Yogalates with Ines Vogel

Quickie Review of Yogalates with Ines Vogel

If you had told me a year or two ago that my son would one day sleep till 7:30 am, I would have called you a liar. If you had told me that I would get up at 5:45 am so that I could exercise before the kiddo woke up, I would’ve called you a maniac. But that’s exactly what I did today.

The previous day I had picked up Ines Vogel‘s Yogalates DVD at my local Rossmann drugstore. (Word to the wise: Germany has the best drug stores.) And I was determined to try it.

Yogalates exercises with Ines Vogel

Yogalates sounds like something that shouldn’t exist. On the other hand, it’s also sort of great. Vogel notes at the beginning that yoga and pilates have different forms of breathing, and she instructs you to do the pilates-style breathing, into the chest. Otherwise, the hour-long workout is a neat flow of yoga and pilates moves. And in fact, they work great together. She cues almost every breath, and combines flowing movements, static stretches, and strength work from both disciplines. Vogel also gives lots of tips on correct form, but frankly, I know enough to know that more are necessary. (There were lots of situations where a live instructor would have told me to square my hips, for example.) The DVD itself is shot in a bright studio. Ines Vogel demonstrates the moves along with an assistant, and one or the other will do an easier variation of a move — but the variations are not guided in words.

Yogalates exercises with Ines Vogel

What I love about this is that I have to divide my precious exercise time among too many things: bellydance, ballet, yoga, pilates, and even a bit of cardio. If I can feel like I touched two bases with one practice, then I’m a bit happier. And the workout was good, letting me sweat a little, but also giving me ample time to stretch various body parts. Lower back pain that was there yesterday is no longer there today, for example. Upper back pain is still there, but way better. But although there are no crazy difficult moves, you do need to be beyond beginner to know how to do them right, or at least be working towards correct form.

The DVD is in German. But for those of you who understand German, or are happy to follow along with the screen, it’s a great (and quite cheap) buy!

Yogalates exercises with Ines Vogel

Kristina Nekya does splits

Review of Kristina Nekyia’s Get Bent: Circus Style Flexibility Training

Alright, admit it: I cannot be the only person to look around during the cool-down part of dance class and compare my flexibility to the dancers near me. It’s not that I’m much competition to anyone, not counting a few joints in my arms that allow me to perform East European circus tricks to the horror of all around. And it’s not that I’m planning on doing the splits in the foreseeable future. But there are so many times I come up against the limits of my flexibility — a back bend here, a plie there — and I wish those limits were a little further.

This is why when I heard about Get Bent – Circus Style Flexibility Training with Kristina Nekyia, I was dying to try it. I didn’t know if I could dream of splits, but I did want to know what tools were out there to help. I received a review copy from Kristina, and have worked with it a number of times over the last while.

Kristina Nekya does dancer stretches

The first thing to say is that this video is definitely not for people who have not moved around in a while, or for the overambitious who cannot pay attention to what their body is telling them. Get Bent is an intense program, you go into stretches for relatively long periods of time, and it plays on the edge of discomfort. As Kristina explains in the introduction, you need to differentiate between good and bad pain, and she describes how to recognize which is which.

To be perfectly honest, the first time I worked with the video I wasn’t sure if I had pushed myself too far, and was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to move the next day. In fact, I felt fantastic the next day, all kinds of aches and pains were gone. This has been true every time I have done the video — for me, it works like a really good yin yoga session. But I would still say that you need to be smart, careful, and aware using this DVD, as you will not have a live coach to watch over you.

The first section is a Warmup, which is more of a joint-loosening warmup than one to get your heart up very much. You systematically move all the joints of your body, from the wrists to the ankles, and start to practice some squats and leg raises. I was very glad to have this, as I would not have wanted to stretch cold, but I imagine that doing the video after a long workout would be even better.

Part 2 is Splits Preparation, which consists of forward and sideways lunges held for a good long time, followed by a series of yoga postures designed to relax the hamstrings. While some of the moves are yoga, the instruction isn’t. Kristina carefully guides you through dynamic stretches, using gentle movement and tensing and releasing of muscles to attain a deeper stretch. Everything is done equally on both sides. I find the little “tricks”, especially with tensing and releasing muscles, incredibly helpful.

