Asahi Nordic Certified Instructor – A Health Exercise from Finland

Finnish Roots

In July 2023, I had the privilege to attended FinnFest 2023, and complete my Asahi Nordic Level-C Asahi certification. What is Asahi? It’s a health exercise method that was developed in Finland in 2004, and I came upon it online one day and my interest was immediately peaked. You see, my mother’s parents, Elmer and Maj-lis, immigrated to the United States from Finland in 1959. My mother, 100% Finnish along with both of them, and myself 50%. Growing up, I felt deep ties to my Finnish heritage and Scandinavian roots, but hadn’t spent too much time exploring on my own. In my grandparents home I was surrounded by beautiful wall hangings, rag rugs, Finnish foods, and prayers and phrases that we would say when spending time with them.

Movement throughout my life

I’ve been in the movement space my whole life, dancing since age three, playing soccer since age nine, working out since age twelve, taking Pilates since age thirteen, and exploring so many various movement modalities with great curiosity. I started teaching dance at age fifteen, and started my Pilates teaching journey at age twenty. My favorite thing about movement is my belief that movement is for everyone! Finding ways to make movement accessible to the largest amount of people feels like a noble calling for me. This is one of the main reasons I got drawn into the world of Pilates. It’s ability to help so many populations with its equipment to safely move and build strength in their bodies. To regain confidence in their identities as movers.

In over a decade of Pilates instruction I’ve worked with students ages six through late eighties, all with different goals and strengths. I’ve served students with neurological conditions, joint replacements, arthritis of all kinds, mental disorders, cancer, pre-operative, post-operative, pregnancy, spinal conditions, athletes, dancers, low self-esteem, caretakers, doctors, business owners, parents, grieving, soon-to-be-wed, and everything between. I always would make the joke that I’ve certainly heard of every single health condition and diagnosis at this point, but then the next week I’d have a new student with a new condition walk in the doors.

Asahi is for All!

When I first read up about Asahi I was most excited at its accessiblity for all. No equipment is required, its ease of learning with no experience needed to pick it up, its focus on breath as central, the mind-body connection it promotes, and the ability to perform it outside. Being able to workout and move outside has become a high value in my life, and I believe provides a deeper connection of self to the world around us. The word Asahi is actually a Japanese word that means “morning sun,” and this practice was named as such to signify the energy we can get through both exercise and spending time outdoors. The book Asahi – The Nordic Health Practice shares “the movements of Asahi are basically relaxing and are designed to gently increase muscle stamina, balance, coordination and concentration.”

More Movement, Varied Movement, Daily.

-Courtney Anne Holcomb, CaH

One of my mottos and charges is to encourage more movement, varied movement, daily. Asahi fit the bill perfectly for this. From beginning to end, you can easily practice the sequence daily in 10-15 minutes depending on how many repetitions of each exercise you perform. I learned two Asahi series: Asahi #1 and Asahi #2. Each series has the same four sections: relaxation, neck and shoulders, back, and balance. Each section is comprised of three total exercises. So all in all, a single series has 12 exercises that are performed in sequence, with a breathing exercise to start and end each section. Though all can benefit from doing Asahi, the number one population that I believe this benefits is the aging population. The exercises were developed by exercise and geriatic specialists to ensure that risk of injury is super low and the outcome of benefits of performing the exercises is extremely high.

Sharing Asahi with others

At the workshop we led at the conclusion of our training, we had close to 100 participants join us for Asahi (see photos below). Everyone was able to do it. We had participants in wheel chairs, with walkers, people in their 90s, children of elementary age, and everything between. Staring out at the crowd of people all gathered to move together made my eyes glisten. This is what movement can do, it literally can move people.

I’m excited to see what doors having my Asahi Nordic certification will open. I am currently one of around thirty instructors certified in the United States. Being at the forefront of this training is an exciting way for me to connect to modern Finnish heritage and carry my roots along with me. For more information on Asahi, visit their website. If you’d like to host me to teach a class or know of places and spaces that Asahi might be a good fit, I’d love to hear from you: courtney.anne.holcomb@gmail.com

-Courtney Anne Holcomb, Asahi Nordic Certified Instructor, C-licence, Sheboygan, WI

Moving in All Directions with Move and Yield**

Four Pilates Exercises for a Healthy Spine

**Adapted from a featured article in Appleton Monthly Magazine April 2018 “Healthy You” Edition.

Joseph Pilates, creator of the Pilates Method of fitness once said, “a man is as young as his spinal column. If your spine is inflexibly stiff at 30, you are old. If it is completely flexible at 60, you are young.” We spend most of our days sitting, slouching forward, and rarely moving our spines at all, and it’s taking a toll on our bodies—and our posture.

