By Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates and Yoga
A friend and I were talking as we walked this morning about some of the ongoing controversies within the health and wellness communities. One example: how do cholesterol levels really impact our health and what are optimum levels? For many years this seemed to be settled science. High cholesterol was linked to “bad” fat in the diet. Everyone jumped on a reduced fat or fat-free diet. Then research began to show that heredity and genetics also play a part. Dietary cholesterol intake might not be such a significant factor after all. Further research began to distinguish between types of cholesterol and also types of fat. The subtleties of determining optimum levels in diverse individuals began to present additional complications in diagnosis and treatment. There was a time when some doctors were advocating putting cholesterol-lowering medications in the water supply. Fortunately, subsequent research has begun to question whether or not previously established optimum cholesterol levels are really applicable to all people. So even when we think modern methods have settled certain questions, inevitably more questions tend to surface.
To complicate matters even more, increasing interest in holistic approaches to health care recommend taking the whole person into consideration instead of just isolated symptoms or systems. This means recognizing that our internal mechanisms are not only interconnected but also impacted by our minds and emotions. Add to this the fact that each of us has our own individual responses to various medical interventions, none of which is always true for every person, regardless of the statistical results of clinical trials. As human beings we have much in common, but we each have unique characteristics that make generalizations difficult if not downright dangerous at times. My feeling is that we are all an experiment of one. Getting to know our own bodies is just one step in the direction of learning what is right for each of us as individuals, regardless of what the latest study seems to show.
For many years there has been an ongoing discussion in the fitness industry. It goes something like this: is it healthier to be a thin couch potato or an overweight exerciser? There are, of course, advocates and plausible arguments on both sides. But in my opinion, all of this points to the many questions that still exist in our knowledge of how human beings work. We are just beginning to learn about nutrition, what a body actually requires and the best way to provide it. This is no small task since each of us has different needs. This subject is still not well-taught in our medical schools and or even well understood by researchers. We get sound bites of research, most of which is flawed, that the media jumps on as the next magic solution. People hop on the bandwagon only to find that what worked for their neighbor simply doesn’t work for them. Then the next study comes down the pike which contradicts the one before it. “Coffee is good for your heart!” shout the headlines only to be followed a few months later by, “Don’t drink coffee, it’s bad for you” or “Drink 3 cups of coffee, but not 4”. It seems that each time some question finds what looks like an answer, a whole new set of questions arises.
Having said all of that, there is one thing that all of us have been hearing for many years and that a mounting body of evidence from many different sources continues to support. We all need to move more for better health. Many years of sedentary lifestyles have affected our health in negative ways. This is just one factor in modern life that affects our health, but this is one we can choose to change. But how to move, when to move, how often, how fast – all of these still remain questions that each of us as individuals need to answer for ourselves.
So what happens when you finally take that big step forward and make that change? You’ve made the decision, committed yourself and incorporated a regular movement practice into your life. How do you know if you’re making progress toward better health? Maybe despite attention your diet and consistent exercise you just don’t seem to be seeing results. You were expecting to feel stronger, have better balance, ease some of your pain, but it doesn’t seem to be happening. This can be discouraging. You may even begin to doubt your own capacity for feeling better. Thoughts like “I’m no good at this” or “I will never get any better” may begin to creep into your consciousness further sabotaging your efforts.
In the fitness industry we often speak of “exercise plateaus”. Many people make noticeable gains in the early days of an exercise program. Of course, this is not true for everyone. In some cases the very act of beginning a movement practice is so stressful that it can take time for the practitioner to begin to feel better. In all cases the body gradually adapts to the changing demands on its systems. Sometimes this results in what looks like a levelling off of change. But the changes that are continuing – and it is my opinion that they are, in fact, continuing – to take place may simply have moved into a more subtle realm. This is the time when it becomes more important than ever to focus on continuing your practice and going deeper into the subtle aspects of mind-body connection to find the changes. Here are some questions you might want to consider: How do you feel? If your goal when you began your practice was pain relief, perhaps your pain is still there. But are you better able to live with it since beginning your practice? Can you move more easily? Are you better able to do at least some of the things that were beyond your ability when you started? Do you have more stamina? Try focussing on the improvement instead of the lingering limitations.
If your goal was weight loss, but you can’t seem to get there from here, ask yourself: Do my clothes fit better? Do I have more color in my cheeks? How are my energy levels? Do I fatigue less easily? Am I sleeping better? Am I standing taller? Posture improvement is an important result of many mind-body movement systems including yoga and Pilates. Another consequence of our sedentary lifestyle is erosion of good posture and resulting back, neck and shoulder problems. In a recent article in Yoga Journal, Dr. Ray Long speaks of the immediate difference in his patients’ moods when he gives them a simple exercise that allows them to sit upright in a chair. They change from describing themselves as being “tired” or “sad” to being “alert” and “bright”. Which brings up another question: Has your mood improved? Remember, your emotions, mind and body are all interconnected. Has working your body helped you to better respond to situations in your life? Are you better able to relax and find stress-free moments? Maybe you don’t get irritated as easily by little things. Perhaps you are more in touch with the present moment rather than regretting the past or fearing the future. There is every reason to believe that your movement practice has contributed to these changes as well.
Going back to the concept that we are each an experiment of one, each of us will respond differently to whatever interventions we adopt to address our health needs. As you begin to examine the more subtle changes in your mind and body, you will no doubt think of other ways to note your progress. What works for the person next to you in class may not work for you and vice versa. We each have to find our own way. But it helps if you gear your measurements to your own needs rather than the needs of others or anything you read about in the popular press. Develop your own yardsticks of progress and if one ceases to work, find another. There is no one perfect measurement. After all what is progress? Make your own definition. But if it means positive change then I am confident that you will find it if you take the time to look.
The important thing is to stick with your practice no matter what. Don’t give up. Change it if you need to reignite your enthusiasm or cut back if your body demands it. But don’t stop moving. Whatever your definition of progress, it will certainly stop if you do. And it is much more difficult to re-start after stopping than it is to just keep moving at whatever level you can. Even if you think you aren’t getting anywhere, you are exactly where you need to be. Be kind to yourself, practice patience, be grateful for your ability to move and breathe and honor your body’s desire to maintain that ability.