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Vanessa Downing of Congruence Coaching & Consultation On How Pilates Can Improve Your Health and Wellbeing

An Interview With Maria Angelova

Pilates was invented around 100 years ago, and it is becoming an increasingly popular form of exercise. What exactly is Pilates? How is it different from other modalities like Yoga or Tai Chi? What are the benefits of Pilates? Who can most benefit from it? In this interview series, we are talking to Pilates professionals & practitioners who can talk about how Pilates can improve your health and wellbeing. As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Dr. Vanessa Downing.

Vanessa Downing, PhD, is a counseling psychologist, executive coach, and healthcare worker wellbeing expert. She specializes in helping clinicians and other high achievers create congruence between their personal values and their professional goals. She consults with organizations about how to meaningfully impact the work lives of employees by developing the skills of leaders — who are often the most powerful levers of wellbeing. She is a dedicated Pilates practitioner.

Thank you so much for joining us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’? Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

My professional focus is on high achievers — and especially healthcare workers — who tend to push themselves too hard, or who find themselves in leadership positions after years of providing clinical care without feeling really prepared to lead others. And as the saying goes, it takes one to know one! Those of us who enter caregiving professions often have some early experiences that distract us away from our own needs and set us up to become experts at attending to the needs (or expectations or demands) of others. It’s a dynamic known as the “Wounded Healer,” and it was certainly true for me. Some of my own childhood experiences compelled me to channel my soft heartedness and high empathy into being a fierce advocate and defender of family members who were dominated, oppressed, or bullied. And this type of “heroism” was an incredibly powerful distraction from taking good care of myself; when everyone else’s needs were more urgent and easier to prioritize, I became an expert at pushing my needs to the side. Being with people in pain and helping them recover, heal, and reclaim their lives came naturally to me, and after a few years of looking for places to channel my energy and interests, I finally found a home in psychology.

In healthcare, we’re surrounded by patients and families who often are in their darkest and most vulnerable moments, and we’re working in systems that praise us for selfless service. What I learned early on in my work is that serving patients and our own team members is a noble and meaningful way to spend one’s time, but it has incredibly high costs that I wasn’t able to see until I saw it happening to the coworkers all around me. As a young psychologist working in a hospital on cardiac units, I came to realize that it wasn’t only the patients that needed my attention and care: the folks on the care team needed it, too. As they reached out to me for curbside consults and heart-to-heart conversations about the toll the work was taking on them, it became obvious that caring for so many high acuity patients without adequate breaks or rest required “hitting the mute button” on one’s own needs. My coworkers didn’t have time to eat or even pee sometimes, so how were they supposed to attend to more complicated issues like their own mental and physical health, their reactions to the trauma they experienced at work, their personal relationships, their futures? I saw that our brains get great at what we practice, and that the “mute button” starts to insidiously follow us home after a few years on the job. I saw that after a few years in their roles, my colleagues started to get stuck on an automatic pilot setting of anticipating everyone else’s needs and pushing their own needs deeper and deeper underground. I started to develop my expertise in healthcare worker wellbeing and mental health, giving lectures and consulting for organizations on how to help their staff be well. It was so easy for me to see this dynamic happening to other people, and less easy to see it happening to myself.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Whether we’re talking about work or personal relationships, I’ve always relied on the power of what psychologists refer to as “rift and repair.” It’s based on the acceptance that in long relationships, it’s not a matter of IF we will blow it with each other, but WHEN. Establishing this expectation early on in our relationships means acknowledging, “I will make mistakes and so will you, and we are committed to working through them together.” This creates the conditions necessary for trust, creativity and trying new things. You can get it wrong with someone without losing your credibility of their respect when you’ve made it acceptable for them to set you straight, when you’re inviting them to help you see where your blind spots are. And this is key as a leader because it frees us from thinking that success is about perfect performance, and instead allows us to shift to aiming for more attuned performance: the willingness to see when we’ve blown it or missed something important, and to commit to stepping toward, not away from, difficult conversations.