Pilates helps to move the spine in all directions which creates resiliency and flexibility that will keep your body feeling young through your years.

Try these four Pilates exercises to increase your spinal mobility and eliminate stiffness after a long period of sitting. Each one of these exercises moves the spine in a different direction: flexion, roation, side bending, and extension.

As always, make sure you consult your doctor or primary care provider before starting a new exercise program to ensure you are cleared for movement.

Spine Stretch Forward

Set-up:  Sit up tall on your hips with the legs straight and shoulder-width apart.  Flex your ankles and reach your arms forward at shoulder height.

Exercise:  Inhale, and pull your abs in as you slide the shoulder blades forward.  Reach and round through the spine as if you were bending over a fitness ball.  Exhale, draw the shoulder blades back down your back as you roll to sit up tall on your hips.  Repeat 6-8 times. In order to feel the stretch through your back, you must engage your core through the front. Really feel the abdominal wall pulling in and back to maximize the stretch through the backline of your body.

*Pro Tips: Think about elongating the spine forward, rather than “crunching” it forward. How much reach can you feel through the crown of your head?  This exercise stretches the mid and upper back, so keep your hips anchored throughout the exercise (the pressure on the base of the pelvis should not change at all as you perform the movement).

Modification:  If you are unable to sit-up all on your hips, place a soft bend in the knees so you can sit perpendicular to the ground, or prop yourself up on a pillow or book.

Modified Corkscrew

Set-up:  Lay on your back with arms at your side, and extend your legs up to the ceiling at hip-height.  Point through your ankles and actively hold your legs together.

Exercise:  Inhale, swing both legs to the right, allowing the left hip to lift up and off the mat. Continue circling the legs down towards the ground while stabilizing both sides of the pelvic. Exhale, lift the legs back up towards the ceiling allowing the right hip to leave the mat, and return the legs to the starting position.  Reverse the exercise by beginning to the left. Repeat 3-6 times each direction.

*Pro tips: Only let the legs lower toward the ground as much as you can without arching the low back.  Feel for the subtle rotation of the low back as the hip lifts off the mat, keeping the hips level, the hip is lifting, but not hiking towards the ribcage.

Modification:  For more support, allow the arms to be out in a “T” with the palms facing down, or keep the legs bent at a 90 degree angle while performing the exercise.

Side Leg Bananas

Set-up: Lay on your side with your head, shoulders, hips, and heels all in one straight line.  Rest your head on your bicep with your palm facing towards the ceiling. Place your opposite hand palm facing down in front of your chest.

Exercise:  Take an inhale to prepare for the movement. On the exhale, engage your core and lift both legs up and off of the mat.  Feel your top hip move towards your ribcage. Inhale to lower back down, and on the next exhale, keep your legs down and lift your upper body off the mat all the way to the bottom of the shoulder blade using your waistline.  Lower back down and try lifting both upper and lower together on your next exhale. Repeat the whole sequence (lower, upper, both) 2-3 times, then switch to lie on the other side and repeat.

*Pro tips:  Keep the body in one long line from fingers to toes.  Think about pressing your waistline down into the mat to help you stabilize as you lift.

Modification:  Turn the palm of the arm overhead to face the ground and press into it while lifting just the head and legs off of the mat.

Swan

Set-up:  Lay on your stomach with the palms facing down right below your shoulders, elbows pointing up.  Legs long behind you in parallel as close together as is comfortable for your low back, kneecaps facing the ground.

Exercise:  Inhale and engage the abs and press into your palms.  Exhale, and slowly begin peeling the spine up and off the mat one vertebra at a time.  Keep the shoulders gliding down your back, and lift only as high as you comfortably can.  Try to feel for even extension through the spine, head is in line with the spine. Inhale at the top, and exhale to slowly lower the spine back down to the mat with control.  Repeat 4-6 times.

