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MAVERICK LIFE: WELLNESS

Barre and the power of isometric movement

Clients participate in a barre class at Scout Pilates in St Peters on June 13, 2020 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

'Touching base with your body and how it feels, its aches and pains, has a positive spin-off for dealing with everyday stresses and strains,' says Joy Watson.

As my marriage fell apart and I set off down the shaky path to divorce, I decided the best thing to do was to eat my way through it. I found tremendous comfort in soft, sugary things. When I spooned moist slices of cake into my mouth, followed by a mug of hot chocolate with a spirally mountain of fresh cream, the world was a better place. I picked up 15kg, which wasn’t a problem initially. Until I started feeling so tired all the time that hanging out the laundry felt like climbing a mountain. 

I decided to unglue my behind from my couch and signed up for a barre class, not knowing much about it. Five minutes into the warm-up, the sweat streamed down my face and I realised that I was dying a slow, protracted death. Then the instructor told us to get down for running planks. 

Honestly, I tried. But it was physically impossible to run while holding my hands on the ground. I looked around me to see if the others in the class had come to the same realisation. But no, they were running away like they were breathing oxygen. Twenty minutes into the class, my legs were shaking so badly, I decided that it would be better to celebrate my efforts by going to get a burger and chips. But something about the class made me want to go back. And so I did. Each time I went, I stayed a little longer and got a bit stronger. Each class held promise, awakening the bits and pieces of my tired body. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has uprooted our lives, making the connection between mind, body and breath all the more important. It has affected the sense of our bodies – reinforcing the idea that they are mortal, and subject to attack – from viruses, strain and illness. In preserving our bodies, we preserve our minds. Touching base with your body and how it feels, its aches and pains, has a positive spin-off for dealing with everyday stresses and strains. It also helps you sleep better.

Exercise is, of course, much easier when you find the kind of movement your body enjoys. I’m lucky to have found this in barre. 

Barre, renowned for its use of the ballet barre, uses movements derived from ballet and combines them with those from yoga and Pilates. Barre classes typically start slowly, with a stretch, facilitating a process of stepping into the body. Movements are broken down, so that each part of the body is awakened, through repetitive exercises. 

As mind and body begin to synergise, the movements become more expansive, extending into intervals of cardio, before bringing you back to sculpting and toning. The emphasis is on small, isometric movements, with a focus on improving core, form and alignment.

In addition to the barre, equipment such as yoga straps, exercise balls and hand weights are sometimes used. The aim is to develop strength and flexibility in the limbs, abdominals and glutes. Barre uses a Pilates movement called the “tuck”, a curving into the spine to lock into the core and pelvic floor. All the movements are a form of release for tired muscles, easing the joints.   

When lockdown hit, Cape Town-based Melanie Durrheim and Megan Harris, trained barre instructors, found themselves with a reduced income. They joined forces and set up Move Studio Barre, which started out as an online platform and has progressed to include workouts in the open air as well as private classes. “After my mum passed away my world came crashing down,” says Melanie. “I was put on antidepressants, but the weight and depression just kept coming. Barre detoxed the negativity and allowed me to scream through movement, and I fell in love. Barre has this unique way where you do not measure your progress on the scale, but in how your body performs in a movement. Each class is a mini Kilimanjaro, a true showcase of mind and body strength through movement,” she says.   

While barre is perceived as being for the young and “stretchy” because of its association with ballet, it is in fact suited to all body types. “Our clients range from age 18 to 65 and include women who have just had babies,” says Megan. “There are variations of an exercise to cater for those who can’t do a particular move,” says Megan. “If it’s too much for you, then you simply do without. There are many ways to tuck and squeeze and feel the shakes while still protecting your body.”

The approach to barre is a full body workout. “This means that in any one moment we will ask you to use the whole of your body. When you plié, legs out in second, tailbone tucked in and arms out, your entire body is working to hold you there – core, arms, shoulders down, tummy in, thighs pushed back. This mind-to-muscle recognition is what separates barre from other workouts. Clients ask us why their arms are stiff when doing a plié – it is because we sneakily have you moving your arms and you don’t even notice at the time because you’re so focused on your legs. We use cardio to increase the heart rate and then when we have you at the sweet spot, we tone the muscles while lengthening them,” explains Melanie. In oscillating between high and low intensity, barre uses breath work to facilitate a mind/body connection, little moments of meditation in between releases of endorphins. 

In lockdown, the beauty of joining an online class, as opposed to doing a workout on a platform like YouTube, is that it enhances a sense of social connection. And in a time of social isolation, it also allows you to show up and be a part of a community of people wanting to move. DM/ML

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