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Pilates Exercises Unstuck

By January 28, 2013

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Pilates, the saw A reader who is a Pilates teacher wrote to me recently about an interesting exploration she was in with regard to the Pilates saw exercise.á In the saw, as you remember, the pelvis does not move while there is a large upper body turn and spiral of the spine on top. One of the cues that goes with saw exercise is that we don't let the legs become uneven as that would indicate one hip advancing out of line with the other.

Our reader had taken a lesson with a yoga teacher in which she demonstrated the saw exercise for the her. The yoga teacher suggested that not allowing the hips to move as the spine turned could create excessive rotational and compression forces in the low spine. Nobody wants that! We need to talk about it. Obviously saw is not the only Pilates exercise in which this kind of issue comes up. We are always stabilizing somewhere so that another area can move more freely. Also, in this case there was some concern about a lingering injury in the low back

Here is part of my response to our reader:

It seems to me that there are a couple of perspectives we need to address. The first is that there is concern about an injury. To me that takes precedence over the choreography of an exercise. If there is an ongoing injury, there is ongoing vulnerability and imbalance in the structure. In that case, appropriate modifications have be made if there is concern that an exercise could stress an injured area. I can't say exactly what those should be since we can't see each other, but I don't necessarily think that allowing the hips and therefore legs to shift forward unevenly would be one of them.

I tend more toward limiting the range of the movement while keeping the overall intent of the exercise intact. In the example of the saw this is particularly interesting because saw has so many dynamics going on inside of it. Some people teach saw, and you may have learned it this way, where the lower body is frozen and you try to tork the spine in a twist on top against an energetically static pelvis. That is the kind of set up in which injuries occur.

Saw is full of oppositional movement. Even though the hips do not move side to side, there is a lot of energy moving down through the sitbones into the mat, and lengthening down the low spine and carrying out the tailbone and along the backs of the legs. Think of the difference between being rooted to the mat (stuck energy) compared to rooting through the mat [with the spine lengthening in both directions]. That way there is not a single stress area but the spine opens and forces are distributed evenly.

Practicing Pilates this way, you will find the energy that flows down the back and along the backs of the legs cycles around to come up the front of the leg and inner thigh and gives lift to the belly and loft to the upper spine as it spirals up, over and around in the saw. If the hips and legs give way at the first sign of engagement, it kind of throws the opportunity away.

Pilates is very individual and I certainly don't encourage you to stress an injury; but finding a higher level of energy circulation in the exercises -- as the choreography is set up to let you do -- is part of the amazing unfoldment of Pilates.

What I'm speaking to here is the idea that stability isn't stuckness. We are always engaged in a flow of energy in Pilates. Our job is to work the alignment and lines of energy so that we can translate force through the body and not have it get bound up in any one area, tempting injury. It takes strength and control to support flexibility, and it takes a lot of awareness to sense into the appropriate range of motion you have in any exercise. Those are some of the gifts of Pilates and I do think they are available through the choreography of the traditional exercises.

As much as I've written here, it is still just a beginning on this topic. Please feel free to add your comments below.

Related Reading:

Counter vs Oppositional Stretching

Where Pilates and Physical Therapy Meet with Dr. Brent Anderson

Comments
January 29, 2013 at 7:24 pm
(1) Iris says:

Hi Marguerite,
Thank you very much for the article! I’m a Pilates instructor for 2 years and keep studying through courses, workshops, books, articles, & Pilates community web site & blog. The safe environment & teaching (for clients & also for myself) are the first priority on the list. Keep exploring on understanding the principles behind the movements.
Regards,
Iris

January 29, 2013 at 8:21 pm
(2) Marguerite says:

Thanks, Iris. I so love what you said: “Keep exploring on understanding the principles behind the movements.”

January 30, 2013 at 3:46 pm
(3) Melissa Turnock says:

Great topic, for this reason I am not a huge fan of saw in group classes, but will address it in privates, if appropriate. I think if there is rigidity in the clients body and the sense of support and control has been taken to stiffness, then there is a risk of that torsion in the lower back. If you cue a lifting and placement of the ribs up and over the thighs, rather than a rotation and hard reach to the end of range, you can encourage clients to keep some suppleness. I am not a tickler for keeping the feet together but rather ensure there is more movement in the torso than legs. Brent Anderson’s gem, “As much as is necessary and as little as possible comes to mind.”

I prefer to teach rotation in standing, keeping it more functional for my mostly injured client base. Rotation and flexion are contraindicated for many of my clients too so I find other ways to teach them stability and awareness of posture through these ranges.

February 4, 2013 at 1:13 pm
(4) Megan says:

I completely agree that Saw is a very tricky one to instruct in a group setting but can’t applaud it’s benefits enough when you can dissect it for just one person. One thing I see continuously in a group setting if I do attempt to teach it is people doing the “helicopter arms” rather than truly rotating the spine using the muscles of the powerhouse and having the arms attached to the back just go along for the ride. Definitely follows the line of limiting range of motion to stay honest with the technique of the exercise – unfortunately, many people in a group setting go for the gold and push their limits. Good article!

February 6, 2013 at 11:00 pm
(5) Ana says:

Thank you Melissa for your valuable comments! The “lifting and placing of ribs over thighs” is a gem, will definately use it, thank you! I also have mostly “back ache” clients and find the standing exercise a big challenge but a better option for them. I find most people find the “delicate connections” as Marguerite has so beautifully explained almost out of their reach. I think as Pilates teachers we have come to understand the suptle difference between “stability” and “stuckness” .I find however, that most people take a long time to grasp these intricate connections and in the interim expose themselves to possible injury. To err on the side of caution, I have given the cues as Marguerite suggested but emphasised an awarness of softness in hip structure, rather allowing a slower, gentle turn of the upper torso. It is a deep concern for me that people come to Pilates because they have spinal issues and then injure themselves further becuase the exercises require an innate sense of the body and it’s workings, which in many “pain sufferers” is not present.

July 16, 2013 at 12:39 pm
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