*Pro tips:  Keep the low back long and feel for a stretch through the front of your hips.  As you lower back down to the mat, imagine the spine is pressing through the chest to stretch it longer as you lower down.  Try to maintain the shoulders neutral and wide across your back throughout the exercise.

Modification:  Place your hands level with your ears, and only rise as up to your elbows.  Focus on anchoring the pubic bone into the mat the keep the pressure off of your low back.

The Ultimate Ab Workout – The Pilates Series of Five

Are you looking for an ab series that is quick and effective? Time to try the Pilates Series of Five.  This popular Pilates sequence is sure to get you feeling your abdominals and working the core!  Best part? It only takes 2 minutes to complete from start to finish.

The basic series includes these five exercises:

  1. 1) Single Leg Stretch
  2. 2) Double Leg Stretch
  3. 3) Single Straight Leg Stretch
  4. 4) Double Straight Leg Stretch
  5. 5) Criss-Cross

This series helps build the support structure that keeps us standing upright with our best posture and presenting our best selves forward. The core, also often referred to as “the powerhouse”, is always a great place to access inner strength to aid our extremities (arms and legs) which helps us preserve energy for things like a long walk, hike, or a day out running errands.

Parts of the Core

The core is comprised of four key components, the most famous or often spoken of, the rectus abdominis, is our most superficial layer. It’s often referred to as “the 6-pack muscle”, and its main job is forward flexion of the spine. But this is not the only part of our core. The external obliques and internal obliques are the next deepest layers that aid in rotation and flexion. But the final and most powerful layer that assists with our strength and posture is the deepest layer, the transverse abdominis. This muscle is our key core stabilizing muscle that wraps around us like an inner tube and helps hug the core inward, helps with upright posture, and most importantly stablizes the thoracic cavity and pelvis. Without using this muscle well it’s difficult for the body to perform efficient movement patterns. And without efficiency we have unnecessary energy expenditure. And I don’t know about you, but time and energy are precious to me…so if there are ways for me to be more efficient, I am all for it. The beauty of the “Series of Five” is that together these five exercises target all of the various components that make up our full core.

The Series of Five

Ultimately we want to work up to being able to perform each exercise for ten repetitions before moving to the next. And from start to finish, trying to make it through each set without stopping or lowering the head. But with all things in life, it’s best to work your way up to that level of strength and endurance. Start with trying to do each exercise just four times, and work up from there until you find yourself performing ten of each with ease.

The videos below will show two repetitions of each exercise.

1) Single Leg Stretch

Keep the pelvis stable and lift the head and shoulders off the mat.  Left hand to your right shin, right hand to your right ankle. Inhale as you hug the right shin in with wide elbows. The opposite leg shoots out long at a high diagonal.  Inhale again to change legs.  Then exhale twice as you exchange from right to left again. Right and left counts as one rep. 

Then draw both legs into the chest to transition into…

2) Double Leg Stretch

Begin with both shins hugged into the chest. Inhale as you extend and reach the arms high overhead (without lowering the shoulders) and send the legs out long to the high diagonal.  Exhale as you brace the core in deeper and circle the arms to gather the shins back into center. 

Extend the right leg long towards the ceiling and grab behind the thigh or calf. Lower the left leg towards the mat…

3) Single Straight Leg Stretch

Tug the right leg towards you as the left leg moves down. Take two quick breaths in through the nose as you “tug” the leg.  Pulse twice in this position. Hold the crunch in your upper body as you switch legs and exhale through the mouth.  Keep the knees straight and work for a smooth transition from side to side. Right and left counts as one rep. 

Draw both legs together and press them into one another. Support your hands behind your head and extend the legs up towards the ceiling…

4) Double Straight Leg Stretch

Inhale to lower both legs down to hover above the mat as you point through you ankles. Try for as low as you can without arching the low back. Exhale flex your feet to reach energy long through your heels and hug the abdominal muscles in towards the spine as you lift the legs back up to the ceiling. Maintain the shoulder blades hovering off the mat throughout.