Kristina Nekya does yoga

Part 3 is Splits. This was the hardest section for me, mainly because I can’t do anywhere near the splits. As much as it was difficult for me to levitate in the position that was as close as I could get, I did feel that I was stretching in a way that was beyond the lunges in Part 2. However, the middle splits are something one can practice even without too much of a range of motion. In this section, as through the video, Kristina gives you quiet encouragement and tips on saying nice things to your body. This sounds sort of funny at first, until you realize it works. So yes, I’ll admit it, I now say nice things to my body in my head when I’m stretching! The Splits section would be particularly valuable to people who can already do the splits, since there are also exercises for going beyond a 180-degree stretch.

Next comes the Shoulder Warm Up & Stretch. This was one of my favourite sections of the DVD, and perhaps the most generally useful. I sit at my computer a lot, for both work and fun, and it is not good for my shoulders and upper back. Kristina’s exercises really loosen the shoulders, and she also has some gorgeous stretches for the front of the shoulders and the chest. Again, this section would be worth doing as a break at the office, but would also be worth incorporating into a dance warmup. Really delicious.

The Backbends section will probably be most interesting to bellydancers. Kristina uses a mirror/wall to bend towards, but she also guides you to move from the upper back only, keeping the lower abdominals still. Again, this is one of those exercises I worry about when I’m doing, because I don’t want to hurt my lower back. But I’ve always been careful only to go as far as I could while still following Kristina’s instructions, and I’ve felt fine.

Finally, you get a short but satisfying yoga-based Cool Down. You have earned it. Heck, if you’re anything like me, you’re probably shaking at this point.

Throughout the DVD, Kristina is encouraging and funny. While she is clearly very fit, she is also curvy, and frankly, it made me very happy to see someone on the screen with a body similar to mine, but doing really cool things with it.

So the big question: does it work? I haven’t done the video the recommended three times a week, nowhere near it, so I can’t speak to the effects it would have if you really did it religiously. That said, when I did work with it, I noticed a difference in my classes afterwards. My muscles were remarkably looser, I felt more flexible, and I felt like I knew how to stretch better. I have to imagine that doing the video regularly would increase my flexibility even more.

You will like Get Bent – Circus Style Flexibility Training with Kristina Nekyia if you have some experience with stretching or yoga, are aware of your body and can respect its limits, and are craving really deep, long stretches. If you can already do splits, you will probably use the video as a maintenance and extension program. All of the program is useful for dancers, but there are parts, like the upper body and shoulder stretches, that bellydancers will particularly enjoy. I also think you’ll like it if you want the feeling of having done a great yoga session — you know, that sensation of everything in your body having been pulled apart and put back together loosely — without all the yogic tralala.

On the other hand, you will probably be frustrated with the DVD if you are very inflexible; in that case, you might be better off with a gentle yoga program. You also should not expect contortionist circus tricks, despite the title. These are very straightforward, well-known stretches, guided well, and with some extra techniques thrown in to make them feel better. But don’t expect to be pretzeling your legs around your neck or anything.

Kristina’s website is The Nekyia. You can get Get Bent – Circus Style Flexibility Training with Kristina Nekyia at Amazon by clicking the photo below.

Review of Chantal Donnelly’s Pain Free at Work

Although I’ve dedicated this blog to activities that make me feel physically wonderful, like dance, and yoga, and pilates, the truth is that I spend enormous amounts of time in front of the computer like everyone else. It’s not just work, though it is also work. But many things I love to do, like writing creatively (and like, well, my work) require the computer.

This means that I can reliably count on one thing: pain.

I was recently sent a review copy of Chantal Donnelly’s Pain Free at Work. The funny thing is, I’ve often wanted something just like what this video includes, namely a short stretching program that can be done in my office chair. But first things first.

Let me just pull up a seat…

Pain Free at Work is a mixed-genre DVD, made up of both informative lecture segments and sets of practical exercises. It’s about forty minutes long, and divided into multiple sections:

Pain Free Sitting
Training for Marathon Sitting – Phase 1
Training for Marathon Sitting – Phase 2
Ergonomics in the Work Place
Exercising at Your Desk
After Work Workout
Handling Pain: Elbow, Wrist and Hand Pain
Express Stress Relief

The lectures:

In Pain Free Sitting, Chantal demonstrates how to sit correctly so as to minimize the curvature of the back, and reduce pain. She uses a live model and anatomical charts. As much as I am easily bored during this kind of lecture, the truth is that I realised how much I am doing wrong when I sit at a desk. (Just right now I was sitting back with my legs crossed on the chair!) I’ve always known I was sitting poorly, but having it spelled out somehow helps me to check my own posture. (Now I am sitting up straight, abdominals in. Aren’t you proud of me?)

