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Posted by on Jan 11, 2014 in Body & Mind, Pilates, Stress | 0 comments

Losing My Voice

Losing My Voice

Thank you Marcia for sharing this very personal story with us – Monika x

Writer’s block. If you’ve ever sat down to a blank page, intent on expressing the thoughts running through your brain and not been able to complete a first sentence, you have likely experienced some version of your own writer’s block.

My block began in late April/early May. I was in the midst of great transition that included a temporary move that would six weeks later lead to a permanent move, the loss of a dear friend of our family, and the end of a major group client contract. I was also waiting to learn if I would spend part of the summer working with acting apprentices in upstate New York, and to top it off, I wasn’t yet ready to write about the work I had spent the 18 months prior developing. I didn’t see not writing as a block, I just had too much going on to find my voice.

The next six weeks flew by with packing my place and the move (part one), a longer commute to classes, a vocal/physical experiment at NYU, the move (part two), unpacking, and two weeks later, off to that adventure with acting apprentices at Vassar College in NY. I would begin to write when I got back to Denver. On July 21 I had plenty to write about. My work was proven and had advanced, I was inspired and so excited to share it all.

With flight delays, I arrived in Denver early the morning of Monday, July 22, unpacked, taught my first class, and booked a flight for Thursday morning. My Dad had begun Hospice Care. I was going to Ohio to spend some time with him and say goodbye before things got worse. I would return home Sunday and I would write.

There is No Preparing for Grief
We lost my Dad at 12:30 am on July 28. My Dad was 91 and had end stage Parkinson’s Disease. I thought I was prepared. He was not the first person I loved to die and he certainly lived an amazing and long life. I was not prepared.

I returned to Denver that Thursday. An example of the first week would be it taking three tries before I could navigate my Whole Foods and actually leave with groceries. I never knew when I would start sobbing, I just began to understand that it would happen at some point each day. My brother or one of my sisters checked in via phone and text regularly. They understood and to them I could simply say, “I just want Dad.” The only time I was okay was when I taught.

So I taught and cried and cried and taught and I kept up with my own practice (as I had every day of the 20 at Vassar and the eight in Ohio). And every week or so, I sat at my laptop to try to write about what I was experiencing, but no words would come. I was furious that I couldn’t do something to move myself forward.

Sundays were the worst to tolerate. On Sundays I felt that marking of time. My Dad had been gone a week, then two, three, and finally four. The Saturday leading into the fourth Sunday I had a really good day. I even went out for the first time since leaving Vassar. I sat and had dinner and drinks with a friend. We talked and laughed until after 1 am. I opened my phone when I got home and learned Julian Littleford had died earlier in the day.

The Other Shoe Drops
That fourth Sunday, the day after we lost Julian, I sobbed via Skype over his loss to my mother, who of course had four weeks prior lost her husband of 53 years and 10 months. She spent hours listening to me cry and tell stories of Julian. Once spent, I sat down to try to write something, some tribute to these two men who on the surface had very little in common – a 91 year old retired accountant from Ohio who was a WWII veteran and raised seven children, and a 53 year old professional dancer, and a teacher from the UK who was still raising his two children. They actually had a great deal in common, they were each crazy in love with their wives, great dads, and had a kindness and generosity that can’t be taught.  And I could not write a word. After two weeks, I stopped trying.

I kept teaching of course, and I believe I was teaching well, maybe better than ever, and I focused even harder on my own practice. As I did each, it was becoming clear that Pilates was teaching me about grief and my body how to process it.

[I know, 700+ words to get to Pilates and I’m not even close to the writer’s block part yet, but we’re still uncertain I’ll ever share this with anyone.]

My grief got slipperier. I was actually having strings of good days. I was surprised when I ran into a friend and when he innocently asked how my Dad was doing, I was able to share the news without emotion. But just as I was surprised by a good day, I was equally caught off guard by bursts of emotion. And I was noticing some less than rational reactions to things. Things that weren’t normally a big deal made me furious or felt unmanageable. If I think about it now, I realise I felt betrayed by the world. Frankly, I just wanted my Dad.

Just Focus on the Work
Pilates and my understanding of my body and the connection between mind and body were what I could count on and understand the first four months. Because I was able to let go and practice daily, I was checking in with my body and allowing myself to reconnect with something that has been part of my daily life for over a decade. I was spending at least an hour daily in a place that hadn’t changed and was safe and supportive to me. I was inside my own body, just finding work and exploring what it felt like on that particular day. And I was noticing during those hours that most of the rest of the time I didn’t feel like me. The mind body connection of Pilates was explaining what I couldn’t work out in other ways. And as those connections shed light on the pattern of grief, I was able to understand when something insignificant made me feel like a total lunatic that it was just grief. I could actually say to myself at various moments, “This isn’t real, it’s just the grief.” Somehow, my body understood the difference and each time I was hit with fear or anger or intense disappointment, it told me I was grieving, that I was allowed to grieve.

