You may already recognize our Guest Editor for May, since she's been our go-to guru for Pilates tips and exercises for a while now. At her online pilates studio called BodyLove Pilates, Ali Handley helps mamas and soon-to-be mamas gain strength, endurance and stamina as they gear up for – and then recover from – the great (but arduous) gift of childbirth. This month, we're excited to dig a little deeper into Ali's expertise and refresh our own exercise routines for summer. Whether or not you've experienced pregnancy, we think you'll dig her workout tips, too.
How did you decide to pursue a career in Pilates and a focus on maternal/postpartum health?
It wasn't until I moved to New York from Australia in 2009 that I decided to turn my passion for Pilates into a career. I had previously been working in fashion PR and events in London and Sydney, but I never felt like it was the perfect fit for me. All the stars aligned when I arrived in NYC, and it was just an incredible opportunity to train with some of the best in the business and change the course of my life. It was 100% the right decision.
I truly love my job. I get to connect with people everyday and help them reach their goals, gain strength and relieve pain. While working at Erika Bloom Pilates on the Upper East Side and in the Hamptons, I discovered how much I loved working with pregnant women and the challenging but rewarding experience of their postpartum rehab. Erika was an inspiring mentor, and I learned so much from her. When I got pregnant myself and experienced firsthand how it feels to grow a human inside you, the crazy ride of childbirth and then the important process of postpartum recovery, I knew this was the population I wanted to devote my career to.
Through your work and personal experience, what have you learned about the benefits of Pilates, both during pregnancy and in birth recovery?
A woman's body goes through extensive changes over the course of her pregnancy, childbirth and into her postnatal recovery. The fact that Pilates is grounded in anatomy, I believe makes it the perfect workout, as it can be modified to address the structural, muscular and alignment changes that occur.
I practiced Pilates almost everyday during both my pregnancies and felt really strong, experiencing very minimal pain throughout, and I was able to close my ab separation within the first six weeks of my postpartum recoveries. Correct abdominal training is key. Consistent deep core work helped support and stabilize my body during pregnancy and prepare me for the challenges of labor, and the very same exercises are responsible for bringing everything back together.
The first principle of Pilates is Centering, and believe it or not, pregnancy actually gives you a great opportunity to achieve this. The foundation of Prenatal Pilates is first stability, then mobility — retraining your muscles to initiate deep core engagement before any other muscles activate. This stabilizes and supports your spine and pelvis in the best alignment, making your center (or "powerhouse") the source of every exercise.
What are three exercises that we all, including those of us with older children, should be doing on a daily basis for better alignment?
1. Knee hovers.
This is the perfect exercise to globally strengthen the body in correct spinal and pelvic alignment. It challenges shoulder stability, targets the deep ab muscles and strengthens spinal extensors.
Set up in an all-fours position, with wrists directly under shoulders, knees under pelvis and spine and pelvis in neutral. Inhale through your nose and allow the stomach muscles to relax. Exhale out your mouth, and first imagine pulling your belly button in and up toward your spine, feeling the wrap of the TVA like a seat belt tightening around your waist to stabilize your spine; then, hover the knees an inch off the mat. Make sure nothing else in the body changes. Do not sink between the shoulders – keep pushing down through the hands, with the shoulders blades wide apart and your heart floating up toward the back. Do not shift the body weight forward. This will take the exercise out of your deep core and into the muscles of the shoulders and neck.
Inhale again through your nose but keep the belly button pulling all the way into your spine, and lower the knees back to the start position. Do 10 reps.
For an extra challenge, hold the hover the position for four breaths. Make sure you continue to breathe, but do not lose abdominal connection. Keep the belly button pulling in all the way to the spine. Do 2 reps.
Bridging requires spinal articulation, which alleviates stiffness and creates a better sense of proprioception. It strengthens the abs and challenges the butt and hamstrings. There is also the added bonus of opening up the hips, which feels so good during and after pregnancy, especially if you sit at a desk all day.
Set up on your back in a supine position with knees bent and both feet on the mat, hip distance apart. Your spine and pelvis should be in a neutral position. Inhale through your nose. Exhale out your mouth as you tilt your pelvis back, engaging the abdominals and slowly rolling up your spine and turning on the back of the legs.
Inhale again through the nose and hold the top position. Exhale again out the mouth, deepening the ab connection and sequentially rolling back down the spine to the start position. Do 10 reps.
3. Rotator cuff strengthening/external rotation of the shoulders.
There is no doubt that being a mom means our upper spines have experienced a lot of strain. The rounding of the shoulders starts during pregnancy and gets so much worse as a new mom, when we're feeding and carrying baby at all times. Spending so much time at our desks and in front of our computers aggravates the problem, too! By strengthening the rotator cuffs, you reverse the rounding and open up the front of the chest.
Set up in a seated or standing position, with your upper arm bones squeezing into your sides and your lower arms at a right angle, holding a stretch band between your hands. Inhale through your nose. Exhale with a long, slow and even breath out your mouth as you pull your belly button to your spine to stabilize, pulling the stretch band apart. Imagine your arm is a door hinge, spiraling open.
Do not pinch the shoulders together. You should feel like your shoulder blades are flat on your back, in a gliding motion. Do 10 reps.
What is the most common concern pregnant women and new mothers have when coming into one of your classes?
Most women are concerned about the safety of their baby and making sure the workout is right for them. Having confidence in your instructor is key — knowing that they have the experience and knowledge to instruct you on what is best for every stage of your pregnancy.
How do you stay focused, aligned and centered as a busy mother and business owner?
It can feel chaotic and hectic at times, for sure, having two little ones and a business to run, but I try to keep a good work-life balance and ensure I have some "me" time every now and then. I started meditating at the beginning of the year, and it has improved my focus and sense of calm 1000%. It's now part of my morning routine, and I try to never miss it.
Do you have any personal sayings or mantras that keep you grounded?
"Everything is just a phase, and this too will pass." As a mom, this saying has been hugely helpful in helping me go with the flow and not sweat things as much. Also, "treat others as you would like to be treated." And lastly, "Remember the pearly white teeth." This last one is for my brother — it's his favorite. It's about a guru who only ever sees the best in someone, no matter how bad they are; then, they become only the best part of themselves – the pearly white teeth.
p.s. Are you doing your planks properly?