My Mat & I

A match made in Lockdown

by Maddy Cullen

Keeping fit and exercising has always played its part in my life including participating in team sports throughout junior and secondary school, and studying Sports Coaching and Physical Education at university. More recently, this followed with classes and endless gym memberships to work around my busy schedule as a Marketing and Events Manager in London. Little did I realise that exercise was about to form a new “part” in my life; a part much more powerful and meaningful than before!

Pre Lockdown I thought if I didn’t over exhaust myself, I didn’t feel my workout was real. Hence things like Pilates and Yoga had never really even been on my fitness radar. My exercise philosophy had been so limited over all the years. It focused on extreme physicality and ignored the strength, both physical and inner, of Pilates. My unconscious bias prevented me from including such a valuable addition to my overall exercise agenda. Let me share my personal journey through Lockdown with you…

Along came Covid-19, then Lockdown, and shortly after, given the instant collapse of the hospitality and events sector, I was placed on furlough along with millions of other workers in the UK. Having a career based around bringing people together in groups (with no space boundaries), being placed on furlough was no shock. The shock lay in the fact I suddenly had so much free time—something us humans don’t often experience—that I didn’t know what to do with it. It was like the opposite feeling of when you have so much work to do that you don’t know where to start. Along with all this free time, came time to think—or overthink. Lockdown led me to completely rethink my life and everything in it.

It became apparent to me that the Coronavirus affects all aspects of our lives, and the constant (often negative) news about the pandemic can feel never-ending. Not only is it impacting our physical health but it can have an effect on some people’s mental health too. The worry for our loved ones, especially the vulnerable ones and the lack of contact from friends and family is something none of us were prepared for. Along with almost half the population I developed lockdown insomnia, some nights went by when I could only recall about an hour of sleep max—making me feel zombie-like and quite low the next day. I began to lucid dream because my body was so tired, but my brain was so active. My dreams were so vivid and real I would wake up even more exhausted. So, it became self-evident that I needed to channel all this time into something and who cares if it’s deemed as “productive” or not I thought. Putting too much pressure on yourself to be productive at a time like this can have the opposite effect. I needed something that grabbed my attention, educated me and would last me through this time, and hopefully after (but no need to worry about that now I thought, one step at a time).

I decided to try new things and also take the time to rethink what I really wanted to do and be. I’ve always believed that movement is medicine. If you’re having a good day—move. If you’re having a bad day—move. If you don’t know what to do today—move. Movement heals the body and mind without us even realising. That being said, a morning workout became part of my daily routine in Lockdown. It started off with my old exercise staples; HIIT classes, sometimes Body Combat and Body Pump. Although these are all great classes, they weren’t sustainable for me to do every day. I found myself making excuses not to do it in the morning, then I’d get frustrated at myself for not doing it. Do you see the negative cycle?

One cloudy morning I got up and was waiting for my HIIT class to start online but I must have got the date wrong as it wasn’t HIIT, it was Pilates. I huffed, and then thought I’d give it a go.

I absolutely loved the class and my thinking and philosophy changed almost immediately. There was more to fitness than exhaustion. That night I slept better. When I woke my muscles ached in places I didn’t know existed and my mood was lifted. Pilates started to hold my attention just the right amount of time to keep me interested but also left me wanting more. The classes were really challenging, and it fascinated me as the exercises and movements were often small and intricate. I left the classes feeling energized, satisfied, and ready to start my day. Pilates gave me a new drive and focus—two things easy to lose sight of during Lockdown.

From then on, I took the following words of advice from the man himself:

“Be in control of your body, not at its mercy” —Joseph Pilates.

I didn’t look back!

Pilates is designed to strengthen, lengthen and restore your body’s balance while promoting overall development of the body with a mindful and holistic approach. I saw the benefits of a consistent Pilates practice first hand. This included improved posture and flexibility, greater physical confidence, energy and alignment.

I got into my new regime so seriously I qualified to teach Pilates after an intensive course with the PhysicalMind Institute. My Pilates teacher-trainer Sandrine Gasnier played a huge part in this and it’s a testament to how powerful a good teacher can be. In addition to my physical development, it supported my mental strength and Pilates quickly became my passion.

I have learnt numerous lessons over the last few months but here are some key ones that I will now carry forward with me when the world gets a bit more back to normal.

“Ctrl-Alt-Delete”… a powerful mantra!

1) Ctrl.

I’m delighted that I’ve moved past the ancient theory of “real” exercise means pain and exhaustion. Goodbye to the days of sloppy exercise and forced contortion, “ticking the exercise box” and hoping for some endorphins in return. Mindful movement is much more powerful. Pilates taught me to think about each muscle and exercise through controlled and intricately designed movements with the reward being a beautifully balanced body and mind.

2) Alt.

Improved flexibility is one of the benefits of regular Pilates but we must remember it takes time to get there. I am the perfect example…one year ago I was regularly exercising, doing all sorts of classes, and I couldn’t touch my toes (barely even my knees). Flexibility is an aspect of health that many people neglect. Taking steps to become more flexible can be an amazing way to connect to yourself and your body. I have felt more balanced and more improved overall now that my body is more open, strong and flexible. I can’t believe how many people have asked if I have grown taller over Lockdown! This is all down to improved posture and being in greater control. Pilates focuses its practice around spinal alignment, stability and control. It can correct poor posture and any niggling habits us phone-glued Millennials have picked up. The result—your deportment improves, spine is lengthened and you carry yourself taller with more confidence.

3) Delete.

This new flexibility in physicality provided by Pilates, also translated into mental agility for my personal well-being. I realised that I needed much more mental flexibility and agility to cope with the challenges of what will hopefully soon be the Post Covid-19 world. I am able to put things into better perspective, not react or become overly anxious if things turn out differently to what I may have imagined. To ride the punches, go with the flow, focus on the really meaningful things in life, not day-to-day hiccups or indeed the actions of small minded people. Educate those people who mistake kindness for weakness, for it’s in the moment we apply kindness that our strength is revealed. I became stronger, not only physically but also mentally with an improved attitude to life. We can’t always change everything or get everything we may think we want. But what each of us can do is choose our attitude…how we respond, how we react, that’s all within our own personal gift. I will continue to begin each day, conversation and interaction with kindness, and “choose your attitude” is the first thing I think of and one of the lasting things I will take forward from my time under Lockdown.

I will continue to teach virtual classes each week as we come out of Lockdown, supporting people of all fitness and flexibility levels to achieve their personal goals. The magic I love about Pilates is that it doesn’t discriminate. Variations can accommodate everyone from the beginner to the skilled athlete, the Homer Simpsons to the Super Mans. I am also focusing on the mental aspects of my “ctrl-alt-delete” mantra and have certified to be a Mental Health First Aider with MHFA England. I am determined to use the lessons of my personal journey to help others in both mind and body.

Many things will be different adjusting to the “new normal” world but one thing I know is Pilates will continue to be a big part of my life. My Mat and I have a relationship which won’t fade—a match made in Lockdown.

» MADDY CULLEN is a professional and progressive Pilates, Yoga and Barre instructor built on the firm foundation of a First Class Honours degree in Sports Coaching and Physical Education. She is also a certified Mental Health First aider and has a passion for holistic exercise. More specifically, she loves teaching and helping people more broadly through the physical and mental challenges in today’s unprecedented environment.

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