24
Jan

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Fear. Loneliness. Sadness. Anger. Frustration. Hopelessness. Despair.

Alongside what I still believe is my life-embracing, joyful essence, and moments of uplift from my own inner flame and the love of a few dear friends and family, I’ve been surfing these treacherous waves for the past two years.

We know that Pilates is one of the finest ways to sculpt a beautiful and powerful body, but what about our spiritual selves? What about the life inside that body? What about its truly profound effects on the mind and the spirit?

When I was asked to participate in Mark Pedri’s exceptional film, A Movement of Movement a few years ago now, I spoke about how Pilates had created his method between two world wars as a means to survive life’s twists and turns and hard knocks and to rise above them and thrive. Little did I know then that I would be fighting on my own battlefield not so long after, going into one of the darkest, deepest caves of my life.

Pilates never intended for his method of physical and mental conditioning to be a vanity exercise system. He devised it to help us navigate this human life through the body. It was meant to help us evolve and appreciate ourselves, to make the most of our miraculous machines—body, mind and yes, to enliven–to literally LIFT our spirits.

Yes, undeniably, Pilates can help you to create a body you can be proud of, but in the bargain, it can also save your life.

In January, 2014, I found myself atop a slippery slope and by mid-summer, I had slid into hell. Flying solo in a new city, my mother, who had fought her brave battle with multiple myeloma long enough, decided on July 18th that it was time to leave this world.  To say that I was heartbroken and traumatized doesn’t come close. I was beside myself—literally. Exhausted from the rapid fire, cataclysmic shifts in my life,  from having to grasp how to travel this new terrain, each day, I awoke feeling like I didn’t know how to put one foot in front of the other. Every rug had been pulled out from underneath me, and while I had a full toolkit, an arsenal of techniques to pull from, I had become so accustomed to sharing them with others, that in some way, it felt like I had forgotten how to redirect that rich water flow back to myself. 

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The battlefield, the deepest, darkest cave has been my own Hero’s Journey I embarked upon in 2014,  a new learning how to be my own child, my own student, my own best friend, my own hero …  into the abyss to return with the treasure.

I had experienced a serious bout with anxiety and depression in my twenties, but I thought that was behind me. In the deepest part of my being, ever since escaping that agony,  some part of my heart prayed silently on a daily basis that I wouldn’t have to dance with those devils ever again. But the truth is, if you’re a human on the planet and you want to claim your prize—your own true freedom, your self-love, if you want to reclaim yourself, I dare say, more often than not, suffering is part of that bargain. And forget about hero’s journeys for a minute. Let’s just say, being alive today in our modern world is enough to give anyone anxiety, challenging our life-love, and in moments, or stretches of time, to wonder why we’re even here.

Still in the nexus of grief, I signed a book contract and continued teaching and touring. My body wasn’t happy. The relentless output combined with the isolation required to produce the book—a work of considerable magnitude, without proper rest had resulted in some serious adrenal fatigue, and yes, considerable anxiety and a daunting fear of depression. I am still in this place where each day is different on the energy scale, where I am tending to myself and nurturing myself, coming back from some intense fear surrounding this feeling of exhaustion, and depletion–practicing patience in ways I never have before, choosing as often as I can to believe in my body’s resilience and ability to heal and find its strong way again. And yes, I am still battling the demons, rather trying to befriend them and send them on their way. Daily, I am making the effort to choose new thoughts, true thoughts that return me to myself and to the moment.

When our world is turned upside down by events beyond our control, and we no longer recognize the path we’re suddenly traveling upon, we can feel especially vulnerable, fragile … lost. Enter anxiety: An insidious parallel universe constructed by the mind, where doomsday looms around every corner. The mind piles one distorted perception of reality on top of another, and before you know it, you feel like you are trapped under the weight of mausoleum grade marble—depressed.

Enter movement. The catalyst. The antidote.

Movement has always been my life. I knew from a very early age that moving was the secret to feeling good, to feeling connected to the world around me, to feeling alive.

And once again, life has reminded me of this timeless truth and forced me to revisit anew one of my oldest and most trusted friends to help me to return to mine.

