls in his exercise class. Sitting in the corner, notebook open in my lap, I watched a group of about twenty elegant middle-aged Italian women select a mat, a large ball, and two small balls—one with a smooth surface, the other a harder spiky-surfaced ball. It was halfway through the class when I realized I hadn’t taken a single note. I thought to myself: all this time I’ve taught ball classes and I’ve never witnessed anything like this.
What I saw in that class was what Wells calls in his book ‘mini recharge moments.’ A former athlete, Wells reviews the science of mini-breaks in sports training as well as in everyday exercise classes. He argues that the ‘hard train’ methods of the past led to burnout and injuries. Muscles work best when rest and recovery are built into and after the workout. Wells reminds us that these pauses don’t have to be long to be powerful. Bioplasticity (how the body responds to healing and repair) and neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to change and adapt) both occur in sleep but also in states of calm and relaxation. Wells again: ‘If we can consistently challenge ourselves and then recharge, we can activate bioplasticity and neuroplasticity to our advantage.’
Breathers—Cocoons of Readiness
Breathers are nothing new to Pilates. As I knew from my training and practice, these are key transitional positions used through the workout and are seen by some teachers to be as important as the exercises themselves. A breather is not an opportunity to let everything go and just sprawl on your mat. It is a chance to release muscular tension and allow your joints to decompress while remaining in correct alignment. Yet until I observed that Italian class, I had not really appreciated how breathers could be built right into the class design.
Working then resting: An Italian exercise experience
I realized that I was in for something different when I heard the music Ceron used in class: a mix between muted operatic and New Age. He wore a microphone set used by many aerobic teachers around the world, but this was no ordinary class. After a warm-up, he led the women into a series of upper-and lower-body strength moves using smooth baby-blue nine-inch balls. My favorites were a series of sitting-on-the-ball exercises for the abdominals and the legs. Great for core. I could see that the women’s muscles were really working hard.
After about ten minutes of core exertion, Ceron slipped in a pause. The Shell or Child’s Pose is a perfect position to direct the breath into the back space of the ribcage. It is also an ideal moment to check that you are in good alignment and not holding extra tension in the body. Another popular breather he used with the women was to lie on the back, knees up into the chest, and gently rock the body. Both are excellent positions to connect with breath. And to take a time out to make sure that the level and pace of the workout is right for you.
Another mini break occurred deeper into the session. As honey-sweet flute music flooded the studio, women used the small spiky-surfaced balls to promote blood circulation and relax tight muscles by rolling them around their necks and shoulders. Many had closed their eyes, to enhance relaxation. They took their time, also, to roll the balls down the front of their thighs and backs of the buttocks, stimulating acupressure points. The release in their bodies was visible.
Ceron’s class ended with an unexpected twist. He dimmed the lights. The women got into position with a partner. One woman lay on her belly on the mat while her partner unhurriedly rolled a large ball from head to toe over the back surface of her body. The movement was one hand over the other, as if stroking an ancient instrument. Then she next began to make tiny and fast ball-taps, patting the ball like a drum, a rhythmic massage on the back of her classmate’s prone body. As I watched, I could feel a sensation of release tracing a slow path down my own spine and into my belly. The partners then switched places.
Rest and activity rhythm
When I came back to Canada, I started to think about my class design and how I could achieve a ‘rest and go’ approach. I put in relaxations at the beginning and end of all my classes, and also lengthened my ‘breathers’ or mini-pauses to give my students time to decompress during and after the session. Before, my instinct had been to push on—to get to the next move or exercise. But this pace was not necessarily the best for my students. Their response to the changes was very favorable. It turns out that people want to decompress and relax as much as they can in their workout sessions. So did I.
Mabel E. Todd, author of the classic The Thinking Body, calls this approach ‘rest and activity rhythm’. As she points out: ‘Relaxation is not negation, it is not passivity’. She reminds us that in all living cells and systems, nature provides two phases of bodily rhythm: work and rest. One balances the other. Why push mercilessly through a nonstop workout, when using a ‘rest and activity rhythm’ can conserve energy and create pleasure in movement—and in life.
The video below features a six-minute body scan exercise that can be used at the beginning or end of a workout, or on its own. Just letting our bodies ‘settle’ on the mat may be challenging for those of us who are usually on the run, or always surrounded by people, or busy with social media and other distractions. At first, lying alone in a silent space may bring up intense restlessness and even unpleasant emotions. We can work past these initial reactions, and the more we become accustomed to relaxing, the easier it will become.
(My blog will return in mid-November)