This is the secret to good laptop mojo!

 I found Ergonomics in the Work Place very useful. Again, this is the kind of thing I’ve read dozens of articles on, but I’ve rarely been able to control my work space to the extent needed to have an optimal setup. What I liked about this section is that Chantal and ergonomics expert Brad Hutchins deal with laptops, which I never have seen before. The assumption tends to be that you have a huge desk computer. The other thing I liked was Brad’s point that even making one improvement is better than nothing. I don’t have to have the perfect setup at work, but changing one thing is still good.

Express Stress Relief was really express. It is a short conversation between Chantal and Dr. Jeff Gero, and includes a few strategies on dealing with stress. Mainly deep breathing, meditation, and positive thinking. Honestly, I think each of these take enough training to do them right that having a short segment on them is not particularly helpful.

The lectures with some exercises:

Training for Marathon Sitting – Phase 1 is basically an introduction to connecting with your transverse abdominal muscle. Chantal provides some strategies for strengthening it while doing everyday tasks. Again, simple, but good to have the reminder. I do think that people who have not had training in accessing this muscle might benefit from even more detailed instruction. (I found Helen Byrne’s postnatal conditioning workout to be particularly focused in this respect.)

Handling Pain: Elbow, Wrist and Hand Pain is another brief segment, including two self-massage techniques for dealing with elbow and hand pain that were completely new to me. Short, but very worth while.

The exercise programs:

The real gem of Pain Free at Work for me is Exercising at Your Desk. This is a compact set of exercises you can do at your desk that will gently stretch everything from the feet to the head. The thing I particularly like about this is that the exercises do not look weird — that is, you don’t have to get into any funny or embarrassing positions to do them. You could do them around your coworkers and no one would bat an eye.

This is just a delicious inner-thigh stretch

 Training for Marathon Sitting – Phase 2 is a gentle yoga and pilates-type workout for stretching the back and building strength in both abdominal and back muscles. Chantal suggests you watch it through before doing it. This is a good idea, as the cuing is minimal. (I would have liked for everything to be cued.) That said, she does give good prompts on form and using the abdominal muscles for support. And she has one of the demonstrators show modifications, sometimes using a Swiss ball.

Finally, there is an After Work Workout that uses a thick foam roller for stretching and relaxation. I didn’t have the prop, so I didn’t do it! I can say that the other two workouts are simple but definitely relaxing.

In short, I think Pain Free at Work can be very useful to anyone spending a lot of time at a computer. Watching the lecture segments is not as much fun as doing the exercises, but I did get some good tips out of them. I think the best way to use it is to keep it in your office and do the stretches and self-massages on a regular basis, once or twice a day, as a preventative measure!

Review of Annette Fletcher’s Perfect in Ten: Stretch

[Note: Don’t forget to enter the giveaway for Annette Fletcher’s Prenatal Stretch & Strengthening before June 1, 2012!]

Being a new mother means suffering through all sorts of aches and pains: lower back, shoulders, neck (from looking down adoringly at my son, of course), you name it. The natural answer to this should be, of course, yoga. And I have several postnatal yoga videos to work with, but so far, I’m still not really ready to take on a proper yoga workout. So I decided to give Annette Fletcher’s Perfect in Ten: Stretch a go.

I was particularly motivated by the fact that the video is split up into ten-minute segments. I don’t have enormous chunks of time to myself these days, so I wanted to start something I could do in bits if I happened to be interrupted. (And of course, I was.) The video is broken up into the following chunks:

1. Upper Body, Back and Hips
2. Hips and Legs
3. Sedentary Lifestyle Relief
4. Sports Stretch
5. Intense Stretch

Chapters 1 and 2 really flow into each other — do them back to back and you’ll have some decent stretching for your entire body. Chapter 3 stands well on its own, as it has you do stretches while sitting in a chair. This would be perfect as a quick ten-minute stretch to do at work.

Chapter 4 contains stretches targeted for particular sports, such as tennis, golf, and running. However, it’s not a full stretching program on its own, so you’re best off learning the stretches useful to you and then doing them on the field. Finally, Chapter 5 has some deeper, mostly yoga-based stretches.