Another thing that has been a core part of my approach is empathy — being able to sense the feelings of others, to read the rooms I’m in, to help put names on or words to what’s happening so we can explore it all together. Psychologists sometimes say, “you’ve got to name it to tame it,” and being able to help others identify their inner experiences builds trust and acceptance. It creates a space for connection and mutual humanness that is built upon the approach of “I want to acknowledge what you seem to be thinking and feeling because it matters and gives us important information about what we’re working on together.” Unacknowledged thoughts and feelings tend to have a way of going underground and sneaking up on us at inopportune moments, so leaders who aren’t tuned in to what’s really going on in the hearts and minds of their teams are setting themselves up for what can be relationship-damaging and goal-derailing failures later on down the line.

The characteristic that is the bedrock for both things I’ve listed above is courage, which, to remind ourselves, is about doing the scary thing even though we feel afraid. Whether this is checking in with a colleague or a team member to find out what the tension in the room is about or speaking truth to power, keeping relationships on track by being the one willing to say what needs to be said and asking powerful questions can be the most high impact work we do.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that might help people?

The project I’m most excited about right now is the release of a free continuing education training for licensed mental health providers who treat physicians and nurses, who are reaching out for therapy in greater numbers than ever before. Most of us in the mental health world predicted that a second wave of mental health needs would follow the first wave of the pandemic. And those of us who work in healthcare settings knew that a wave of healthcare workers needing treatment and support would follow that — that healthcare workers wouldn’t stop to ask for help for themselves till the situation had stabilized a bit. Psychologists who were on the front lines providing support and mental health services to physicians, nurses, and others in patient care roles could see that these people who had never sought therapy before were about to start reaching out in droves, and that’s exactly what’s happened. So helping mental health providers feel competent and ready to treat clinicians who’ve been steeped in a powerful medical culture (which tends to solidly ensconce healthcare workers in the role of caring for others rather than receiving care themselves) feels timely and important.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of our interview about Pilates. To begin, can you tell our readers a bit about why you are an authority on the topic of Pilates?

Well, this really links to my expertise of healthcare workers, who tend to be incredibly resilient, but also incredibly long suffering. We healthcare workers really prize being strong and resilient and being able to withstand things other people can’t. We tend to push ourselves even when our bodies send messages that we need something else, and over my years of working in health care, I learned that was as true for me as it was for anyone else.

Throughout my process of getting a masters and then a doctoral degree in a top counseling psychology program, then securing a competitive internship, then a post-doc and getting my license and a first job, then buying a fixer-upper first home and getting married, I just put my head down and pushed. My willpower and work ethic felt like superpowers that I rode like a giant wave. By the time I felt like I could stop to look up and take a breather, I learned I was pregnant with twins! And most parents can guess what happened after that. Sleep went out the window, I white-knuckled my way through meaningful but incredibly taxing work (and crammed consulting work I did on the side into my weekends). I kept on keeping on, even as my body started to fall apart. As my babies became toddlers, I started to notice that it hurt to let them sit on my lap. When they gently pinched me with their chubby little fingers, it hurt so much I yelped. Getting my blood pressure taken or having a tourniquet applied when giving blood was so painful that I had the impulse to kick the poor phlebotomists! My joints, which had always seemed too easy to dislocate started to ache even when I hadn’t gotten injured. I lost and regained the baby weight three times in a row, and each time, my legs got larger, and a rubber band-like cuff started to form at my ankles. I would try to stand in the morning and the soles of my feet burned like the floor was made of lava.

In the four years after my children’s birth, in addition to Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, I was diagnosed with lipedema (a connective tissue disorder that allows deranged fat cells to develop into inflamed painful nodules that can grow to the size of lima beans), Ehlers-Danlos Hypermobility Syndrome (EDS, another connective tissue disorder that makes joints, skin — even the retinas in my eyes — lax and more easily damaged), early onset arthritis, and compressed and rupturing discs in my back. I had bursitis (fluid filled sacs the body creates in response to inflammation) in my feet, hands, shoulders, and knees. As I learned more about the lipedema and EDS diagnoses, they explained a lifetime of pain, difficulty with weight loss, and easy injuries that I’d thought were weaknesses I just needed to marshal more willpower to push through. But when I heard a lipedema expert explain that lipedema tissue could become so fibrotic that it could eat into and destroy muscle, I knew I had to stop simply pushing through pain and learn more about how to get the diseased tissue out of my body.