I was still angry I couldn’t write and downright furious I couldn’t seem to figure out some necessary business restructuring. Everything felt just out of reach, like a word you use daily and suddenly can’t remember how to spell or a name on the tip of your tongue. The harder I tried to figure things out, the more elusive the answers. My friends asked me to “be kind” to myself. They couldn’t understand that I desperately needed a beginning somewhere to take my focus from this enormous ending.

Exactly two months after my Dad died, I spent their anniversary weekend with my Mom. We brought flowers to plant at his grave. Mums. I got out of the car and held my Mother’s hand. I thought I was there to support her. Within seconds, I fell completely apart. She held me as I sobbed uncontrollably. It had been two months since someone who loved my Dad held me while I cried and for the first time since his funeral, I actually felt comforted.

Finding My Voice
In the middle of October I suddenly knew where I needed to shift my business focus and even came up with a plan to support the work I do with young artists. And my younger sister agreed to let me teach her virtually. Getting the chance to share Pilates with her is a tremendous gift. On her birthday in December, I sat down to begin writing the third Piper the Petite Pilates Princess story.  The words came.

During that entire period of feeling blocked, I was very afraid I would never be able to write another word, that I simply would not be able to find my (creative) voice again. But going through that process (and this continued process of grief), I now understand that while I was able to physically function at a high level, part of my brain was somewhat paralysed trying to adjust to it’s new reality. I’m certain that the physical connections I focus on when practicing Pilates helped me process what I couldn’t cognitively.

Pilates has taught me so many things. This time I think my lesson is in recognising that emotional trauma can be almost as debilitating as a physical injury and we have to allow ourselves to learn how to function in our new version of normal. And also that my method of being “kind” to myself requires the safety and exploration of this thing we practice and teach – Pilates.

Every Pilates teacher has watched at least one client heal from some sort of broken heart by way of just showing up and doing the work. We have all watched from the outside, just focusing on teaching the physical and keeping the client in the work, and allowed the work itself – the body, to work it’s magic. It seems I simply had to allow my body to work some magic to allow my heart to start to heal in order to feel safe enough to find my voice again.

It has been five months since my very old, very wonderful Dad left a body that had stopped being a nice place to live. If you have lost one (or perhaps both) of your parents, you likely are ahead of me in the grieving process. I’m guessing you would tell me that my brother and sisters and I are now part of a fraternity of sorts, that no matter what, nothing prepares us for loss, and that we will never stop missing him. If you aren’t part of our fraternity, I urge you take every chance to tell your parents how much you love them and ask them to tell you what you need to hear, but don’t waste any precious time trying to prepare, no matter what, you won’t be prepared.

In less than two weeks, I’ll celebrate my birthday. Still hard to imagine that my Dad won’t be on the extension singing with my Mom, as he has been every birthday since I left for college. I still miss him every single day, but (thank God) there is Pilates, and now, there are words again too.

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Posted by on Sep 25, 2013 in Anatomy & Physiology, Body & Mind, Stress | 0 comments

Just Breathe

Just Breathe

Without getting too personal- last Monday I was in a car accident. I’m fine (!) however, the process I went through really gave me reason to pause and consider breathing (among other things of course).  This consideration is nothing new- most of us know how important our breathing is but it was only after reflecting on how my body responded to that stress that I experienced the relevance.

Without thinking about it- to calm myself down I was taking long exhalations… through my mouth. Now- having just spent a long 18 months doing my Yoga teacher training where the use of breathing through your nose is the key, it made me think… is teaching an exhalation through the mouth more calming for someone in a stressed lifestyle such as an addict- could it be more effective and indeed more relaxing?

Perhaps I’m asking a simple question and I’m sure there’s plenty of evidence to support all types of breathing to be of benefit but it just got me thinking and I wanted to share my thoughts with you.

Breathing has numerous effects on the body, in particular the central nervous system, this is due to the encouragement of deep breathing which helps to lower the heart rate: implied in newer research which suggests that by slowing the breathe one can ‘have a significant impact on the heart rate variability’(E. Jovanov2006 University of Alabama) thus synchronising the homeostasis of the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system.

