(I wrote this essay for my Pilates training. It gives an overview of why I say all those crazy things about frogs, zombies, and the like during workouts.)
A new Pilates student enters a foreign world, one in which actions normally oriented vertically become horizontal, in which small movements can be more exhausting than large ones, in which words like “reformer,” “table,” and “chair” take on new connotations and functions. Imagery functions like an interpreter. The strange phenomena of the Pilates world translate into more familiar things through images. The student can then begin to learn the customs and habits of Pilates without extreme homesickness for the everyday gym world of barbells, dumbbells, and cardio equipment.
The “Feet in Straps” exercise puts the student in a vulnerable position, supine, half suspended, legs akimbo. Imagery, by bringing reassurance, comfort, and intelligibility to the experience, enables better performance. Three aspects of the exercise can particularly benefit from the application of imagery: core awareness, disassociation of the hips, and efficient organization and alignment of the lower extremities.
Core awareness is such a central concept that the importance of grasping it cannot be overstated. It is key. One way to begin developing core awareness in this exercise is to picture some of the underlying anatomy. A student can begin by picturing the familiar six-pack of the rectus abdominis and its orientation from top to bottom along the torso. The tendency of this muscle to bulge pops into mind easily from there. Then the student can learn about the transversus abdominis and its orientation across the torso. Picturing this muscle stretched out from side to side, smoothing the surface and containing the underlying tissues and organs enables a connection between the feeling of flatness and the thing itself. On a metaphorical level, the student can imagine the abdominals as a rubber band stretched from hip bone to hip bone, continuing the theme of activity across the abdomen rather than up and down the abdomen. A third imagery approach, sensory imagery, can draw on the previous two images. As the student uses imagery to guide movement, the instructor can suggest the student pay attention to the sensations in the body during the movement. Implanting the sensory data related to the movement allows the student to increase proprioception. In other words, as the student pictures his or her transversus abdominis spread out across the abdomen, the instructor can indicate with touch or with words the location of the activity so the student can make the connection between the body and the mind.
Similarly, when it comes to disassociation of the hips, the same kinds of imagery can improve dynamic alignment in this exercise. Visualizing the pelvis with its paired crests and spines and the balls of the femurs planted in the hip sockets serves to orient the student to the body territory. Adding the metaphorical image of the pelvis floating on femur balls made of balloons or the familiar image of the bowl of water tipping as the pelvis moves in each direction activates the connection between the body and mind. Sensory imagery, including, perhaps, the student finding the body landmarks with his or her hands or concentrating on the relations of those landmarks to each other in space at the different phases of the motion, can further increase the understanding and performance of proper alignment during the movement.
Finally, imagery can facilitate the organization and alignment of the lower extremities. A quick imagery tour of the leg bones and their spiral motion due to their structure in particular can open the understanding of what happens as the legs internally and externally rotate during leg circles, for example. The metaphorical image of the legs zipping together provides a way to encourage the legs to stay in touch with the center of the body. The sensory imagery of smooth circles rather than jerky polygons experienced both kinesthetically and visually adds another layer to the connection between the body and the mind’s dynamic awareness of alignment.
These are only a handful of possibilities for using imagery to facilitate aspects of this exercise. Different instructors and different students create and benefit from their own unique imagery blends, all working toward the same ideal dynamic alignment.
(The picture is Amelia Bloomer, the reformer for whom I have named my Pilates reformer. Hooray for pants for women!)