So why is Pilates so powerful in the realm of reviving the spirit and restoring hope? Why is it such an effective and reliable compass? Why is it one of the most powerful ways I know to help you find your path back to you again …

Let’s start with the fact that every movement emanates from the center, which is also our second brain, our gut, a domain the ancients called our True Mind, the seat of our emotions. As you perform exercises that demand abdominal engagement, you are not only activating your enteric nervous system, the intricate matrix that governs the function of our gastrointestinal system, but you are stimulating the passage of new energy to the area, infusing it with new life, which can calm stormy emotional seas. When we feel upset, often this state is accompanied by digestive distress, and when we can bring new energy to the stomach—our emotional center, we not only feel better physically, but our mood improves. When you combine this with Pilates’ famous internal shower, the stimulation of the lymphatic system, not only are you catalyzing a powerful sweeping clean of accumulated toxins in the body, but also the negative emotions that can accompany them, or that are in fact responsible for generating them in the first place—the resultant residue that our not-so-self-friendly thoughts can manifest.

Your stomach, your center is also your life force center. And because every movement awakens and strengthens this vital center, from the moment you start moving, and initiating from your abdominals, your life force energy grows … and you start to feel stronger, in body, and in spirit. Because each movement demands your total focus, there’s no room for the errant, often torturous thoughts that can plague us with anxiety. Your inner confidence starts to grow, your belief in yourself, your belief in life. And as this happens, you also start to feel more grounded and centered within your own being and your own psyche.

The breath: the all-important breath. If anyone understood the implications of  compromised breathing, it was Pilates. Because he had suffered from asthma from the time he as a child, taking one deep, diaphragmatic breath was a rare gift. He healed himself in this regard and I’m sure so many others, and made sure that through his method, others would benefit in the same way. Breath is life. Even the word, inspiration reminds us that each time we breathe, we have that golden opportunity to inspire, to expand, to rise …

When we feel sad or anxious, breathing becomes shallow and feels incredibly effortful. When we don’t breathe properly, our diaphragm doesn’t perform its beautiful alternating ascent and descent maneuvers like the good aerialist it is, and the organs get cheated of their vital massage. Each time you breathe deeply and completely, the diaphragm serves as an internal compression plunger, if you will, sending loving pressure downward, responsible for the circulatory exchange in your organs and more oxygen is delivered to the brain, assisting you in your campaign to choose more life-embracing thoughts, that in turn, create life-loving energy.

With Pilates, in each and every exercise we do, we breathe deeply, in tandem with our movements, and we massage our internal organs, flushing them clean with fresh, highly oxygenated blood, returning them to their optimal life and functionality. And when the organs are happy, we are happier. As the organs feel revived, and return to their higher level of functioning, they dialogue with our central nervous system; as more of the feel-good chemicals are secreted in the intricate dance between organs and nerves and brain, the precious endorphins and serotonin, the fight or flight response of the sympathetic system is told to go on vacation, and the parasympathetic has its day in the sun. And you feel it too. Like magic, suddenly, the heavy black cloud that’s been hanging over your head has been blown away—by your own earnest efforts.

And that realization, as you start to feel your legs underneath you, as you push the foot bar of the reformer away and grow longer and taller with each extension, you feel empowered, and you feel more energized. You start to believe that perhaps you are stronger than you thought you were before you began. Unlike the smoky and often inscrutable veil that descends with anxiety and depression, there’s no ambiguity about the hard work you and your body are endeavoring to perform. You know you are filling the well once again—your own well.

And even though your legs are shaking after Footwork and you feel a moment of discouragement, Joe’s words from Return to Life reverberate in your head, “Decide to remain true to yourself,” and if you can do nothing else, that is the one thing in this moment that you can do. Who is the self that stands apart from the noise, the negative insistent, often incessant chatter of anxiety? Your true self.  And to be true to this true self is the path to freedom. So with a leap of faith, you push on …

And by the time you’ve made it through The Hundred, and you’re on to the Short Spine, life has suddenly, somehow miraculously become worth living again—even if only a little bit more than it was before you began. And even if it’s only to be alive a little longer so that you can do your Pilates workout.