By supporting the education of a positive coping strategy one could aid the recovery of addiction (at the appropriate stage) or at least the underlying reasons for a person’s addictive behaviours such as depression or anxiety.  Also, as discussed by Donna Farhi in The Breathing Book, pg 6, “Correlations between breathing and the state of our body and mind have been made for thousands of years”.

By educating individuals on the benefits of relaxed breathing could greatly reduce the detrimental effects of the stress response often exacerbated by daily life. This could work to support the recovery of addictive mentalities and also act as a preventative method. Not only would this benefit the body in terms of its physical structure but it would “enhance the cellular, hormonal and psychological processes” ( P.B.F Nixon, Human Functions and the Heart, 1989). Through breathing, neurotransmitter secretion is controlled which in turn develops the nervous system. It can also increase GABA and serotonin levels, positively impact the hypothalamus and successfully increase the ability to control the sympathetic function (Kumar, A. 2012. The Research and Development Institute Journal).

Additionally, let’s think about the relevance of Vagus nerve stimulation. At least 80% of the Vagus nerve fibres are afferent, meaning the body sends messages to the brain. Therefore one could assume that by encouraging deep breathing, one would then have the ability to further induce relaxation (Porges, S. 2001. International Journal of Psychophysiology).

For me, the interesting point in all of this is that exhaling through the mouth could be a more instrinsic, natural response and proof to be a greater link in relaxing and therefore inducing a more consistent parasympathetic response amongst those living with addiction.

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Posted by on Jul 9, 2013 in Body & Mind, Featured, Pilates, Stress | 0 comments

Stress – In The Long Term

Stress – In The Long Term

My previous blog Stress – Can It Be Good? described the stress response and how it is ideal for short-term, immediately stressful occurrences nowadays most stress is psychological and long-term rather than physical, and short-term. Think worrying about your child growing into a rebellious teenager versus escaping a lion.

In long-term stress, the stress response remains switched on for extended periods which is not good for your health.

The stress response increases heart rate and blood pressure which can cause damage to blood vessels, this, over time, increases the risk of blood vessel blockages, heart disease and stroke.  The excess energy provided to the blood in response to stress needs to be burnt off or you risk developing type II diabetes.

Stress decreases digestion and immune function, leading to increased risk of stomach ulcers and digestion issues, plus more chance of become ill and succumbing to infection. Additionally, pain perception and inflammation is decreased. This last one may sound great at first- but consider the fact that pain is there as a warning that you may be damaging yourself, and if you do hurt yourself then inflammation is a necessary step in the repair process of your body – so you might actually want to hold on to both of those.

It is enough to make you stressed about getting stressed!

Thankfully, there is something you can do about it – and it isn’t just about removing what is causing you to be stressed – though that would be the most useful thing to do, so you may want to try that first. However, if you can’t remove or get rid of the stressor- after all no matter how stressful your kid may become you probably want to keep them – then Pilates can help.

Pilates can help with burning up the excess energy released which can be problematic if not used. It can also increase the production and circulation of immune system cells- helping to rectify the decrease it’s functioning due to stress.

Pilates gives you an opportunity to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous which is responsible for slowing the heart rate, dilating arteries and resuming normal digestion. This is activated when exhaling, therefore encouraging lateral breathing and a slow, long exhale will allow the parasympathetic nervous system a chance to return the body (at least for a short time) to normal functioning. However, proceed with caution- forced breathing patterns may cause more damage than good, especially when linked to existing medical conditions.

Having to focus on a Pilates class may be enough to distract from whatever is causing the stress, which should switch off, or at least decrease, the stress response. But be careful of suddenly incorporating an extremely challenging exercise, as this may be enough to activate the stress response again. It is a fine line – enough of a challenge to distract, but not enough to cause stress!

Despite the benefits of exercise in dealing with the symptoms of chronic stress symptoms, these are often short lived. Exercise will blunt the stress response for up to a day after class. If the stressor is still present the stress response is likely to return to the level it was before Pilates. Therefore, where appropriate, encourage your clients to repeat some exercises outside of class and encourage clients to engage in other exercise.

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Posted by on Jun 22, 2013 in Becoming a Teacher, Body & Mind, Business & Education, Freelance, Owning a Studio, Stress | 0 comments

State of Mind – Still Busy

State of Mind – Still Busy

Since the last blog State of mind 2 fast I have taken the time to find solutions to slow down my life, be more efficient, less tired and have more time.  Impossible – right? well apparently not,  actually there are people out there who live like that ;).