Over the next 2 years, I had four incredibly invasive surgeries to remove many pounds of lipedema nodules and remove some of my skin that had become lax and stretched out as a result of EDS. As I slowly recovered and got a year or so out from my surgeries, I felt tingling in my legs and palpated them gently with my fingers. My heart sank as I felt the new nodules that had already formed below my skin. The surgeries had removed a lot of the nodules, but could not stop the process creating them. So, I doubled down on my exercise efforts, walked farther and faster to try to rehab from the surgeries, and soon began to experience hip pain that led to a limp. I was diagnosed with cysts in my hips and was told it would get worse over time until I needed another invasive surgery. Shortly after that, I developed a severe case of vertigo. I wondered if I would ever have a good relationship with my body again. That’s when I started Pilates. After years of trying things like running and weight lifting and cardio and hot yoga and Krav Maga and so many others, Pilates has emerged to be one of my non-negotiables, one of the most important self-protective and self-affirming things I do for my mind and my body.

Let’s start with a basic definition so that we are all on the same page. What exactly is Pilates?

Pilates is a series of precise movements often aided or enhanced by apparatus like the Reformer (a sliding table with springs that provides support and resistance) or the Springboard (springs with handles anchored to the wall) that helps participants build strength, flexibility, balance, and greater connection between the body and the mind.

How is Pilates different from other movement modalities that you have practiced?

With other exercises I’ve tried, my focus was often external: more intensity, lifting higher weights, more speed, longer amounts of time, higher inclines, etc. But Pilates is about being 100% engaged in the moment that I’m in. It’s about locating and engaging tiny deep muscles I’ve never noticed before. Slowing everything down, making sure every part of my body and mind are in communication and focusing on the same task together.

The paradox of Pilates is that the longer I practice it, the harder it gets! As my form gets better and I engage and strengthen muscles that have been ignored for decades, the classes get even more challenging. As one of my instructors says, “it doesn’t get easier, you just get stronger.” And I can honestly say that the hours I spend on Pilates are among the fastest hours of my life. With every other exercise I’ve done, I’ve had one eye on the clock, counting down the minutes and the seconds until it was over. But when my Pilates classes end, it usually catches me by surprise.

On a personal level, what are the biggest benefits that you have gained from regular Pilates practice?

When I started Pilates, I was overwhelmed by my health conditions and feeling out of options. Multiple surgeries reduced my pain but didn’t halt the progression of my disease. And new problems were popping up and limiting my ability to walk. Feeling debilitated and like I was losing mobility was a very scary thing to experience in my mid-40s. To be able to now report that my hips are pain free, that I am feeling stronger than I have in years, that I am more stable and less injury prone — all of these are incredible results. But one of the biggest surprises of Pilates for me has been its impact on my mental health and wellbeing. I can walk into a class with personal or professional challenges on my mind, in a state of rumination or overwhelm. And at the end of the hour, I walk out feeling clear, strong, detached from the problems, and able to approach them from a calmer and more centered place. I mean, it’s undeniably amazing that I can now lift 45 pound bottles of water myself (I used to always ask my husband for help) without getting injured, but to experience the impact of Pilates on my sense of being more psychologically grounded and integrated has been an unexpected surprise.

Who do you think can most benefit from Pilates?

Pilates is beneficial for people who want to make and keep commitments to themselves that will help them heal and recover. People who want to create a bridge between their minds and bodies by developing strength, flexibility, stability, and balance. People who want to care for, protect, and claim the bodies they are in.

One of my favorite things about my Pilates studio is the diversity in the room. There are all sorts of bodies — all shapes, ages, abilities, and assistive devices. The classes often start with a check-in about needs and sensitive spots, and many of us are recovering from accidents, injuries, or simply periods of being disconnected. I have classmates in their 70s and 80s, and it feels so hopeful and encouraging to be doing a modality that is sustainable for a lifetime.

Pilates can sometimes be expensive. Can you share with our readers your perspectives on why Pilates is worth its costs?

I tend to take a “pay me now or pay me later” approach. Every day I make an investment in my health, I postpone another surgery, decrease my risk of injury, and increase the likelihood of a quicker recovery. My studio offers the option to purchase unlimited sessions, so the more often I go, the lower each class costs. The more time I spend doing Pilates, the less pain I have in my back, hips, and other joints, and for someone who has lived in chronic pain, that’s priceless.

