Pilates Mat Exercise #15: The Swan and the 2-way Stretch

Pilates Mat Exercise #15: Swan and the 2-way Stretch

Recently in the UK, I found myself surrounded by swans.

Whole families of lovely, photogenic-but-possibly-surly actual swans fill up at least a third of the photos from my trip.

Just today in fact, courtesy of Karen Frischmann, I learned the collective term for swans: a lamentation of swans. It's amazing what you can learn while doing your Mat exercises!

Interesting. There's enough swan shots for numerous posts about an exercise I never really liked that much.

However, the Swan is starting to become a bit warmer and fuzzier, and while I'm in the mood, let's dive in!

Why Swan now?

In the Order of the Pilates Mat exercises the Swan is the first exercise to place you onto your stomach.

You've already found your scoop lying on your back, rolling and sitting up.

Leave it to Joe Pilates to make us find our lift in a prone position. Enjoy the moment – soon you'll be expected to scoop in a side lying position as well.

But for now you've got to hoist your stomach in and up off the Mat.

No easy task.

How to possibly find the 2-way stretch?

a.k.a. Is that my stomach pooching out onto the mat? (It is.)

Gravity is not your friend here.

But it's a perfect time to commune with our most trusted ally…

Pilates Mat Exercise #15: Swan and the 2-way Stretch

You've got 2 best buddies: Lift and Length.

Finding the 2-way Stretch

Before getting all bunched up about the Swan, or even worse, the Swan Dive, take a moment to gather your thoughts and your powerhouse.

Remember the length you have when lying on your back: pre-Hundred and pre-Roll Up. On your back you've got the Mat behind you for feedback about how your scoop is working.

Now that you are on your stomach work to recreate that same length. It's in there!

Reach the toes away and along the Mat behind you. When done effectively you may feel your seat begin to work. You'll need the lower body to be fiercely strong in the Swan.

It may look like this is an exercise for the upper body.

Pilates Mat Exercise #15: The Swan and the 2-way Stretch

However.

What do we know about the Pilates method?

Full. Body. Exercise.

That part of you that looks like it's just lying on the Mat? It must do nearly all the work here.

Reaching the toes to turn on the seat is the lower body part of your 2-way stretch.

Now your waistline has got something from which to lift in, up and away for some full-on dynamic opposition.

In! Up! And away!

Begin with length and use it to lift up into the Swan as much as you can without making it a push up.

Make your lift and length take you up and away from the Mat and your lower body.

Don't give up the reach of the lower body.

Trust me, you need it.

Where to look for your 2-way Stretch

For the upper body, the 2-way stretch is often described as the connection of the arm into the back.

You can find your upper body half of the 2-way stretch by beginning at your waistline: the low stomach and the low back.

Imagine that your lift of the waist reaches all the way to your fingertips.

Swan Speak?

  • Aim to connect your hands (either on handles or beside the mat) to your waistline to shift the focus away from the arms and shoulders.
  • Lengthen along the mat first. It will help your lift and encourage the arms to be more submissive to your scoop.
  • You may reach a point on the way up where you cannot lift higher without compromising your 2-way stretch.

Perfectly fine for now. Patience, swan friends.

Lower body?

The lower body really begins at the upper stomach/back of ribs and continues all the way down through the long reach of the tailbone and to the toes.

The connection of the lower body into the center is more tangible when you are standing on your feet or if you have them firmly placed against an apparatus.

Swan speak?

Sadly, Swan on the mat is not a terribly advantageous exercise for cultivating the connection of the lower body.

Where might we find a similar exercise with a connection to cultivate the lower body?

Ah, so many possibilities…

Today I will choose the Spread Eagle on the Cadillac.

Pilates Mat Exercise #15: The Swan and the 2-way Stretch

It's the same shape as our simple Swan on the mat and the Pulling Straps on the Reformer. Pulling Straps follows the Swan in the Order of the Reformer Exercises.

Hmm. I bet that's not an accident…

  • Stand firmly on your feet in the starting position.
  • Use your stomach to push into your feet and lift yourself into part 2 of the exercise where we'll find help for our Swan.
  • Stand firmly on your feet. I mean it.
  • Push down into the feet and lift the sternum up, up UP!
  • Pretend you are using the lift of your waist to “lift off the Mat” as you must in the Swan.
  • Feel what the standing connection of the lower body does to your powerhouse. It will teach it how to turn on. You'll use this feeling when you are back at your Swan bereft of a lower body connection.
  • See how you do!