To transition, draw the right knee in and extend the left leg out to the low diagonal…

5) Criss-cross

Upper body is lifted with hands behind your head, then rotate to bring the left shoulder towards the right knee with an inhale. Inhale again to bring the right shoulder blade towards the left knee, maintaining the lift of the torso through center as you change sides and legs.  Then exhale for two actions (right and left). Right and left is one rep.

To finish, draw both legs into your chest and lower the head, neck, and shoulders to the mat.  Turn your head to the right and let both knees fall left, then switch head to the left knees fall right.

Tips for Good Technique

  • Keep the torso and hips stable throughout the whole series
  • Pelvis maintains neutral throughout meaning that your front hip bones and pubic bone remain parallel to the ground
  • Legs should only lower towards the mat as much as you can without arching the low back
  • Don’t rush it! Enjoy slow, fluid movements to get the most impact
  • Pull the abdominal muscles in towards the spine instead of letting them press out
  • Each exhale allows you to pull the stomach muscles in deeper
  • Keep shoulders wide throughout the exercises, and all arm pulling actions are assisted from your lats
  • When hands are behind your head, they are supporting the weight of your skull, not pulling on the neck. Let your head rest heavy in the basket of your hands, and your spine flexing forward is what produces your forward flexion and abdominal curve
  • Start with just a few repetitions of each exercise and work up to the full series
  • Take breaks between each exercise as needed until you build up strength and endurance

I hope you enjoy this sequence and find it as a helpful tool for your movement practice. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me at courtney.anne.holcomb@gmail.com or if you’re interested in doing one-on-one training to practice, I train students virtually and sessions can be booked on my booking site.

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The Power of Playing with Pace – Slowing as Solution, Speed as Selection

If you had to describe the current pace of your life using one word what would it be? Frenzied? Peaceful? Panicked? Joyful? Never-ending? Mindful? Is pace something that is just happening to you? When is the last time you made a conscious choice about your pace? 

Fast, slow, sprint, sneak, are just a few of the ways that kid play. Exploring the world around them and the various paces of being they can implement. Our pace is a choice we make. But do you find yourself falling into the same pace without giving it much thought or consideration? I have found that noticing and playing with pace has been one of the most powerful remedies for my anxiety.

Childhood Exploration of Pace

When we were kids we played with pace all the time. It was part of exploring our own physical body within the environment around us. It was part of interacting with others in the spaces around us. Curiosity and possibility at the forefront of our young minds. But when did the playing stop and at what cost?

Growing up, I used to play this game with my siblings. When watching a TV show during the commercial breaks (this was before the time of Netflix and DVR) we would run to our bedrooms and try to clean up as many things as we could and then try to sneak back and arrive the closest to the end of the commercial break without going over (think Price is Right). We’d experience the contrast and rush from sitting and watching TV, running and picking things up, and then sneaking quietly down the stairs to the TV without being noticed, all the while having friendly competition with one another. This also provided a way for us to feeling like cleaning our rooms was fun…imagine that? And playing with contrasting speeds made this feel all the more exciting. 

Then we had the game “Red light, Green light” we would play with friends during recess. In this game a group of people stand in a line far away from one person, a caller, who is facing away. The caller exclaims “green light” and the group of people try to race forward and be the first person to tag the caller. At any moment, the caller can exclaim “red light” and then turn around to look at the group. The group then has to “freeze” in place, if the caller detect anyone still moving that person is out. The caller then turns around and says “green light” and the travel forward continues until they yell “red light” again and try to catch someone still moving. 

Though these may be games from childhood, they offer me some insight. The contrast in these games is what created the challenge. We had to wield control over the pace in which we were doing things. How can I both quicken and then immediately slow or stop? How can I take control of my own pace within my body, my environment, and the world? We learned that we were capable of doing so…and then we grew up.

Play Outsourced for Productivity

Work, life, home maintenance, social schedule, responsibilities, relationships, all started vying for our attention. Making their demands of our energy, our resources, our time, and we default. The pace of life began to snowball, collecting more and more speed as it raced down hill. Making its demands bigger, louder, and faster and faster until inevitable, we get sick, depressed, anxious, overworked, on auto-pilot, and are forced to slow down. Benjamin Franklin said “There will be plenty of time to sleep once you are dead”, but let me tell you Ben, your body is not a machine. It is not designed to perpetually work on overdrive, overworked, overwhelmed, and over-committed. We shouldn’t need a health crisis in order to grant ourselves permission to slow down. And we don’t have to live as a slave to the frenetic pace of life that the modern Western world touts as necessary to “keep up with the Jones”.