When I do a program like Perfect in Ten: Stretch, I typically ask myself several questions: How effective is the program, especially in ten-minute segments? How new to me are the moves? And, if the moves are not particularly innovative, is the way they are sequenced particularly interesting or good?

Effectiveness: When I’m really tense, ten minutes of stretching doesn’t do very much. It’s better than nothing, but won’t get me really relaxed. I think Chapter 3 is good on its own, as it is easy to do in one location and is perfectly designed as a little break. The other chapters have you move between standing, mat work, and wall-based work. (There is plenty of time for these changes, but I don’t have a lot of spare wall space, so I tend to be frustrated by extensive use of wall space in exercise videos.) Doing 1 and 2 together is good for basic, head-to-toe stretching. I did the entire video, with an interruption, and I found that doing all 50 minutes or so really was effective, deeply relaxing, and relieved all sorts of pain.

Novelty: Most of the stretches, especially in the first three segments, are ones I recognized, though there were some surprises. Annette uses a lot of gentle twisting moves, which I also liked. I thought the sports stretch and intense stretch chapters were the most interesting. Sports stretch has a shoulder stretch (pictured) that a former yoga teacher of mine had us do, and which is truly wonderful if done right — I’m glad to have it on video.

Sequencing: Despite the fact that the chapters are themed, Perfect in Ten: Stretch works as a whole. It starts with super gentle stretches, continues to slightly more intense one, and builds up to deep stretches. If you have a regular yoga practice, you will probably not find Perfect in Ten: Stretch challenging enough. But if you don’t, or you’re trying to build up to yoga but are inflexible or suffering from pain, you might find the video just the thing for slowly easing into yoga-type stretches.

I’ve previously reviewed some of Annette Fletcher’s DVDs for World Dance New York here and here. The more I work with her stuff, the more I like her. She has a calm, matter-of-fact demeanor I find soothing. Her cueing is detailed, precise, and allows you enough time to move from one position to another. (I noticed one missed cue in the whole video.) And I feel better and stronger once I’m done working with her videos. They’re just plain solid.

First workout with Helene Byrne’s Bounce Back Fast! Post Natal Core Conditioning

My mother’s day gift to myself? Starting to exercise again.

Even though there are many people who exercise before hitting the six-week mark, it’s my nature to have a sense of fearful respect towards any process that involves cutting my body open and rearranging my organs. So I was really careful to toe the line before I got my doctor’s ok: I didn’t lift heavy things, I didn’t exert myself too much — at least not two days in a row — and I did absolutely no exercise. Not even the lightest movements. None.

But man, was I ever dying to. So to ease into it again, I decided to start with my review copy of Helene Byrne’s Bounce Back Fast! Post Natal Core Conditioning. There are two workouts. “Gentle First Moves” can be done early in the postpartum period, and is all I’ve worked with so far. Then there is “Bounce Back Fast!”, with an “Abdominal Separation Program.”

Bounce Back Fast! begins with a series of informational segments on beginning postpartum exercise, using kegels to recondition the pelvic floor, dealing with Diastasis Recti (I didn’t have this so I skipped watching this segment), and ways to work the abdominals so as to pull in the stomach. I think it’s really worth watching through these at least once for two reasons. First, Helene introduces the postures she later calls on in the workout. And second, the tips on keeping the abs engaged during movement have made me much more aware of how I hold myself when walking, holding the baby, breastfeeding, and so on.

Now, let’s be frank here. This is not an exciting video. It’s filmed in a very plain studio, though the shots are very clear and professional. Helene enunciates everything slowly, explains in detail what the postpartum body needs, and doesn’t use cutesy words for body parts the way exercise video instructors sometimes do. There’s no “tushy” here. When Helene means “anus,” she says “anus.”

Nor is the workout exciting. If you were simply to watch it, you would probably think nothing is happening. And this, my dear readers, is why I always insist on doing the videos I review. Because this plain 30-minute workout, with no music and no flashing lights, is ridiculously effective.

I’ve done it three times so far, and each time I was suffering from upper and lower back pain before I began it. The first time I worked with the program, I felt pain relief the following day. The second and third times, I had no more back pain immediately after finishing the program. I am serious. One moment I was in lots of pain, and exactly half an hour later, I felt good.