A word about hand placement for the Spread Eagle

Joe Pilates was adamant about the hand placement for the Spread Eagle.

The shape of this exercise is not a full backbend. The backbend is in the upper back only: exactly the same shape as our basic Swan on the mat and the Pulling Straps done on the Long Box on the Reformer.

On my Gratz Cadillac I hold right under the eyebolt for the leg springs.

On other apparatus, aim to hold on where your arms can be fully extended down towards your sides.

This will make it impossible to fling yourself into a full backbend. The arms will extend down and your sternum will lift up in opposition.

A work in progress…

I've learned so much about the Swan and my own body over the last 5 years.

My strength and control has improved tremendously and I enjoy working on Swan all around the studio more than I ever thought possible.

I urge you to explore all versions of the Swan exercise on every apparatus.

When you workout, notice when you find yourself in the same shape as Swan even if it's a different exercise.

You'll find strengths in other related exercises that may serve you well, especially in the more challenging Swans.

Rock your Lower Body

Stay tuned for more tips and strategies to connect the lower body into the center.

I'm excited about my future post on the magical Pilates 2×4 exercises. They are sure to rock your Pilates world.

Sick of Swans?

Lay it on me in a comment below, I am happy to help!

Further Reading:

Upcoming Workshop:

On the Order of the Pilates Reformer Exercises

Pilates Mat Exercise #15: The Swan and the 2-way Stretch

I am super excited for my upcoming workshop on Sunday, November 29, 2015. I'll be teaching in Raleigh, NC for the first time at Laurabpilates Studio.

Find out more info and register here.

Looking forward to seeing you there!

2-Way Stretch and the Anatomy of Pilates

2-Way Stretch and the Anatomy of Pilates

I've got a secret.

As a child I underwent a series of surgeries resulting in nerve reconstruction on one side of my body. A facial nerve was cut and reattached using an additional nerve taken from my left leg.

It has been my nearly 15 years of study and continual practice of the Pilates Method that has enabled me to “uncover” a series of weaknesses along my entire left side.

Just when you thought Pilates was about sculpted abs and a tight butt…

After many years of Pilates I began to notice a heightened body awareness that developed as I continued to train in this amazing method. Yes, ‘body awareness' is a chief benefit of the Pilates method.

But this is in fact, an understatement.

The degree of awareness one can achieve through diligent practice of the method is staggering. It manifests in the sensation of many muscle groups working in unison – a seamless reach from the sides of your back up to the tips of your fingers, or down the entire length of the back of the body.

Left Side Story

But some muscles on the weaker left side simply did not respond in the same manner as their right-side counterparts.

Hmmm… How long has that been going on?

The Pilates exercises had revealed along the left side: a weak arch, knee, buttock, lower stomach, back muscle and neck. I remember vividly the workout that allowed me to realize each of these “separate weaknesses” was really one long chain of imbalance.

Can it be coincidence that all these parts are connected?

I decided to investigate.

Joseph Pilates himself believed (and stated vehemently I gather) that his method was 50 years ahead of its time. I completely agree. The connected muscle systems one finds in the 2-way stretch, for example, are articulated and well known today in the study of connective tissues or myofascial meridians in the body.

From Wikipedia:

“Myofascial meridians (also known as anatomy trainsconnective tissue planesfascial planes, or myofascial trains) are lines of bones and connective tissue that run throughout the body, organize the structural forces required for motion, and link all parts of the body.

The idea of myofascial meridians was first introduced by Thomas Myers in his 1997 article ‘The anatomy trains'. In his 2001 textbook Anatomy Trains: Myofascial Meridians for Manual and Movement Therapists, 3e, the term ‘myofascial meridians' was first used synonymously with the term ‘Anatomy Trains'.

Myers claims myofascial meridians were described by German anatomist Hermann Hoepke in the early 1930s.”

From Anatomy Trains by Thomas Myers:

Anatomy Trains is a unique map of the ‘anatomy of connection’…the interplay of movement and stability.

Ooooh…the anatomy of connection. Yum yum.