There is a lot of space in between sprinting and stopping? There is a lot of bandwidth available. Do you operate in more than one bandwidth? Do you exercise the option to choose your pace throughout the day

Anxiety and Speed

I often find that when I’m anxious, I begin moving at a faster pace, physically quickening the speed at which I’m performing my tasks. Sometimes I’m not even aware of my anxiety because I’m moving so quickly there isn’t time to acknowledge it. But the moment I stop to take an exhale, I can feel the rising panic: the dissonance, the dissatisfaction, the doubt, the fear. The fastness feels frantic. The frenzy leads to fury. And the fact that I’m “getting things done” doesn’t even matter because I feel so disconnected from myself and the world around me.

I believe we often move quickly because we feel overwhelmed with the amount that we believe we have to do each day. With a massive lists of tasks, chores, correspondence, responsibilities, we see speed as the only viable solution. Quickening as our only option. But what if I told you that slowing might be the solution? How would your day feel if you tried that?

Slowing as Solution

I like to use the physical act of slowing down to bring me back to myself. When my anxiety is high, my pace is typically fast. Just the act of noticing this and slowing down my body immediately makes me feel more at ease. Do I have to be moving that fast? Is hurry even helpful? 

Author Mark Buchanan in his book The Rest of God reflects “I cannot think of a single advantage I’ve ever gained from being in a hurry. But a thousand broken and missed things, tens of thousands, lie in the wake of all that rushing. Through all that haste, I thought I was making up time. It turns out I was throwing it away.” What lies in the wake of your rushing? What are you missing out on for the sake of getting that “just one more thing done”?

The physical act of slowing and yielding brings me into the present awareness of what I am doing. It makes sure that I’m not missing each moment of life that passes by. My life experience is more valuable than my output. Slowing my pace allows me to be an insider in my own life, versus an outsider looking in seeing my life pass before me as a line of outputs on a conveyor belt. Slowing helps me enjoy the moment and really notice the nuances and joy in even the most mundane and common tasks. I keeps me in the present and helps me to connect deeper to myself, my immediate environment, and the world around me.

Speed as Selection

Playing with speed and cadence of movement can be fun when we become aware of it. We are not a slave to the pace of life that we live. We have choice in how we move through the world. We can run, sprint, meander, crawl, leap, skip, or just be. We have more control over our physical experience than we often think. We are not fully slave to the feelings and sensations that we experience, and finding ways to manage them can be super empowering. Maybe pace is just one of the tools we can wield. 

When we are anxious, we do not have to move fast or quicken our pace. When we feel tired or lethargic, we do not have to move slowly. When we are bored, we do not have to sit and sulk. Each of these options are a choice. And in order to change our choice, we have to first become aware that we can choose! It all starts with noticing.

Never Too Old for Play 

Once we grow out of school aged, it seems our environment doesn’t build in as many opportunities to play. The memories of these games linger on as nostalgia, but we often do not recapture the essence of these games in our adult lives. 

When we open our eyes to see pace not as something happening to us, but as a conscious choice we can use it as a super power. A way to play with our experience in the world around us. And I believe all of our lives could use a little more play! 

Here are three games that I love to implement to explore pace in my adult life as choice:

1) A Snail’s Pace

I used to have a plastic molded early 1970s sign in my bedroom. I found it a local thrift shop, and it had a large cartoon graphic of a snail and in bubble letters the words “Slow is Beautiful.” A small visual reminder to slow, exhale, and see beauty. I started practicing A Snail’s Pace exercise when I caught myself becoming anxious from the pace I was demanding of myself. I also like to use it when I notice that I’m moving super quickly as a means to just “get something done”.

In “A Snail’s Pace”, make the conscious choice to move super-slow and see how your nervous system shifts. See how your awareness shifts. See how your presence in the moment shifts. Start by moving at 50% of the rate. Try that for about a minute. Then, see if you can again cut in half your pace, and decrease by another 50%. Sit with that pace for a while. How does that feel? What nuances do you become aware of? Can you decrease by another 50%? This may even feel like slow motion.

