Exercise Your Way to a Healthy Mind

And why Pilates is for everyone

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Words by Leona McDaid
April 11th, 2016

Continuing our Mindfulness series, we sit down with Ireland’s youngest fully-qualified Pilates instructor, Carolyn MacLachlan of Form School, and chat about the benefits of being physically strong have on your mental state and how to achieve a happy and healthy mind through Pilates.

What sort of exercise would you recommend for stress?

The most amazing thing about any kind of exercise is that chemicals known as endorphins are released by the body- and these trigger a positive feeling. In particular, Pilates as a form of exercise allows these endorphins to be transmitted, which in turns boosts the mood and also relaxes the mind. The relaxation comes from one of the Pilates Principles: breathing. Every single movement in the Pilates repertoire is co-ordinated with breath, so even after a single one hour class, the conscious and continuous deep breathing leaves you feeling calm and focused.

And what about those who suffer with anxiety?

In the same vein as above, breathing is essential when dealing with an anxious psyche. What sets Pilates apart from many other forms of exercise is the concentration required during a class. Posture, breathing and technique are constantly cued by your instructor, so in that hour you are 100% focused on your body and nothing else. I’ve noticed that this simple act of focusing on breathing diverts their attention from any negative vibes they’re experiencing, it centres their mind and more often than not, they leave the studio with a fresher perspective.

Not getting enough sleep?

Many clients I have worked with complain of feeling exhausted yet are unable to sleep. There is a difference between being mentally tired and being physically tired. You can be mentally exhausted and still lie awake for hours — this is because your body needs to work just as much as your brain does. Pilates works the entire body and leaves your muscles stretched and ready to rest by the time it comes to fall asleep.

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What advice would you give a complete novice looking to try one of your classes?

Pilates is for absolutely everybody, regardless of age, fitness level, gender, even with respect to injuries. If there is an injury present, I would usually recommend a private one-on-one class with me before they enter a group class. This is so I can focus entirely on the client to see how their body moves with the injury — every body is different and no two cases are the exact same. For example, some modifications might be required for certain moves, and I would like them to enter their first group class with the knowledge that they can partake in the class while still taking care of themselves. If no injuries are present, a ‘beginner’s class’ is what the client should look for. Even if there is a high level of fitness, the reason a novice should always attend at least a few beginner’s classes is to learn the correct techniques. Higher-level classes rely on the client being experienced, or at least familiar, with Pilates posture. All classes are performed in either socks or bare feet, and I would recommend wearing clothing that allows your body to move while still keeping you comfortable — think leggings, tank tops, exercise shorts etc. Other than that, Pilates is a safe and fun way to get your body working correctly, so if there is any nervousness around beginning, just talk to your instructor! They will keep an eye on you and help if you have any questions. Remember that everybody in a beginner’s class is in the same boat, so no need to be afraid.

How can people approach healthy living in a way that doesn’t seem intimidating or self-sacrificing?

The key to healthy living is “everything in moderation”. It’s all about making healthy choices when you can, and giving yourself time to find out what works for you and what doesn’t. Take exercise for example — there’s no need to work out for 6 hours a day to be fit and healthy. Three Pilates classes a week, along with plenty of water and a balanced diet, are more than enough to fulfil the criteria of healthy living. And don’t be afraid to treat yourself. Guilt should not be associated with food or skipping a day of exercise. We all need to take a break sometimes.

What simple changes can people make to their everyday lives to feel better physically and mentally?

I always recommend to my clients to drink more water. Aim for two to three litres per day. It’s so important to keep the body hydrated and to flush out toxins that build up naturally. Exercise will naturally make you feel better physically, it tires the body to allow for easier sleep, which can improve your mental state.

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Do you find that different sorts of personalities are attracted to the different classes you offer?

Absolutely. The two types of Pilates classes I teach are Mat and Reformer. Reformer Pilates takes place on a machine, and Mat is on the floor. I tend to find that people who prefer a faster type of work out enjoy Reformer Pilates, there’s a lot going on in terms of body position and working with a moving carriage for the entire class. Both have their benefits, Mat allows for more freedom of movement and can be harder than Reformer as it relies totally on the client’s own body weight and strength. Reformers are designed to get the body in the correct position and offer slightly more support than Mat. Of course, everybody has their own personal preferences, so I would always recommend trying as many types of classes as possible, to keep variety in the workout and to challenge the body in different ways.

What sort of tips would you give to someone trying to be more mindful? How can they switch off from the daily grind?

Mindfulness, in my view, comes from being more aware of your surroundings. It’s hard to switch off from life, in my case, it is being constantly notified on social media! My favourite ritual is to switch off my phone for one hour every day so I can’t be interrupted, and I do something completely unrelated to the online world. It doesn’t matter if it’s exercise, going for a massage, having a cup of coffee or speaking to a friend — I just commit one hour to focus on nothing but the task at hand. It’s incredible just to reset the brain and come back to reality. That’s just an example of what helps me, the “phone” here could be something different for somebody else. The point is to remove yourself from something that you feel takes away from your life, and to do something that you enjoy. It can be unbelievably refreshing.

A healthy mind can be transformative, what sort of success stories have you seen from Form School students?

One client in particular springs to mind; a lady who came in about three months ago, who’d had a C-section in pregnancy, and was very nervous to exercise as she had extremely weak core muscles and a tendency to strain her lower back as a result. Form School classes are done on Reformer machines, which are designed to support your body while you exercise. I have seen the transformation in her entire personality, she never once was in pain after class, and her confidence grew and grew each week as she realised she COULD get stronger, she could improve the state she felt her body was in, safely and with control. She went from being terrified to move, or even lift objects, to attending advanced level classes happy in the knowledge that she was and is in safe hands.

Tell me how you started out and what got you interested?

My aunt is also a Pilates instructor, so through secondary school and exams, I used to attend classes two to three times a week to de-stress. I found it helped so much to clear my head, and also kept my fitness level high, even through the Leaving Certificate! I also had a weak lower back, and the strength Pilates gave me in my core has made the weakness all but vanish. When I finished school I felt like I wanted to take the journey further, and I attended an intensive 8-month teacher training course. Since then, the opportunities to help clients have made this the most fulfilling job I’ve ever had. Plus as I said previously, no two clients are the same, so the job is always interesting and always challenging.

Open 7 days a week, Form School has a class suitable for everyone, including 30-minute lunch classes. See formschool.ie for the full class schedule and further details.