A few months ago, my sister innocently posted a link on my Facebook page that talked about sustainable living and an eco-village in Costa Rica where the kind folks live in tree houses. With one click to that page, my sister had created a monster. Mike has been talking about moving to Costa Rica ever since I met him, so one mention of this place, and he was in the other room packing. Here is a link to the photo gallery of the original village we liked, called Finca Bella Vista. How can you resist? A sustainable eco-village where we can raise our kids off the land and have fresh fruits and vegetables year round? A simpler, more fulfilling existence where we can tread lightly on the earth and possibly play with monkeys? Yes please!
Then, we found another village that seemed to be a bit closer to the ocean, which is necessary for Mike to be able to surf. This village was called Osa Mountain Village, and the entire property is a giant, living, growing salad. Want a mango? Walk out your door and eat it. Just one problem: After researching for a few weeks, I discovered that it would take up to four years to obtain a physical therapy license in Costa Rica, and maybe longer to obtain citizenship to work there. Crap. Then, I had another glimmer of hope when I saw that you can start a business at Osa Mountain Village, and they needed a Pilates studio. Great! I’ve taken a handful of classes at my gym, I like Pilates! I could just own a Pilates studio. Again, unfortunately, Costa Rican law makes it nearly impossible to work as a foreigner in their country, so we reluctantly gave up our Costa Rican dream.
This ridiculous story does have a point. As crazy as it sounds, this was the beginning of my journey to Pilates. The Costa Rican dream made me realize that while I probably can’t and shouldn’t move to Costa Rica, perhaps I should do something for myself here in the ol’ US of A to enrich my life. I began researching Pilates, and I found the STOTT method of Pilates, which happens to have a rehab certification for physical therapists. Of course, I live in Portland, which happens to be the home of Pacific NW Pilates, the Harvard of STOTT Pilates training. I decided that before I embark upon the journey to rehab certification, I should probably start actually practicing Pilates. I remembered driving by Poise Studio in Beaverton and began checking out the website. Poise is a boutique studio located in a funky, old house in Beaverton where they have Pilates, yoga, belly dancing, and other special series. I discovered they actually practiced the STOTT method there, and so I quickly signed up for my first “Intro” class the following week.
My “Intro” class was enlightening. Jacki was my instructor, and I was actually the only person taking the class that day, which was to be followed by the regular evening Mat Pilates class. What I immediately noticed was how small the classrooms are, creating an intimate and focused atmosphere. Jacki and I got to talking and I found out that she is actually a physical therapy student at Pacific University, what are the chances? I was excited to find out this information, because I realized that this person has a strong background in anatomy and the way the body moves. The evening class followed with about 4 other people that night, and Jacki made sure that I was comfortable and she provided necessary tactile cues when I flopped awkwardly into different positions. Jacki is a wonderful instructor, evidenced by the group of folks that show up to her evening classes religiously. She is soft spoken, has a familiar order to her classes that make them seem homey, and yet she still manages to teach me something new each class I take with her.
And then, I met Alli Breen. Alli can only be described as the most passionate and meticulous Pilates and fitness instructor I’ve ever come across. In addition to teaching Pilates, she is also a Pilates Fusion instructor and wellness expert. Her journey to health is an inspiring one, which can be seen on her new website, Today Is Your Tomorrow. She also has a podcast which is super fun to listen to! While I don’t know all the details, I know that she is a vegan and she has lost quite a bit of weight over the past couple of years. Here is a picture I found on her website that gives one an idea of just how far she’s come.
One of her star students, Jillian, said the other day during our advanced mat pilates course, “When people tell me Pilates is easy, I tell them they’re not doing it right and they’d better train with Alli.” This is true, you will never have an “easy” class if Alli’s teaching it. There are many a time when I have found myself zoning out and thinking about something else, only to be quickly snapped out of it by Alli’s wrath.
“LEIGH! FIX YOUR SHOULDERS! What are you doing with your ribs? Your knees! YOU KNOW BETTER!” Oops! Haha, I just laugh and fix my form. Afterall, I want to have near perfect form, if a long term goal of mine is to teach Pilates to my patients. I’ve learned that form, awareness, activation of core musculature, and breathing is key to one’s success in Pilates. Since balance is also a key concept in Pilates, it’s likely that you’ll fall on your face eventually if you make a habit of snoozing in class. Because we don’t typically use weights in Pilates, it is important that movements are purposeful to effectively use your own body weight to develop strength and grace during transitions.
In the 3 months that I’ve been taking Pilates at Poise, Alli and Jacki have really helped me with these concepts not only in class, but in life in general. Thanks to the mental focus and increased core strength, I’ve been able to carry my new body awareness over to running. One of my favorite things to do is take the 9:00 AM Pilates class with Alli and follow that with a long training run on a Saturday. I have had some of my best runs after this, because my core muscles and lateral hips are already activated, providing the perfect foundation for my running posture.
A common misconception about running is that movement is only occurring in the sagittal plane or forward and backward, but mostly forward of course :). However, running is truly a multidirectional movement, as the trunk must rotate as we jump from one leg to the other, and the pelvis needs to be stabilized to avoid too much rotation and lateral tilt. For these reasons, it is vitally important that runners have a strengthening program that focuses on core strength to include the lateral muscles of the hips.