The slower we move, the more intentional we must become. Really sensing and feeling, how does my arm move? What are the micro-shifts happening in my body to maintain balance while I’m moving more slowly? This is a great one to implement when doing the dishes or folding laundry. It’s helps to bring interest to the often mundane. How does this fabric feel? What sound does the sponge make? Where is my body in space at this exact moment?

This exercise I often find myself performing out of need. When I catch myself in the pattern of moving too quickly, getting stressed and overwhelmed, or completely not feeling present in the activity I’m doing. I do this exercise as a personal prescription. It’s time for Snail’s Pace…exercise ensue.

2) Race the Clock

If you’re anything like me, tidying up the house is not a favorite past time of mine. But I find play, games, and friendly-competition (even if it’s with myself) super enjoyable. So, take a look at your time window. You have 15 minutes until you have to be out the door…set a timer for 10 minutes, and Race the Clock. How much can you tidy up and put away before the timer goes off? I love this exercise because it physically gets me moving faster with awareness. And after all, variety is the spice of life! We need movement variety and variance to keep us on our toes, and since I’m making the conscious choice about my pace and speed, it’s enjoyable to race around and chase the clock. 

You will find yourself bending, jogging, reaching, lifting, ducking, and speeding around from space to space. Who knew you could accomplish so much in such a small time window by just challenging yourself with a timer. Maybe, you’ll even break a small sweat! And don’t worry, it will still leave you with 5 minutes before you have to be out the door and on to what’s next. When you’re done racing the clock, upon stopping, the world around you will feel slower paced. The richness of the contrast will stick with you for hours to come. And when you’re done being out and about, you’ll be able to come home to a more inviting space with less visual clutter and mess. Happy mind, happy body.

3) Interval Training

You’re likely familiar with the phrase interval training ever since H.I.I.T. (High Intensity Interval Training) became popular within the last decade. But intervals don’t have to just be for high intensity. The magic of interval training lies in the contrast between one state and another. For H.I.I.T. it’s the high intensity exercises and then the period of complete rest. How could intervals be implemented into your daily life? Many runners do this through Fartlek running. The Swedish word “Fartlek”, which literally translates to “speed play”, describes this exact process of running at a quick pace for a period of time and then switching to a slower pace, and then repeating this pattern, quick to slow. But pace is not the only think that Fartlek running varies, it also emphasizes varying terrain. Changing our speed and terrain are both ways to add more interest to our work and our environment. 

Next time you are taking a walk with your dog, with your stroller, with a friend, try and incorporate some interval training to bring more interest. Power walk for a few blocks, then meander for a few blocks. Take a new route to change your terrain. Walk on the grass in the median instead of the concrete sidewalk. Hike through a nature preserve on mulch instead of on the paved walking path.

Kids love this too as a means to make walking more interesting. Racing to the light post, romping through the grass, slow motion as you step over the sidewalk cracks, the variety is as expansive as your creative mind.

Power over Pace

Pace can be overpowering, or pace can be play. We must become aware of when we are hurried, worried, racing. Without this awareness we are unable to harness pace for its power. We can use pace as a choice, instead of allowing it to be a dictator. May you invite pace into your life as a playful partner to your day. Slowing and quickening with conscious choice. 

I wrote this short poem below after walking alone along the Atlantic ocean shores in Myrtle Beach South Carolina last November. Taking notice of my relationship with speed, pace, urgency, and slowing. It’s a conscious practice, and maybe someday it will take me less conscious effort. But for now, I’m happy that I can acknowledge and note within myself when I’m physically quickening as a response to my mind’s racing. And with this simply acknowledgement I can then make a conscious choice to quiet the anxieties within me, and rest on the helm of slowing.

Calming Urgency
I catch myself walking fast. 
I slow.
There is no sense of urgency
My mind moves faster than my body,
It quickens me.
I again have to slow.
No urgency.
Thinking takes over mindfulness.
Plotting. Planning. I quicken,
Pause,
Again
Slow.
Slowing to notice. Engage. Be.
Though this is not easy.
Sensing.
Urgency is a strong sense. 
Overpowering,
but not overtaken when we consciously slow.
I slow. soften. yield.
This is how it feels.
When will it not longer be a phase of constantly having to choose slowing?
When slowness just is?
And slowness is enough.
The grand pause.
The contentment…waiting. Awaiting me.
The performance over.
The grand reverence.
To body
mind
spirit.
Where being is enough.
Warm sun. Cold ocean water.
I need contrast.
I need nothing.
The distinction of one against the other.
One can only exist with the other.
The quickness, and the s l o w i n g.

