Friday, January 4, 2013

A Couple of Pilate Moves; Swim and Grasshopper.

I used to attend Pilates Mat class pretty regularly. Between changes in my schedule and life in general, over the last few years I haven't gone as much. I incorporate many Pilates exercises in what I do with my teen dancers and last summer I had the opportunity to sub a handful of Pilates Mat classes. I still sub here and there. But teaching isn't always the same as doing. Even though I frequently do the exercises along with my students and attendees, the focus is very different. Because I'm cuing the breath patterns, for me at least, means I'm not fully utilizing the power of the breathing patterns throughout a given exercise. Which is kind of ironic, since aside from the close relation to movements found in Ballet technique I was drawn to the art of learning how to breath through movements that is an important aspect of Pilates training.. Breathing was always something I struggled with as a young dancer. It wasn't long after my fourth kiddo was born that I started Pilates. At that point in my life I realized that by midday I had usually replaced breathing with hollering. So learning how to breath through movements, especially during the most strenuous parts, was a sort of awakening for me.

So with all that said, when I slip into a Pilates class I usually get my butt kicked in some fashion. In a good way of course.

In between subbing some classes the other day I was able to do just that, and catch the second half of a Pilates mat class from one of my favorite instructors, the lovely Amy. I always learn something new. Whether it's an exercise or a new layer of technique revealed.

Before attempting these, or any exercises for that matter, make sure you are warmed up. Don't go into them cold. Do some squats or jog in place for a bit to get heat to your muscles. Push ups are a good body heater upper. One of these days I will post some quick warm ups.

"Swim" is not a new mat exercise to me, but this particular combo was.

Laying prone (stomach down) on the mat, legs parallel, feet pointed. Arms lengthened overhead. Core, as well as quads and glutes engaged. Shoulders pulled and set down away from the ears.

Inhale; lift and lengthen R leg and L arm. Hold for 2-3 counts.

Exhale; lower

Repeat other side.

Go through that 2-3 more times.

Then stay on one side. With the breathing pattern lift and lower just the R leg/L arm.

Repeat other side.

Repeating on just one side made me see where I had to fire up a bit more on the supporting side of my body.

"Grasshopper" was completely new to me.

Laying prone on the mat, legs are straight and about hip width apart. Feet are pointed and legs are turned out (insides of the thighs should be rotated toward the ground and heels are touching). Place hands under forehead, hand over hand.

Inhale; keeping the front of the pelvis pressed into the mat, lengthen and lift the legs, keeping them straight and feet pointed.

Exhale; using 3 short, quick exhalations, flexing at the knees, cross and gently beat the ankles R L R.

Inhale; straighten the legs, still lengthened and lifted off the mat.

Exhale; lower legs to the mat. Control the movement so the legs don't just fall to the mat. Keep the pelvis pressed to the mat throughout the movements.

Each repetition change the pattern of the ankle beats. So the next one you would beat L R L. Do a 3-5 sets.

I had a pictorial breakdown of keeping the knees level, but I just couldn't reconcile the "crotch head on" angle. The words below are much better!

So what I loved about this exercise was the focus on the knees. During the beating action of the ankles the challenge is to keep the knees in their exact spot from the leg lift. This requires stabilizing the hip, pelvic and glute muscles, while simultaneously isolating the lower legs for freedom of movement. Try to keep the knees at the height of the initial leg lift and level, as if they are set on a tabletop. For me that's the sweet spot of this exercise. Feet staying pointed keeps everything from head to toe engaged.
I instantly saw a dozen ways this exercise could shed light on aspects of Ballet technique, as well as muscle and movement control through a sequence of movements.

This next bit isn't necessarily an exercise as much as it is a reminder of proper placement.
When on all fours (think "Cat and Cow"), it is important to maintain hip over knee/shoulder over wrist alignment. It's all to easy to stray a little out of proper placement, as I was reminded of the other day. Oh, it's those tiny layers that can be so grueling. But oh so important to go back to and review!

The problem is shifting, even a small amount, of the weight from a neutral tabletop position to one where there is too much weight into the arms and wrists. This happens when the hips are shifted in front of the knees.

I don't know if you can tell from the picture, but my hips are not aligned over directly over my knees, and I'm straining in my arms because of to much weight shifted into them.

Here my hips (from the point of where the hip joint is and not my booty) are better placed over my knees. Less strain through the arms and better alignment over the wrists.

Using a mirror can help with set up, then internalizing the feel of proper placement so the image in the mirror becomes an image and feeling in your "mind's eye". Then of course, checking in with your technique, as I discovered, is important.

Thanks for reading.

Enjoy the dance that is life!


  1. Good post Erin. I thought grasshopper was particularly challenging - thus great! Getting the proper alignment is always something that I have to think through. I can't wait for it to come naturally someday!

    1. I'm pretty excited about using Grasshopper on my teen dancers. For me, whenever something starts to feel natural I learn some other layer and the challenge starts anew!