I have known this for most of my life thanks to my marathon mama, so I have been regularly going to a gym ever since the dreaded gray sweatpants day. My gym routine has evolved greatly over the years however, going from using mostly machines, to free weights to mostly my own body weight. I used the Bosu, the stability ball, a decline ab bench, maybe one set of dumbbells, and an exercise mat at the gym and had a fantastic routine if I may say so myself. I was going to Bally’s in Beaverton, which had a giant core workout area, and I regularly had it to myself or shared it with the trainers. It was HUGE! Then, tragically, Bally’s was taken over by LA Fitness and they quickly closed our gym. We were shuffled over to a pre-existing LA Fitness in Beaverton, which became overcrowded with both the original LA Fitness members plus the Bally’s folks. The worst part about this new meat market, er, gym, aside from the excessive grunting, and talk of biceps and protein shakes was the “core” area. The “core” area was a narrow corridor with way too much equipment that might make you claustrophobic with a meer glance. As I walked up to the front desk on my first day there, I tried to ignore the stares and grunts from the meat gallery. What is it about certain gyms?? They all have a different vibe. Anyway, once at the front desk, I asked, “Is this your only area for core/body weight workouts?”
“What do you mean? We have a great core area with stability balls, mats and mirrors! And did you see all of our machines? I can give you a tutorial if you’d like!” While this guy was obviously enthusiastic about his job, he didn’t really get it. The trainers on the other hand, shared my exasperation with the limited amount of space to do body weight exercises. I heard them complain continuously about the space issue, which got worse as they put old equipment in the corridor, crowding it further. Needless to say, after I began Pilates, I quit going to the gym. I quit because I obviously was unhappy with the gym, but I wanted to do an experiment. Could Pilates be enough? Could I continue to run injury free with just Pilates?
The answer surprises me. Not only am I continuing to run injury free, I’d venture to say that I’m running stronger than ever. I’m practicing Pilates 2-3 times per week in addition to running and eating well, and my core and hips feel and look healthier than ever. Another bonus was that I lost the pesky 3-4 pounds that I couldn’t seem to shed, no matter how I altered my gym routine. I’m noticing the biggest difference in the way my legs look and feel. They’re much lighter as I’m running, and I’m starting to appreciate the way they look! I suppose we all have our trouble spots that we have a hard time accepting, but with Pilates and a new appreciation for the way my body moves, I have more confidence than I’ve ever had. A positive body image is so important for overall health and wellbeing, and I believe I have achieved that after searching since my awkward teen years. The body change is evident to me in the following photos. The first image is from Eugene Marathon in April 2012, when I was at least 4 pounds heavier. The second image is from Portland Marathon in October 2012, after I’d been practicing Pilates for a couple of months:
At least I was smiling!!
While running these days, I also notice my mental focus is unwavering. Today, my husband and I decided to go on a 12 mile trail run in Forest Park. It was a moody, Portland day, but markedly better weather than yesterday when it poured most of the day. There is a giant, long hill in Forest Park that my homegirl, Christy, and I are not a fan of. Mike, on the other hand, practically lusts after this hill. There’s something wrong with him, he really enjoys sprinting up hills. Ever since he was hit by a car in April, he has had this unbelievable zest for life and is on a quest to be a FAST runner and triathlete. We are running the Holiday Half Marathon on December 16th, and he has a goal time of 1:30, which I’m pretty sure he will destroy. It’s a beautiful thing, really. Anyway, today when running up the dreaded hill, I honestly felt great. Sometimes, I felt like I could even hear Alli, “Don’t you quit!” My focus was on point, and my form was precise and purposeful as I took each switchback up the beast. As I was applauding my mental stamina thanks to Pilates, I was simulataneously questioning my husband’s mental stability. A few minutes before, at the bottom of the hill, Mike flew past me foaming at the mouth.
“I’LL SEE YOU AT THE TOP!!!” he shrieked with his head thrown back and a wild ass look in his eyes. He was like a rabid dog being released from its cage, devouring the hill with a satisfaction of which no sane human would be capable. I got to the top of the first switchback, and he was gone. Already flying up beyond where I could see. What the hell? I got to the top of the hill, which was our designated meeting spot, and all I saw was Mike’s water bottle sitting on the picnic table. I calmly waited, unsure if Mike was going to pop out of the trees. Was he puking from sprinting up the hill? Peeing? Pooping? Anything is possible. Just when I was about to start searching, he tore up the fire lane where I was standing. Oh. Since he apparently didn’t get enough hill from tackling the beast, he decided to go run the firelane hill too, just for kicks. “THAT WAS GREAT!!” Oh good lord.
I truly do believe that Pilates and running go together like PB&J. Pilates is the perfect strengthening routine for runners because of the emphasis on mental awareness/focus and activating the core via flexion, extension,lateral, and rotatory movements. Poise Studio is a wonderful place that seems to embody the Pilates movement and teachings. The fantastic instructors there really make a difference. I would encourage others to seek out a Pilates studio with educated instructors who are certified in the STOTT method. I promise, if you have a great instructor, Pilates definitely could never be easy. And even if we never make it to Costa Rica, at least I found Pilates! But I still want to live in a treehouse…