My copy of Anatomy Trains confirmed my Pilates discovery. My long chain of imbalances that the Pilates exercises had revealed is officially known as the Deep Front Line. Anatomy nerds will want to check out this amazingly über-detailed and specific discussion of the Deep Front Line which I quote:

“The Deep Front Line is a key component of all things core.”

Oh dear…

The Deep Front Line (DFL) is essentially the lift up the entire front of the body: in Pilates the lift up out of the arch of the foot reaching all the way up the inner leg to the abdomen continuing up to lengthen the neck and to the crown of the head.

So the left side of my core/powerhouse/center was not doing its fair share of the work. Well this solved a bunch of ‘Pilates mysteries' of the “Why can't I…?” variety, but sadly it does not make me like the Snake on the Reformer even a weensy bit more.

Please realize that an involved discussion of fascia is not really my gig. I note my experience here as just one example of the depth of information, discovery and jewels that abound within Joe Pilates' original method.

2-way stretch, yo

The anatomy of movement differs from a study of medical static anatomy. I do not promote an ignorance of the formal study of anatomy, but it does not apply in the same ways to a body in motion as it does to address specific joints, muscles or tissues in a medical setting.

The 2-way stretch is the hallmark of a body engaged in movement. In actuality there are numerous oppositional forces in play during your Pilates workout.

2-Way Stretch and the Anatomy of Pilates

I am a big fan of the 2-way stretch intrinsic to the Pilates Method. So useful, yummy, simple and satisfying, it gives you a particular way of looking at your body in motion.

The above animation illustrates only 2 examples of the oppositional forces reaching in the body. Often a complex exercise will have 4- and 5-way stretch if you will  – Think Star on the Reformer…or Star anywhere, really…

Teaching the 2-way Stretch

A client of mine, Janet, a former registered nurse, is trained in human anatomy. She marvels that the oppositional forces of the body in motion are quite tangible and yet unexpected given her education in the musculoskeletal systems.

Janet remarks that her knowledge of the traditional anatomy with regard to the individual muscle groups, their function and insertion points is a completely different animal to the anatomy of movement she is finding within the Pilates exercises.

It feels totally different. It feels like the insertion points for the tendons and ligaments aren't there, the energy [of the lower body] just flows all the way down to my feet, without the different muscles being involved. This is a whole body thing as opposed to picking out an individual muscle group.

I feel like I am using my whole body together and as a result everything works much better. It just flows.

No wonder Jay Grimes has been telling me for years:

“Whatever you're looking for, it's in there.

Movement heals. Share your experience in a comment below. What has Pilates done for you lately? 

Video Blog: The Teaser “My legs are too long!”

Video Blog: The Teaser "My legs are too long!"

The familiar complaints – dare I call them excuses? – about any given Pilates exercise:

“My arms are too short!”

“My legs are too long!”

Or my favorite:

“There must be something wrong with the Reformer!”

The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

Quick Teaser Facts

  • The Teaser requires the back to be in a Round shape. Your shape must be solid. This is crucial to the wrangling of said long legs.
  • You must actively be doing a lot of work to create and sustain your Teaser during the entire exercise. Not just balance, but hard sweaty work is required for Teaser success. Willpower, friends!
  • Think like an animal and master the 2-way stretch.

The Internal Tug-of-War

Really just another name for the 2-way stretch, I like to think about the unrelenting oppositional forces you must employ to execute the Teaser with proper control. The work of the strong scoop/lift of the center is in a constant battle with the long reach outward and upward of all the limbs.

Working in this manner will give your Teaser control, strength and balance. Awesome.

One Fine Teaser

Join my client Greg and I for this week's video blog. We aim to demystify the how-the-hell-can-I-do-the-Teaser-and-straighten-my-super-long-legs conundrum.

Never complain about your long legs again when you see what this guy can do.

A Few Nerdy Factoids

  • Greg is 6'8″ and he's working on an 86″ Gratz Reformer in 2nd gear.
  • When Greg first began Pilates lessons years ago, one of his goals was to be able to do the Teaser with his legs straight. Check!
  • I speak about “3 little stretches” similar to the ones you can do in the Roll Up and the Spine Stretch on the Mat: 3 little stretches = the constant battle of the 2-way stretch!

I appreciate you and hope you have a great workout today! Thank you for watching 🙂

The Pilates exercises are perfect for every body. 

Share your own Teaser successes in a comment below.

Read my full Pilates confession about the Teaser in a related post on Pilatesology.