"By all means never fail to get all the sunshine and fresh air that you can," says Joseph Pilates (1883-1967) in his most well known book, Return To Life Through Contrology. The same text includes such gems as, "Whenever and wherever possible, wear 'shorts' or sun suits outdoors, and let the life-giving ultraviolet rays reach and penetrate into every skin pore of your body."
Conceding the importance of skin cancer prevention, we now have some science to support the suggestions in Joe's book, which he wrote in 1945. We know that Vitamin D, largely acquired by mammals through sunlight, is responsible for enhancing intestinal absorption of calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphate and zinc, directly impacting the mineralization of our bones. In fact, Vitamin D was first discovered as scientists searched for a link between an unknown nutrient deficiency and those suffering from rickets (the childhood form of osteomalacia).
Historical accounts say that Joseph Pilates himself suffered from rickets as a child, among other ailments. It's unlikely that he knew of the relationship between poor bone health and lack of sunshine when he was young, however, as Vitamin D3, the specific form produced by the skin, wasn't identified until 1937. Nevertheless the young Joseph was determined to strengthen himself by traditional means; he began bodybuilding, studying martial arts and training in gymnastics, all modalities that would influence his creation of Contrology, now known as Pilates.
In his first book, Your Health, published in 1934, Joe talks about the ancient Greeks, a culture he seemed to revere: "These people were nature lovers. They preferred to commune with the very elements of nature itself - the woods, the streams, the rivers, the winds and the sea. All these were natural music, poems and dramas to these Greeks who were so fond of outdoor life." He continues on, highlighting that the Greeks were not hampered by extra clothing, instead preferring very little on their bodies. Joe certainly practiced this philosophy, as evidenced by the many photos and videos we have of him demonstrating his method in just underwear or swim trunks!
Joseph Pilates had one daughter and offers plenty of observations about young ones in his first book: "Children, if left to follow their own natural inclinations, without restraint, will not hesitate to discard unnecessary garments. In fact, the fewer the clothes, the better they like it." I must say that I can relate to that one. Born in Tahiti and with frequent travels to Australia my mother could not keep clothes on me. Like many children, I was constantly pulling them off no matter how comfortable or cool the fabric. Perhaps young people instinctively know what Joseph Pilates claims, "that your body also 'breathes' through the pores of your skin as well as through your mouth, nose, and lungs."
Joe's thoughts on this topic allow his method once again to reach far beyond the Pilates studio, indeed out into the hills and onto the beach! If "doing Pilates" means being in the sunshine and fresh air wearing little clothing, there's no excuse to not keep up your practice this summer.
By Téana David
Please note that this is an updated version of a blog post that appeared in 2015.
Now that spring is here, and the wonderful healing weeds and flowers are out, we can begin to make infused oils. I always recommend making infused oils rather than buying essential oils, for a number of reasons. Essential oils cannot be made at home as they require a complicated chemical process that is very similar to how pharmaceutical drugs are made. The process is one of extracting, purifying, and concentrating, resulting in a product that is not whole in any way. Instead of connecting with the entirety of a plant, we are only interacting with the one constituent that has been removed for us in a laboratory. Furthermore, essential oils require thousands of pounds of plant material for a very small amount of product, which cannot be environmentally sustainable. On another note, my herbal medicine teacher Susun Weed reports that some commonly used essential oils like lavender can affect hormones in young boys and girls. They are very potent - please consider using them in tiny amounts if at all!
How to Make Infused Oils
You will need:
A glass jar with a lid
a small plate or bowl
Enough *fresh* but dry plant material to pack a jar of your choosing full.
Olive or almond oil to entirely cover the jar, the less scented the oil the better
A chopstick to stir
When harvesting flowers or plants for oils, be sure that it has not rained for at least 48 hours prior and harvest well into the day so that any dew will have evaporated. Some plants to consider infusing in springtime are Calendula, Lilac, Rose, Red Clover, Dandelion, Plantain and Chickweed. If you have any doubts about the dryness of the plants, let them wilt for a day or two (out of direct sunlight) before infusing with oil.
