Neuroscientists have recently been looking at the stress response in the body and how it relates to movement and have found some fascinating connections. It seems that not only our adrenal glands control the stress response in the body. One study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed that there are also pathways in the nervous system that control our stress response. A great deal of those neural pathways was found in the core, which may help to explain why exercise programs like Pilates that focus so deeply on developing a strong, stable core leave participants with a sense of calm and stress relief.
I want to share a few Pilates based exercises to help you to find your core and possibly more inner calm.Set up for supine exercises:Lie on your back with your knees bent and take a moment to find your neutral pelvis. It should feel as though your lower back has weight under the sacrum, not under the waistband or the tailbone. Once you have found the right position, you will work to maintain that while your upper body or limbs are moving.
- Core Activation
While lying in supine, take a few deep breaths allowing the belly to move with the breath. As you inhale, the lower belly should expand. As you exhale the lower belly should fall. Bring the fingertips just inside the hip bones and notice how your low belly feels as you exhale. Try to draw the hip bones closer together with each exhale. This will activate the deepest layer of abdominal muscles, closest to your spine.
- Maintaining Neutral Pelvis
Let’s add a challenge to the core activation sequence above. Lift one foot off the floor at a time, bringing the knee in line with the hip without changing the position of the low back or pelvis. No rocking forward, backward or side to side. Alternate leg lifts while maintaining stability. As these become easier, bring both feet off the floor and alternate bringing one foot down toward the floor at a time without arching the low back.
- Abdominal Strengthening
Keeping a neutral pelvis, lift both feet off the floor bringing the knees directly over the hips. When you find the right position, you will feel the deep abdominal muscles of the core engage to help support the legs. With hands behind the head for support lift the upper body from the torso allowing the head to follow rather than lead the way. Keeping the head on top of the spine will prevent you from feeling a strain in the neck. Using your exhale as you lift will help engage the deep abdominal muscles of the core. Inhale to lower back down and repeat without allowing the knees to come closer to your torso as you lift.
Set up for kneeling exercises:Kneel on all fours with the hands directly under the shoulders and the knees directly under the hips. The spine should be long, reaching from the crown of the head through the tail with the eyes looking toward the floor underneath you.
- Opposite Arm/Leg Reaches
Begin by activating the core for support in this position. Pull the belly in like you are trying to hug your spine with your deep abdominal muscles. Raise one arm overhead without changing the position of the body. The tendency here is to shift the weight of the body to the opposite side. Try to find the center line in the body and remain in that space as you move the limbs. Bring the arm down for support and raise the other arm overhead. Alternate arm raises until you can do each side without the weight shift. When you have mastered this movement, try to reach one leg behind you at a time keeping the body weight centered. The last progression is to lift one arm and the opposite leg without shifting the body weight to the opposite side.
These simple exercises teach us how to tap into our core which is essential for efficient, graceful movement, stability as we move throughout our day, and apparently helps to mitigate the stress response in the body as well.