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By the time you’ve made it through Knees Off—even if you’ve only been able to do five kick-backs, you have a new inner confidence about yourself and your own capabilities.

And when you’ve finished Running and Pelvic Lift and you slide that carriage home, you feel as though you’ve come home.

As you collect your belongings, and catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror, perhaps something you’ve been avoiding because you can’t take the risk of seeing those dark circles getting any worse, you see someone staring back at you who has a rosy glow, a new sparkle in her eyes, and wow—she looks taller, and her shoulders are down and back, her chest is lifted, and yes, her head, which just forty-five minutes earlier was bowed as tears spilled onto the floor beneath her is being held high. And those demons? Those negative thoughts? The uncertainty, the shifting plates under her feet are solid once again. In this one session, she has returned to life. And even though the anxiety and feelings of sadness will roll in again, she now has greater reserves to roll with them, to let them roll through, to trust that they won’t be her forever companions.  If she can return to life in forty-five minutes, imagine what a consistent diet of that kind of magic could yield … revivified adrenals, diminishing and disappearing dark circles, new energy, deep calm, steadiness, sure footedness, belief in the future, self-love … and who knows? Even happiness.

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15 Responses to “Returning to Life: Navigating Anxiety and Depression with Pilates”

Thank you Jennifer. A wonderful inspirational piece. I will go into teaching my Pilates clients with a new and added understanding.

Sincerely,

Deborah

January 24th, 2016

Great writings! Thanks for sharing!

January 24th, 2016

Wow, what an impressive story Jennifer! My compliments! I am blown away by your honest words. I can relate to what you tell that Pilates is capable of lifting you up from deep dark sadness and depression. Negative words might keep you away from the Refomer, but once on this Miracle Machine, you feel the method do its work. After Footwork Toes I always know I won’t feel the same at the end of the workout, even though I know that the situation or circumstance is still unchanged. Doesn’t matter, you overcame a negative state of mind and changed it into a better one. Thank you for sharing this and chapeau for your
brave, strong and vulnerable attitude! Warm regards, Marjolein (van Sonsbeek)

January 24th, 2016

Dear Jennifer
What an amazing post.
Life really does catch up with us sometimes and our ability to live it with all the positive energy we have fails us.
I have my own long list as I am sure do many others.
You my darling are an inspiritation and from me to you I am sending the most giant hug through cyberspace.
I think you are very brave. Keep breathing,Pilatesing (a word I just made up-I know ridiculous but sounds good!) and being YOU.
MWA. XXXX
.

January 24th, 2016

What a beautifully written piece. Thank you

January 25th, 2016

Beautifully written, thank you! Not to mention reaffirming for my practice and teaching!

Linda Martin
January 25th, 2016

Dear Jennifer, Thank you for sharing your story. I have worked out with you so many times with your DVDs and want to thank you for for inspiration.

January 25th, 2016

What a meaningful piece! It’s great to read about what Pilates can do for us on a deeper level–the profound effect it can have on our entire being, especially our spirit.

Caitlin Olsen
January 26th, 2016

This touched me so deeply. I have never commented on any article I’ve read on Facebook, but felt compelled to do so in this case. I lost my mother at the age of 12 and started pilates five short years later… I can not put into words how much I relate to everything you wrote and how greatful I am for your beautiful (and extremely eloquent) discription of this experience! The experience of returning to self… Returning to LIFE!

Sending you lots of love and healing energy,
Kevyn
xx

January 26th, 2016

Hello everyone, I am touched and deeply moved by your words and your loving support. Thank you for taking the time to join in this conversation and for sharing your own stories.
Kevyn, Caitlin, Carla, Linda, Joanne, Michaela, Marjolein, Katherine and Deborah, thank you.
I’d like to go one step further here and ask each of you if you have ever suffered from anxiety, depression, or adrenal fatigue and if you have any personal wisdom to impart. What have you done to take care of yourself, to nurture yourself and move into vibrancy again?
I know that when I read a post written by Elizabeth Gilbert two weeks ago now about loss, it helped me to feel like I was in instant community with everyone on that thread who chose to be so vulnerable and bear their souls, share their struggle and their triumphs … I can’t express the gratitude I felt for her and everyone who participated in sharing their stories. We can feel so alone sometimes in our pain and our grief, that when we can read about others’ experiences, it makes us feel as though we are able to reach out and touch that person’s heart and they ours in that very moment. It soothes the soul and gives us hope, doesn’t it?!
I look forward to staying in touch with each of you, and again, if you are inspired, please share more.
With lots of love,
Jennifer

January 26th, 2016

Hi Jennifer,

Just in case any of this speaks to you….