I spoke to folks around me, reached out to a few professionals to seek advise and two words have repeated over and over: mindfulness and goal setting.

Mindfulness is (source Wikipedia)

bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis, it involves paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, and/or involves a kind of nonelaborative, nonjudgmental, present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling, or sensation that arises in the attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as it is.

..but more on that in the next blog, today is all about goal setting.  The most important thing to remember is, that a bit like with practicing Pilates or any other regular activity, unless you are very motivated and goal orientated you you are unlikely to succeed by yourself, at least initially.   You will need outside help and possibly the support of your friends.   Join local classes (best doing it with a group of people with similar circumstances) or find a programme on the internet.  My sources are The Personal Success Academy and Be mindful online.


Armed with a handy tool like the goal wheel you set up your main goals and rate them from 1-10, where 1 is not good and 10 you are exactly were you want to be in that aspect.  Next, based on the result of the goal wheel you set up goals to improve on the low scoring aspects of your life.  The goal wheel can be used for many different sets of goals, it can be your life goals, work goals or project goals.  The best practice is to start global and then break them down.  Here are some helpful tips from the Personal Success Academy:

  1. Goals must be written down – A goal that is not written down can easily become a vague notion a fantasy or a dream. If you think it, ink it (or type is in this day and age!) and this will engrave them in your subconscious.
  2. Talk about your goals – make yourself accountable to not just yourself but your friends and family or anyone else who may be able to help keep you on track and keep you in a positive frame of mind.
  3. Goals must be measurable – how will you know when you’ve achieved your goal? To set a goal without at least one measure of its achievement is like planning a journey without a destination. Establish a way to measure the outcome.
  4. Assess and review your goals regularly – re-visit your goals regularly to make sure that you still have them in your sights and that you are indeed on track to achieving them. Make this a habit.
  5. Goals must be specific – break down your goal until they became actionable and achievable within the next 24 hours. You should be able to describe your goal in a sentence that is clear and specific. For example a goal of wanting to see the world is too vague.
  6. Goals should be positive – although the subconscious is amazingly powerful, it is unable to distinguish between positive and negative. Concentrate on positive thoughts to help you make the difference when setting out to achieve your goals. For example, focus on what you stand to gain so – “I want to give up smoking” becomes “I want to enjoy the health, freedom and wealth of being a non-smoker”. Avoid the negative use words like “I do not want to fail my French language test” as that keeps the notion of failure in your thoughts, positive language will help keep you on track. “I will pass my French language test with 70% or above”.
  7. Celebrate achieving your goals – when a goal is achieved remember to congratulate yourself and celebrate your achievement!

“Patience and persistence are vital qualities in the ultimate successful accomplishment of any worthwhile endeavor.” – who said that??

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Posted by on Jun 21, 2013 in Anatomy & Physiology, Body & Mind, Featured, Stress | 0 comments

Stress * – Can It Be Good?

Stress * – Can It Be Good?

You often hear that ‘stress is bad’ and ‘not good for you’, but what exactly is it, and is it always bad for you?

For many years ’being stressed’ was considered a ‘state of mind’ – Fortunately these days what happens when you’re stressed (the “stress response”) is now better understood! Stress may be good for you – but not for extended periods – read on…

Stress is unusual in biological terms – although the causes can, and do, vary between what people find stressful (think anything from first date to being chased by a lion) it usually results in the activation of the same physiological mechanisms- the “stress response” but the stress response can result in different outcomes. This extremely complex pathway involves the nervous, endocrine and immune systems.

When we perceive something stressful (some people like first dates and lions…) the brain sends a cascade of nerve impulses through the body via the sympathetic nervous system. This increases processes in the body, through the release of the hormones adrenalin, noradrenalin and ACTH. Adrenalin and noradrenalin are partially responsible for the metabolic changes that occur during stress – including the rapid mobilization of glucose to provide instant energy to muscles (‘flight or fight’), and an increase in heart rate and blood flow. ACTH keeps the heightened response going via cortisol and glycogen. Cortisol initiates the breakdown of glycogen into glucose, and triglyceroles into fatty acids. Both glucose and fatty acids are used as energy sources, making the blood energy rich and ready for ongoing vigorous activity. Furthermore, cortisol inhibits inflammation. All of these responses are beneficial if a physical response is required (some people want to run from first dates and lions).

Endorphins are released and   – with an impact similar to morphine, opium and heroin – the perception of pain is reduced. For a brief period (approx. 30 mins) the immune system is improved (due to the release of ACTH) but digestion levels drop (due to a reduction in stomach acid and reduced blood flow to the stomach).