Based on your research or experience, can you please share your “5 Ways That Pilates Can Improve Your Health and Wellbeing”?

  1. When you’re doing Pilates “right,” you really need to focus. It’s tough to ruminate or perseverate on other parts of your life when you’re focusing on body movements and holding good form. When I arrive to a session with worries or anxiety, I feel more detached from and free of them when I walk out an hour later. Pilates is just one way to practice mindfulness, with the body movements as the anchor.
  2. Pilates makes you stronger! I can pick up 40lb boxes without asking for help. This is something I used to regularly avoid, but now I just lift heavy things without hesitating.
  3. Especially for healthcare workers and other caregivers, so much of our lives is focused on meeting the needs of others. Scheduling a Pilates class and making that non-negotiable commitment to the self is incredibly grounding.
  4. Pilates focuses on form and balanced flexibility that is about intentionality and control — not just going as deep into a stretch as you can. Those of us with hypermobility conditions (over 7 million of us are diagnosed in the US but many more people don’t know they have it) are at risk of significant injuries related to being overly flexible. We need exercise that attunes us to the boundaries of how far we should stretch.
  5. Working on the capacity of the body to heal, as well as identifying its limits and boundaries, actually can help us identify and enforce our interpersonal boundaries better. Pilates is about intentionally tuning in, and once we start to turn up the volume on what we’re experiencing, that awareness has a way of showing up in all the other parts of our lives.

In my own Pilates practice, I stress the importance of precision in Pilates. Based on your experiences and research, what are your thoughts about why precision is important in Pilates?

Well, precision is so related to attending closely to the self, of noticing when the connection between our minds and our bodies is out of alignment and inching those entities closer together. It can feel great to hit that form target, but even becoming aware of what it’s like to miss it and not shy away from that has powerful implications for other parts of our lives. Part of tightening our focus on a physical goal is about noticing why things are more out of focus on some days. Are we tired, distracted, sore somewhere? What need are we having and what will meet it?

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

High achievers — and especially those who go into caregiving professions — can spend a lifetime successfully hitting targets and clearing hurdles established and defined by others. But often, the sweetest success and deepest fulfillment emerges from coming into congruence with our own values and needs, sharpening insight, and committing to meaningful action. High achievers are used to moving through obstacles that keep others stuck. So when they hit problems that stump them, it can feel jarring, frustrating, and even lonely. High achievers have unique needs in times of feeling burned out, stuck, or lost: sensitive, highly attuned support balanced by attentive, appropriate challenge. Those working in intensive, fast-paced, or trauma-exposed fields can benefit significantly from coaching and counseling — from having at least one relationship in their lives where they don’t have to take care of the other person, and where the discussions are 100% focused on themselves, their needs, their goals. I would love for that sort of attention to be baked in to the training years, but wherever it fits in along their developmental trajectories, it can be transformational.​

What is the best way for our readers to continue to follow your work online?

I’d love for your readers to connect with me on my website, www.congruenceLLC.com or on LinkedIn, at https://www.linkedin.com/in/vanessadowning/.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.

About The Interviewer: Maria Angelova, MBA is a disruptor, author, motivational speaker, body-mind expert, Pilates teacher and founder and CEO of Rebellious Intl. As a disruptor, Maria is on a mission to change the face of the wellness industry by shifting the self-care mindset for consumers and providers alike. As a mind-body coach, Maria’s superpower is alignment which helps clients create a strong body and a calm mind so they can live a life of freedom, happiness and fulfillment. Prior to founding Rebellious Intl, Maria was a Finance Director and a professional with 17+ years of progressive corporate experience in the Telecommunications, Finance, and Insurance industries. Born in Bulgaria, Maria moved to the United States in 1992. She graduated summa cum laude from both Georgia State University (MBA, Finance) and the University of Georgia (BBA, Finance). Maria’s favorite job is being a mom. Maria enjoys learning, coaching, creating authentic connections, working out, Latin dancing, traveling, and spending time with her tribe. To contact Maria, email her at angelova@rebellious-intl.com.

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Maria Angelova, CEO of Rebellious Intl.

Maria Angelova, MBA is a disruptor, author, motivational speaker, body-mind expert, Pilates teacher and founder and CEO of Rebellious Intl.