If you’re looking for a workout where you leave class drenched in sweat, barely able to walk and completely exhausted — well, Zen-Ga is not your workout. But when your no-pain/no-gain mentality leaves you tight, stiff or even injured, come on in. Zen-Ga has been patiently waiting for you. The four main principles of this workout are breath, support, yield (energy) and flow.
An amalgam of Pilates, yoga and dance disciplines, yet really so much more, it’s one of the few workouts that focuses on your fasciae. If you haven’t thought about your fasciae before, you’re not alone. A fascia is a layer of connective tissue, sort of like a ligament or tendon. But while ligaments join bones to one another and tendons join bone to muscle, fasciae surround muscles, organs, blood vessels and nerves.
Flexible and made of collagen, fasciae wrap around each of your internal parts, keeping them in place and allowing some to slide easily with your movements. In fact, more and more research is being released supporting the idea that when it comes to your body’s mechanics functioning smoothly, it’s the fasciae that call the shots.
Zen-Ga, the creation of P.J. O’Clair and the team at Merrithew Health & Fitness, was developed to be a synergistic blend of the latest in exercise science and mindful movement. As a dancer who has had more injuries than I can count (including two knee surgeries), to me O’Clair’s explanation of the Zen-Ga method makes perfect sense. I know from personal experience that there were moments during recovery when it seemed like my muscles and bones were strong but I still felt like something was stuck. I would bet now it had something to do with my fasciae not functioning optimally.
O’Clair led my Zen-Ga group through a Zen-Ga sampler. Depending on the studio and class, you could have any or all of the elements I experienced, since there are different levels and types of Zen-Ga and some classes use the Pilates Reformer or other equipment.
On this day we started with some simple breathing exercises that are meant to help drive oxygen into the body and specifically the fasciae (which need oxygen to stay pliable and hydrated). “No one is taught how to breathe except pregnant women,” says O’Clair. “And yet, we all inhale and exhale about 22,000 times a day. Zen-Ga can help you learn to use your breath to benefit your body.”
How? By lying on a 12-inch exercise ball, apparently. I have to admit, I was a little skeptical as we tucked this ball under our arm, lay on the ball facedown with it pressing into our sternum or draped ourselves over it backward, but the result was that after of each of these breathing exercises using the ball, I actually felt a little “floaty” (i.e., I had probably taken in more oxygen than usual).
Next, we grabbed some Thera-Bands for a series of lower-extremity challenges like an arch roll, where the band was looped around the arch of the foot as we stood and rolled toward the inside and the outside of the foot about five times, while pulling on the band in opposition.
This was to establish something called pre-tension and tension. O’Clair explained that when the fascia are stretched, they are like a band, but if they are healthy, they then want to recoil. Unhealthy fascia get overstretched or snap, but by adding the tension of the band in the work we did, the fascia get trained to better respond to the pre-coil and recoil phases. We did a few more exercises with the band with this thought process in mind, and I could see how this would be great therapy or also a preventive program for people wishing to avoid injury. This is deep work — meaning you’re training your body to function optimally from the inside out.
Finally, we jumped on the Pilates Reformer; this was easily my favorite part. We wrapped the straps attached to the springs on the back of the Reformer around our legs at the top of each thigh and, standing on the metal part of the Reformer, went into some yoga exercises but with a little bounce added to each move to challenge the fasciae. Think of doing an upward dog but with a triple bounce at the bottom of the move where the springs of the Reformer pull you up and drop you back down a little bit each time.
All these exercises also helped with stability, and for someone who is hypermobile like me (read: Gumby) that is really important.
Zen-Ga is popping up at various gyms and studios across the country. You can also try Zen-Ga workouts for yourself with the newly released DVDs ($15.95 each).
O’Clair kept telling me to “Be the spring,” and what she meant by that was the fasciae of the body respond well to supported, but bouncy movements. Whatever the science behind it, I know I felt a little bouncier as I left class and I would definitely do Zen-Ga again, because who doesn’t want a little spring in their step?