A small amount of stress appears to be beneficial to brain function. Although not completely understood, it is thought that an increase in adrenalin and glucose facilitates the formation of memories and increases alertness and danger recognition.

And there you have it – the “stress response” is many responses – some bodily functions are increased, while some – generally those that are not immediately useful are ‘put on hold’. The stress response is a form of efficiency drive – there is no point worrying about producing children and digesting a three course meal if you may not make it through the next 10 minutes!

So, stress in itself is not bad and neither is the stress response! It is probably even downright useful when faced with a lion, but the stress response is designed to help you tackle immediate physical dangers – not long term psychological or emotional situations. If the stress in your life is more long term issues this may result in the stress response being ‘switched on’ for extended periods, which is not what it was designed for and which can have detrimental effects. These effects will be discussed in the next blog – When Stress Goes Bad. 


Stress*- is ‘any factor that threatens the health of the body, or has an adverse effect on its functioning, such as injury, disease, overwork, or worry.’ (Oxford Medical Dictionary)

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Posted by on Jun 10, 2013 in Body & Mind, Featured, Health, Pilates, Stress | 0 comments

Worry Line Between Your Brows? Try Pilates Instead of Botox

Worry Line Between Your Brows? Try Pilates Instead of Botox

By Katharina Hesse ©

Ever noticed how Pilates teachers are quite obsessed with the pelvic floor? (Yes, this blog is about wrinkles, just read on and I’ll get to them eventually….)

An active pelvic floor helps posture and posturally-related pains, such as back and even shoulder pain, improves continence and – dare I say it? – can help sexual pleasure (and performance in men – if a study published some years ago in the British Medical Journal is anything to go by). However, an overly tight pelvic floor over long periods of time can lead to tension in the hips and other parts of the body, negatively affect posture and walking patterns, distort breathing, possibly cause pelvic pain and pain during intercourse, digestive problems and, in the long term, might even lead to a prolapse. Much of this is documented by people such as Leon Chaitow, a highly respected body worker and researcher, and is generally well-known in the world of Pilates. Personally, I would like to add that a chronically contracted pelvic floor might also cause wrinkles, especially that nasty diagonal one between the eye brows and possibly those gentler ones around the eyes and mouth.

How come? One of the reflex points for the pelvic floor is the area between the eyebrows, just above the bridge of your nose. The muscles around the eyes are also said to be affected by the pelvic floor action, whilst those around the mouth are supposed to be affected by the anal sphincter muscles. So working mindfully with the pelvic floor, allowing it to release as well as engage and also engaging it at only at a fraction of its capacity, say 10 or 20% instead of 100%, for most of the time might just replace that Botox treatment!

Stress, too, affects the pelvic floor (and causes worry lines in your face). In most cases stress causes the pelvic floor and the anus to contract. In cases of chronic stress this might even become a chronic contraction. However, this is not always the case. In my experience, a highly stressful situation can also evoke the opposite – a kind of collapse. So it is important to bring the pelvic floor back to its natural rhythm that supports movement and the intention to move, rather than just trying to “will” it to engage or to relax.

How can that be done?

The easiest way is through breathing. The natural movement of the pelvic floor is strongly linked to the breath. Therefore my first approach for a client with pelvic floor problems would be to teach diaphragmatic breathing, that is, let the belly expand on inhalation and the navel fall back to the spine on exhalation. I know this is not the “traditional” Pilates breath but the pelvic floor will thank you for this – and you are also getting an abdominal workout at the same time. The pelvic floor naturally contracts on the exhalation when we let the stomach fall back towards the spine and widens on the inhalation if you let the air fill the belly and the pelvic area. This last part might be a little harder for most of us but if you use your imagination you will over time notice a difference. Explore this connection by mindfully working with diaphragmatic breathing as described above. A seated position is easiest – or try it lying down if you prefer, although that is a bit harder. Apart from affecting the pelvic floor, diaphragmatic breathing with an emphasis on the exhalation is also a great way to calm down the nervous system which, in turn, should also help to release stress-related tension in the pelvic floor. Follow on by combining the diaphragmatic breath with a little movement, say a cat stretch (flexing the spine on the exhalation and extend it on the inhalation), and you’ve got a perfect workout for the pelvic floor – and might even prevent that nasty line between the eyebrows….

For more thoughts on the effects of stress on the body and how to work with it, read my blogs on the effect of stress on the neck and on stress-related eating.  Or join one of my teacher training workshops which are scheduled to run in London, Yorkshire and Suffolk throughout 2013. For more details look at my website

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