What has helped me the most is creating a consistent rhythm for my day, week, month… year. I have a morning and evening routine that I follow which includes; burning sage, meditation, oil pulling and lime water first thing in the morning and warm oil massages and baths with healing salts in the evenings.

I also make sure to get a massage and at least one private pilates lesson a week.

For my yearly rhythm, I give myself a break from the city by teaching in the Hamptons during the summer months and spending the depths of winter in Nicaragua where I hold a wellness retreat that is entirely focused on self nurturing and healing. Connecting with nature and with center. Expansion, contraction…

You are most definitely not alone… none of us are.

We are connected!

Much love,
Kevyn

January 27th, 2016

Dear Jennifer,

When anxiety sweeps me of my feet and I feel my whole body shaking in terror, overwhelmed by it violent force, I cling to this quote from the “Guest House” by Rumi -”welcome and entertain them all”.

I just take a breath and imagine myself at the door, being a gracious hostess and I say “Hi Anxiety, my old friend, welcome. You can stay as long as you like. What can I do for you? Is there something I need to know?” sometimes we have a conversation over a cup of tea and sometimes all I can do is just breath and watch. I watch how in my minds eye this being is having violent tauntrum, throwing furniture and turning my imaginary house upside down and I let it… and it lets go off me. And when it leaves I make sure to say goodbye and extend an invitation any time it feels like a visit. When I can, I try to make this encounter a bit comical. I think the most important part is to imagine it as separate being.

I used to wake up with anxiety and in tremors almost every morning and in the middle of the night for over 7 years. The more I tried to fight with it, the worse it would get. Now it does not come often and when it does it does not stay long. A few minutes, not hours and days. My door is always open.

Your work helped me so much over the years and it would be an honor to be of any help even if a tiny bit.

I have a method for depression too. It is also a bit unordox. All you need is imagination. I will be glad to share if you are interested.

With much gratitude and love,
Maya

Maya
January 28th, 2016

Dear Jennifer,
Thank you for sharing your inspiring journey through grief and your “return to life” through pilates. What a beautiful article.

Rebekah Le Magny
February 11th, 2016

Ahh Jennifer,
Your directness and deep link to your feelings is a blessing.
Not necessarily though when in the midst of what feels like a full blown crisis. No way! And yes existential loneliness that seems to be forever. Terrible.
I believe that you are strong enough to go deep in both directions, from grief to joy, that you have been able to shed the armoring of defenses; but with that there is that double trouble that most of us here in this culture of comfort and quick fixes have difficulty navigating.
i have had my fair share of depression.
My heart goes out to you.
I just came across your blog while doing a search for a DVD re Pilades reformer-cadillac and here’s what I found!
I will definitely order your DVD.
It’s finally Spring here, so to you an especially wonderful Spring.
Samm (Ann)

Samm
March 28th, 2016

The timing of this is unbelieveable. I have always adored your videos, but over time my ehlers danlos and inactivity took a toll and now at 41 I can hardly walk. Today in a combination of hormones and living with constant pain (and an unhappy relationship ) has left me in a deep depression. I have fought that idea off for so long….I have amazing kids, and alot of things to be grateful for. But tonight was difficult. I thought maybe a nurturing yoga dvd was good, but something really pushed me to do pilates. I did, and I felt everything brighten…I felt hope, strength, and it got me out of the deep hole I was in. I know it needs to be ongoing practice. But I couldn’the believe it when I saw this post tonight. Thank you for sharing, and for what you do. It is lifesaving.

Christie Arnold
May 24th, 2016