How did this happen? The exercises themselves are fundamentally basic stretches, the kind I know from physiotherapy and from pilates/yoga type workouts. They remind me quite a bit of the Viniyoga back therapy videos I love so much. However, Helene cues them with precise attention to which muscles should be tensed and which relaxed. And each of the exercises has something just a little bit different about them. One focused on pulling in the abdominal muscles uses breath work and hand spotting to get those loose muscles working again. (Incidentally, this particular exercise would be great for belly dancers looking to isolate lower from upper abs!) A hamstring stretch uses the included elastic band to do a gentle but powerful variation. These are just a few examples.

The other thing I want to note is that while these exercises seem like nothing from the outside, doing them correctly is very difficult, especially postpartum. While my strength and flexibility have improved with each repetition of the workout, I’ve also come to see more and more how much concentration they need to be done according to Helene’s instructions.

I’m looking forward to working with the second part of the workout. But I’m also looking forward to returning to dance and yoga instructionals, to say nothing of other postpartum exercise programs, with the increased awareness of my abdominal muscles taught in Bounce Back Fast!

Bounce Back Fast! is also available on www.befitmom.com.

Amira’s Belly Dance for the miserable mornings

When I first worked with Amira’s Belly Dance & Yoga For Pregnancy (reviewed here), I really enjoyed it but wondered how often I would have enough time to do the full 1.5 hour workout. Oh, silly, innocent me! How naive I was as I was entering my third trimester. Little did I know in those halcyon days that sleeping through the night would soon become a special treat.

Backwards undulation as labour prep

So early this morning, sleep-deprived for a few days now, angry at the world and everyone around me, and having just felt my baby turn head up, I decided to give up on my ill-fated attempts to fall asleep again. I had a meeting to get to in the morning, but still plenty of time to get in, well, a full 1.5 hour workout — and after several restless nights, my body needed it.

Let’s just say this: the careful yoga stretches and deliberate and beautiful bellydance movements took me from being murderous to being almost — happy! Once or twice, I even found myself smiling. Everything was much harder for my exhausted body to perform, but it also felt so much more necessary. This time, since I’m closer to my due date, I also paid more attention to the “Exercises During Labor” section. In fact, these exercises are also bellydance movements (pelvic drops, umis, and a lower-body backwards undulation), but I tried to imagine myself stringing them together during labour, mentally training for the big event. There were also yogic breathing exercises which I found amazingly soothing, including one that timed breathing to head rolls, which I think I could actually keep track of during labour! And the “Cool Down” section has a series of shoulder stretches that were particularly satisfying after nights of fighting with pillows and days of tensing up at work.

The last time I did Amira’s Belly Dance & Yoga it was fun. This time around, it helped me face the day. When I finished, I set up some couch cushions for a shavasana and pretty promptly… fell asleep!

Returning to Bellydance Arms & Posture

Today, in an attempt to begin my resolution (actually made after I finished this video), I worked again with Rachel Brice’s Bellydance Arms & Posture.

I did it, in short, because of pain. Shoulder pain. Upper back pain. Stiff neck. I have a great DVD for yoga-based shoulder work by Jill Miller, and it really is great, but I wanted a bit of dance too. Just in case you’re wondering how bad my shoulders are: there is enough loud cracking in my upper back every time I roll my shoulders that I know whether I’m keeping time with the music or not. (I know: you really needed to know that.)

Rachel Brice performing shoulder exercises
The rope pulling exercise

On the one hand, I was stiff, my shoulders were weak, and I still see no point in the knee-hurting level changes she covers that have nothing to do with the rest of the workout. On the other hand, I was much more inspired by Bellydance Arms & Posture this time around. Although Brice doesn’t have you do a lot on posture per se, working so much on the shoulders just has that effect. The practice periods for moves like sidewinder are long enough to actually *get* it. And there’s a cute little combination at the end that, done enough times, is something you can adapt to other kinds of dance.

Rachel Brice tribal fusion dancing

I also really appreciated the soothing, yoga-based warmup and cool down. The video is a cohesive unit, and if it’s not as comprehensive a source for arm work as dancers might want, it’s easy to commit to fifty minutes and just do it. And the neck stretches — Brice didn’t forget the neck stretches! Bless her.

After it was over, and to my surprise, I found myself just dancing. For some reason, loosening up the shoulder area (and live dance teachers are always telling me to keep my shoulders down) was strangely liberating for the rest of my body. Wonderful!