Fill your jar of choice with plant material, packing it tightly to the top. Pour your oil slowly into the jar and use a chopstick to distribute it evenly throughout. Make sure that the herb is completely covered at the top, then lid. Shake gently and reopen to see if more oil is needed. Place a label on the lid of your jar with the plant name and date. Don't place the label on the side of the jar as the oil will inevitably seep out and melt it off! Place jar on small saucer and then let it sit in a cool spot out of direct sunlight for 6 weeks. Sunlight can make oils rancid. Shake your jar gently once a week or so and watch out for any mold, which is caused by moisture in the plant. If there is mold, best to discard and start again.
After six week's time, strain the oil and place back in jar or in a new container, again storing it out of direct light. If you will be making a salve with your oil, gently heat it in a small sauce pan and add a small amount of beeswax. The amount you will need varies, but trial and error has worked well for me. The more beeswax the harder the end product. Store your salve in a tin or small glass jar.
I hope this tutorial has been helpful! Please feel free to ask questions in the comments section.
As part of our Discovering Wild Edible series, we bring you a cameo by the cultivated - gasp! - banana plant (Musa acuminata or Musa balbisiana).
In the original Five Contemplations as they were recited during the Buddha's time, food was considered to be medicine. Aside from the sensory pleasure and community building that food fosters, plants, each with their unique phyto-chemical make-up, can indeed be thought of as medicine. I am reminded of the time I was travelling in Thailand 12 years ago, suffering from a bad case of diarrhea on my 3rd or 4th day in the country.
Already weak, and feeling desperate, I had a faint recollection of hearing how bananas could help in such a situation, so I cautiously set about walking/running to a local café where I found banana pancakes on the menu. Still adjusting to the culture and language of the tiny inland town, I managed to communicate what I wanted and, in hopes of a quick cure, inhaled the banana-packed flap-jacks down as soon as they were placed in front of me.
Though I did not know it at the time, I was travelling very near the banana's birthplace, for the banana plant is a native species of Asia, with evidence of banana cultivation going way back -- to at least 5000 BCE. The yellow-skinned fruit is now cultivated in approximately 120 countries; it's found in Africa, South America, Australia, The Canary Islands, and in various parts of Asia, with India producing 23% of bananas worldwide, most of which stay in the country for domestic use. Bananas, and their sister cultivar plantains, are a very important crop for developing countries, both because of their high starch content, and because of their year-round growing season, which provides valuable calories between harvests of other staple crops. Bananas also function as an export crop for countries such as The French Caribbean, Ecuador, Costa Rica, and Columbia, but I was surprised to learn that only 15% of bananas grown globally are exported, with most from the Caribbean headed to Europe, and those from South and Central America headed to North America.
Of the bananas that do leave their country of origin, apparently all are considered desert varieties, with the famed "Cavendish" being the most popular. Today's banana tree is actually the largest herbaceous flowering plant in the world, and is usually between 20-25 ft. tall, on average. As you probably already know, bananas destined for export are picked unripened, green bananas being more resistant to bruising and spoiling along the way. Once at their destination they're placed in rooms filled with ethylene gas, a hormone that the banana produces itself already, which ripens them. (This is also why you can ripen an avacado in a day or two by placing it in a closed paperbag with a banana peel - the ultimate life hack.)
The history of the banana is fascinating, but I won't go into too much detail here. Fast-forward to 1936, England, and William Cavendish cultivates his namesake then distributes it to many locations in the South Pacific: by 1855 the palm-like cultivar has taken root in Tahiti, Hawaii, Australia, and Papua New Guinea. Another interesting tid-bit to chew on, and one that contributed to its popularity in the western world in the early 1900's, has to do with its innate design. In a time of increasing awareness of bacteria, viruses, and disease transmission, bananas came sealed in a perfect peel that ensured sterility, offering people a nutritious and germ-free food! Mother Nature deserves a design award and a TED Talk for this one.