-Courtney Anne Holcomb (CaH)
Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, November 2021

Standing as Witness

Teaching for a sense of belonging

I am standing on the road in a moment of yield. Imagining what lies ahead while simultaneously sensing all the residual energy behind me, guiding me. I think of the physical movement forward that lead me to being here, now, in this exact moment of pause at the center of the road. As I turn my head to see where I came from, I recall that in movement is always where I found and felt my sense of belonging. A group of others I felt a connection to, spoke my embodied language, and understood me at my core.

I’ve always felt different and unable to connect with what seemed most valued in our culture— wealth acquisition, competition, consumerism, productivity, climbing corporate ladders. All I wanted was to move, create, contribute, and to be seen. To truly feel seen beyond the surface. I wanted to feel connected and understood. Going through much of life not feeling understood carried a weight with it, a disconnect. It made it hard for me to relate and understand the strivings of others. This went both ways whereas I may not understand things like the desire to upgrade to the newest smartphone, they may not understand my desire to dance barefoot in the forest. Over the years taking a deep dive into movement has been a process of identifying a place for me to belong and somewhere that I felt I could contribute and add value to others. This is where movement revealed its potential as a powerful mediator. 

Body and Movement as Common Language

The physical body and the experience of movement hold powerful tools for connecting and belonging. A physical body is something we all share, a common denominator. We exist in it everyday and none of us can escape it until death. We can chose to try and hide our body, neglect it, beat it down, outsource its work, ignore it, but it will always be with us. We need our bodies for expression, to connect with others, to connect with self, and the beauty of the moving body is that no words are required to express oneself. 

Movement gives understanding without needing language. Movement is required for every second of every day, and this alone ties us together. This alone helps us relate. It forms a connection. It’s no longer just me, it’s we. Body and movement highlighting our collective humanity. “Hey, I have a body too. I move too. I desire to be seen too.” As soon as a movement is witnessed by someone else, then that moment is shared. Movement provides us with a sense of belonging and relating, not just to our own body, but to a greater sense of connection with others outside ourselves–beyond our kinespheres. Our bodies are just waiting full to the brim with movement possibilities. What if you let your movement be witnessed? Your physical body be witnessed? How would that feel? Is that thought terrifying? Would it be worth it?

Enter the witness

I think movement is richer and more meaningful when we have a witness. Sometimes this witness is a friend, a lover, a teacher, a classmate, and sometimes it’s the trees as they quietly take in CO2 and create oxygen around us.

This level of connection is why I love teaching students one-on-one, to play witness as I curate and facilitate an environment that a student feels safe and seen. The growing trust as session to session the student sees themselves building their movement vocabulary and expanding their capabilities. Challenging their mind to what’s possible with this vessel they’ve been entrusted with for their lifetime. This is why I enjoyed the relationship building element of teaching a deep movement practice that demands mind and body involvement. It’s never just “giving a workout”. It’s a dance in and of itself requiring listening from both parties. The student tuning into themselves. Me, reading the student as they walk into the room, sensing their energy, making a quick assessment on what they may need today, and guiding them as a focused witness ready to pivot at any point when I can sense that may be necessary. Remaining sensitive at all times to the ever-changing landscape of the moving body. Having someone entrust me to bear witness is never something I take lightly. I become the audience, and being seen, feeling seen, is a vulnerable thing for the mover. It takes time, investment, trust, and willingness from all participants. 

Movement with Mindfulness

No movement is ever the same, so there cannot be a prescription. You will never be able to recapture the feeling of a movement you’ve had in the past. This ephemeral quality, the movement happens and is fleeting, requires you to be present in the first place or the experience is lost. You’ll never get it back. You’ll never feel it again. It can never be witnessed again. And if you don’t do the movement to begin with you’ll never get the opportunity back. This is what makes the experiences I foster and create feel so important. 

