Take a moment to sit relaxed on a mat with your legs straight out in front of you. Picture your favorite color and imagine that color filling your toes. Follow that color as it travels through your feet, your ankles up your shins, knees, hips, through your pelvis, abdomen and chest. At the same time, your color is traveling from your fingers to your hands, up your arms to you shoulders, joining your chest then traveling up your neck to your face. You then reverse the flow, picturing the color as it travels through each body part returning to your fingers and toes. The accompanying breathing is to inhale in through your nose as the color comes up your body, drop your jaw and exhale with a relaxed body while the color reverts back and out of your body via the fingers and toes. Continue this pattern until your body feels relaxed. By practicing this visualization exercise, you can release stress and tension, plus improve your focus on the task at hand. Eventually you can take this mental process from your mat to your life.
When I was a child, my mother taught Lamaze Childbirth Classes. I watched her help expectant mothers practice various relaxation techniques and muscle control in preparation for childbirth. The above technique is one she taught to me and my fellow teammates for relaxation prior to gymnastics competitions. There is extensive pressure surrounding competitions which require a gymnast to maintain poise and balance on a 4 inch beam raised 4 feet above the ground. Taking a minute to utilize this relaxation technique enabled me to block out the audience, the coaches, the judges, and the other competitors. This was critical to centering myself before performing.
Eventually the visualization evolved into a more specific practice. When I struggled to fall asleep the night before a competition, I would visualize each of my four gymnastics routines. I would go through each skill with perfect form and execution, I would stick the dismount, I would hear the crowd roar in approval, and I would see the pleased look on the faces of my coaches and the judges. I would repeat this practice upon arriving to each competition.
The practice of visualization has various applications outside of a traditionally competitive environment. As an adult, I began envisioning positive outcomes from job interviews, as well as ongoing success and advancement within my chosen career. It’s as if your positive thoughts can actually influence the outcome of various stressful situations. Once you experience this, the possibilities for applying this energy can be endless.
Pilates entered my life in 2001 as I was using visualization to assist in healing a serious back injury. I had suffered a herniation between two thoracic discs and I was desperate to lengthen the space between those vertebrae. I remember that my Pilates instructor asked me to visualize my spine as a string of pearls, and that those pearls should move one at a time. So with matwork exercises such as bridging, rolling up, rolling down, or rolling like a ball, I pictured the pearls (my vertebrae) acting independently as they sequenced in each direction. With time, it became natural and my core worked cohesively in a fluid motion. As a result, the tension in my back began to release and the lengthening of my spine gave me a tall and strong posture.
To this day, I place great priority on movements that help lengthen my spine. Sometimes it falls right into place, and sometimes I have to slow down and focus to correct a pack of vertebrae that instinctively fuse together instead of working independently. On the good days, I like to attempt exercises that challenge both my strength and confidence. One such exercise is squirrel on the Cadillac. You won’t find this move in any Pilates books, and the YouTube videos vary in execution, but those in the industry speak of the squirrel as the Olympics of Pilates moves. Upon watching the sequencing of this exercise, you will observe the integration of strength and flexibility. But not to be ignored is the role of mental strength through confidence. With or without a gymnastics background, it can take years to coordinate the components of this exercise. This is where visualization plays a critical role. Many people do not feel comfortable inverting to the upside down position, especially with a blind entry. After watching my demonstration video, such as my link below, I would recommend learning the squirrel as follows:
1. Memorize the sequence of movements as demonstrated.
2. Take all of the time necessary to visualize yourself successfully completing the skill.
3. Upon initiating the skill, first focus on strengthening the hamstring muscles to
sufficiently raise up the body from the mat, while simultaneously engaging the
abdominal muscles to scoop the torso into a curved position. Repeat this sequence
until your strength allows for enough lift to invert through to a handstand.
4. When you are ready both physically and mentally to invert, recruit one or two
spotters to assist you. Considering the necessary arm strength and back flexibility,
there is the risk of injury.
5. Take your time and keep picturing the way your mind and body need to interact in
order to successfully flow through the skill.
There are so many applications for visualization in life and it offers the convenience of being utilized anywhere and at anytime. When I’m at the grocery store, I like to envision how the ingredients I’m choosing will come together in a healthy and delicious meal. When I’m scheduling my upcoming social media campaign, I like to envision how the various posts will tell a story to my readers. When I’m preparing a routine for a Pilates client, I like to envision how it will strengthen and stretch him/her through a variety of flowing exercise sequences. And when i’m considering my future, I like to envision a challenging but fulfilling personal and professional life that leads me to strive for more and more possibilities.
Whether you are applying visualization to spinal articulation, extraordinary Pilates skills, personal relationships, career goals, or any other worthy aspect of your life, I wish you the mental and physical strength to achieve all that you reach for!
Eme Cole grew up a competitive gymnast within a family of entrepreneurs. She earned a BS in Kinesiology, an MS in Exercise Physiology and certifications through The American College of Sports Medicine & The PhysicalMind Institute. Eme is the author of the ‘Pilates Expanded’ book series which includes 7 books, 3 of which are top sellers on Amazon. In 2014 she successfully sold her Chicago Pilates studio of 12 years. Her social media network reaches over 5,000 Pilates & fitness enthusiasts and she has filmed over 80 instructional Pilates videos for herYouTube channel. Currently residing in Aspen CO, Eme is available for on-site private training as well as workshops. You can visit her at www.PilatesExpanded.com, and you can find Eme’s books on her Amazon page.