This brings us to the properties of the banana fruit, which, interestingly, is botanically classified as a berry; what about its phyto-chemical constitution qualifies it as medicine? No doubt you've heard about the high potassium content of bananas, a near-urban myth that indeed holds true. Potassium is a vital mineral which normalizes the heartbeat - muy importante! Potassium is also integral in regulating the body's water balance, working in tandem with sodium. Bananas are high in vitamin C, A, B6, B12 and the mineral Magnesium. Along with Potassium, Magnesium can help the body recover from nicotine withdrawal. Perhaps a banana "patch" will be the next innovation. The yellow fruit, shaped somewhat like a smile if you think about it, also contains a protein called serotonin, the happy hormone, which can be helpful when we are feeling down.
In my research, I was keen to discover why it was that eating banana pancakes allowed me to get on the next tuk-tuk and continue my Thailand travels (because they did, thankfully)! Apparently they regulate bowel movement, whether the issue be constipation or diarrhea, although green bananas in particular are said to be affective in treating diarrhea. In other digestive news, bananas have been found to protect the stomach lining from aspirin-induced erosions, which seem to be so common these days with the frequent use of aspirin as a blood-thinner.
I don't eat too many bananas anymore, perhaps I find that they are too sweet, or too starchy, or that they leave a weird film in my mouth (now that I'm thinking about it...), but knowing that each plant on the planet has something unique to offer us is a lovely way to view our food. The next time I eat a banana (this opportunity may present itself soon as I am in Costa Rica), I will notice whether it puts a smile on my face, or whether my heart feels more at ease. I hope you will too.
Please note that the information above is not intended as Medical advice. Sources are available upon request.
Téana David apprenticed in Herbal Medicine under Susun Weed in The Wise Woman Tradition. She is also a Pilates Teacher and Physiotherapist Assistant at FIX Healthcare in Victoria, BC, Canada.
Though I don't get to glide down the slopes very often these days, I was lucky to be born to two ski instructor parents, so my siblings and I were on skis very young, eventually skiing competitively as young teenagers. While that was many years ago, I noticed that my skiing was better the last time I was able to go, surely due to a consistent Pilates practice. I should not have been surprised: six years into teaching Pilates, I have seen the movement patterns of countless professional and recreational athletes enhanced by regular practice of the method. In fact, Pilates and skiing fit together like a boot into a binding. Here is some practical advice on how to connect the two.
Do some Pilates mat exercises before going out on the slopes. Yes, you may have to push the sofa out of the way and lay down on a towel in your small rental chalet (my recent experiment at SunPeaks in BC), but it will be worth it! Even a brief Pilates session will warm up your body, mobilize your spine, and connect the activation of your transverse abdominals to the movement of your limbs; this will help to stabilize your pelvis and keep your low back safe and healthy even in the most challenging conditions. If you already know some of the Pilates mat repertoire, do a section of it. If you are new to Pilates try following this short routine that I recommend from our friends at Pilatesology:
Use your breath to engage your core while skiing. In downhill skiing, you will be turning as you descend the slope, both to control your speed and to navigate the terrain. While some advanced runs require more frequent turns, I suggest warming up with some smooth blue runs (or green if you are a beginner), where you are able to get a nice wide serpentine motion. As you travel horizontally, fill your lungs with the invigorating fresh air, then exhale as you plant your pole and turn. Notice how your out-breath encourages a gentle deepening of the navel towards the spine, and use that to bring awareness to your core. This in and out breath rhythm not only supports your muscles in hugging in towards the midline, stabilizing your pelvis and low back, it also calms the mind by connecting your movements to your breath.
Find your form. Longtime ski instructor Trudy David, (who was my very first instructor - she's my mom!), advises skiers to "bend your knees, slightly tuck your tail, and curve your back gently so that your shoulders line up over your knees. In the old days, long narrow skis were originally held close together, but with the modern wider skis, it's definitely best to keep the feet inner hip-width apart, with the knees tracking right over the ankles." If you want to ensure the health of your knees while skiing, use a regular Pilates practice before and during ski season to strengthen the hamstrings. This can help balance overused quads and support the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). Exercises that emphasize the adductors (inner thighs), will help keep the skis under the center of the body, thus reducing the stress on another important knee stabilizer, the medial collateral ligament (MCL).