How do all of these ideas translate to my personal fitness and movement experiences? What makes one experience feel different from another? How does this influence the way I teach? This is what lacks in “just taking class” or “working out.” This is often why I feel so lonely when I roll out my mat at my house and follow along with a DVD: the level of connection and the shared experience. Though my body may be moving, my sense of belonging is absent. This has been a profound reflection for me as I think of the type of work I want to do going forward, both personally and professionally.

Moving Ahead

This past year I’ve been traveling with my husband, listening to my own body, bearing witness to my husband’s health conditions, and taking life day by day willing to pivot whenever necessary—even if that means big life changes, again. After having almost a year off from regular teaching, what I miss most is the relationships and togetherness. Helping and guiding others in their self-discovery. To make movement belong in their lives and in their bodies. For them to feel a deep sense of belonging. Competition and comparison have no space in my movement practice or my instruction. I’d rather teach ownership, compassion, capability, curiosity, and kindness to ones body. To help students abandon the fear of feeling seen—just as they are each day. 

If you’ve ever allowed me to stand in as witness, thank you for entrusting me. Your vulnerability and courage is one of my life’s greatest teachers. I hope you felt seen and encouraged. I hope you left with kindness towards your vessel and increased confidence for the paths ahead of you. I hope you found that along the way you were more capable than you imagined, and that being seen and putting yourself out there in the world did not have to be scary. You as you, just as you wonderfully are each day.

This is just a small glimpse as I look over my shoulder and what I carry with me as I start to look to the road ahead of the types of experiences I want to continue to offer. What movement opportunities I want to curate, how I want to contribute, and the type of world I want to witness and share. What I know for sure is that I will continue to move, create, contribute, and be seen. And I hope to continue to have thousands of opportunities in the future to be entrusted as a witness.

-Courtney Anne Holcomb

PC: Natali Herrera-Pacheco

What Brought Me to Pilates – Finding Mobility, my Manifesto

-Courtney Holcomb

I always knew the I was designed for movement.  Having been a dancer since age three, I loved the feeling of my body traveling through space.   It wasn’t until I was a preteen that I realized that my body was so much tighter that I wanted it to be.  Though I moved, I felt stiff, and when I tried to move more, it felt rigid. Being someone who has always dealt with chronic low back pain as well as stiffness/rigidness throughout my whole spine, I operated in the world for years thinking that this was “simply how I was created” and I would have to learn to endure through the pain my whole life, and then, I found Pilates, at age 15. 

Hamstring 3 Oblique Twist on the Pilates Chair

Through the consistent practice of Pilates I have been able to create more mobility in my spine than I ever though possible. With all of the movement principles of Pilates working together–breathing, core activation, neutral pelvis, abdominal strengthening, lumbo-pelvic stability, spinal strength and mobility, scapular strength and mobility, alignment and posture analysis, release work, and stretching–I have felt more length, mobility, and strength in my body and spine than ever before and I have been able release years of chronic tension from my muscles and skeleton. I now feel I have access to more space in my joints and spine and I continue to work towards opening and accessing more of my body each time I practice Pilates and dance.

Re-patterning the body does not happen overnight, but there is a great reward associated with creating new muscle memory that facilitates optimal anatomical efficiency throughout the body, producing a pathway to operate with a sense of ease and availability to movement. Whether it be in a dance class, performance, or just walking around, or standing for a long period of time, Pilates grants me the ability to move properly from the body’s natural design. Joseph Pilates, who created the system in the early 1920’s stated, “It’s not about what you do, but how you do it.” Or as my dad always says, “Train smarter, not harder.” Yes, we have to work with what we have, but this should not be limiting. We DO have the capacity to change and transform our bodies, with time, patience, and proper practice.

Now for myself personally, now have been practicing Pilates for over 11 years and remain as engaged in the practice as when I began. I continue to see and feel changes within my body and make new discoveries with every class I take. Now, as a fully Certified Pilates Instructor, I get to share my passion for movement with the world.  It’s so exciting to share Pilates with others through teaching and sharing in the joy that others experience when they make new discoveries in their own bodies. Transformation is something wonderful to celebrate.

For more information on Pilates practice, or to schedule a free consulation, please e-mail me at: courtney.anne.holcomb@gmail.com

I would love to share my work with you.

The Pilates Reformer