Get comfortable in between runs. You know when you put the safety bar down on the chairlift and a footrest also comes down for your skis? Just as we aim to relax our muscles fully (however briefly) between Pilates exercises, relax your weighted feet on those foot rests. Be sure to only ride chairlifts that are equipped with these if you have any ankle, knee or hip sensitivity: some of the older lifts don't have anywhere to put your feet, and with the weight of your boots and skis, hanging legs can strain joints and restrict blood flow in your lower extremities. Not only can this lead to possible injury, it can also lead to a bad case of frozen toes!
This last tip has nothing to do with Pilates and everything to do with having a well-rounded alpine experience: Enjoy a long soak in the hot tub! Most mountains have one you can access. My brother in-law, who suffers from arthritis in his hip, was in the tub twice a day during a recent ski trip and found it to be very helpful for pain management. An Epsom salt bath would be a great chlorine/bromine free alternative if you prefer.
Téana David is the former Director of Pilates Education at David Barton Gym in New York City. She currently teaches Pilates alongside physiotherapists at FIX Healthcare in Victoria, BC.
In many parts of the world north of the equator it's pretty cold right now, even on east coast where folks celebrated the recent winter holidays in t-shirts! As I was walking down the street yesterday in Victoria, Canada, my down "sleeping bag coat" zipped up and snug around me, tuque, scarf and gloves in place, I'll admit that I felt somewhat overdressed, and even a bit self-conscious on a fairly mild December day.
Then I noticed something: while I was walking freely, swinging my arms with shoulders square and broad, neck relaxed and free to look around, other less warmly-dressed pedestrians were not looking quite so carefree: A quick scan of the sidewalk revealed a woman in skinny black jeans and a short acrylic sweater taking teeny-tiny steps while hunched over staring at the ground. A man in a light hoody huddled in with his girlfriend, who was sporting a jean jacket over light clothing, arms squeezed in towards her sides and shoulders hunched. The more I looked around, the better I felt about my down encasement ensemble. I wasn't rushing to escape the cold by getting indoors, in fact I was enjoying being both warm and outdoors. I wasn't shivering -- truth-be-told I was actually staring to sweat a bit; maybe I didn't need that mid layer after all.
Did I look as stylish as these folks braving the cold on the sidewalk next to me? Not even a little bit.
But let's talk about what's happening when we sacrifice warmth for style. As we've all experienced, the main reaction when humans get cold is to contract. In an attempt to keep our insides warm, everything pulls inwards toward the center of the body, even our blood vessels constrict, limiting circulation to our distal tissues. We are essentially pulling in towards a fetal position, that soothing shape that ensures protection for our organs in the front of the body, where we have fewer bony protections.
To unpack the effects even further, in an attempt to create a fleshy turtle-neck, our upper trapezius and levator scapula (the muscle you'd use to prop a phone between your ear and shoulder), shrug upwards towards our ears. Right next door, the anterior deltoids (shoulder muscles) pull in, bringing our pectoralis major and minor (chest muscles) along with them. The contraction party is raging. Because the upper trapezius are bringing the shoulders up around the ears, our rhomboids, which would normally rest tautly on our back between our shoulder blades, become stretched and ineffective at helping our collarbones stay broad. We become hunched. We're now fighting a losing battle: with the upper body so dramatically compromised, the lower body, starting with the pelvis, has no choice but to change its position as well. It will move from a neutral pelvis into a tucked pelvis, and the superficial hip flexors in particular (some of the muscles that lift your leg up to take a step), shorten. The quadraceps in the front of the legs may then become tight and the hamstrings slack, ensuring tight shuffling steps. It's no wonder so many of us complain of tight muscles in the colder months!
Employed every once in a while, our body's warming strategy is fantastic, but not if we use it on regular basis! So this winter you may want to consider ditching the light jacket and model-hunch posture for a warm and puffy coat and some wind-shielding accessories*. Then you can truly enjoy the freshness of the outdoors and rest easy in the cozy cocoon you've created.
*I recommend leg-warmers.
Téana David is the former Director of Pilates Education at David Barton Gym in New York City. She currently teaches Pilates alongside physiotherapists at FIX Healthcare in Victoria, BC.