This article came into being when Laura Weavers asked me to comment on an article, “Modern Pilates Apparatus is Also Cool” by Brett Miller in www.pilatesintel.com
I found I had a quite a bit to say and this led me to set up my blog. It took me a while but here it is finally!
All the machines that I have are handmade by a master craftsman here in Greece. At the time I started my studio in 1980, as far as I know, there were no commercial machines available. These machines have served me and continue to serve me very well. I have worked with Peak machines and Balanced Body machines but I cannot give an opinion on the various machines available.
I can share some ideas which I have from 40 years of teaching and some details which I learnt from Jerome Andrews.
- I have three Reformers which you could say are the usual Reformers in my studio.
- These machines have two positions for the foot bar. Each of these machines has a delegated length.
- I deliberately arranged that the one machine has the springs always in a state of tension even when you bend the knees and come down in the “Leg Work”, or “Plies”, as we often referred to them as we came from a dance background.
Later on I will explain what I like about this option. I prefer this machine for my own workout (apart from Jerome’s). As well as these Reformers I have two which are exact copies of the Jerome Andrews’ “Folding Reformer”.
Jerome’s machine was made for him by Joseph Pilates himself and given to him as a present. This is the machine that Laura Weaver is referring to as we focused a lot on Jerome’s work in her classes.
- This machine has one setting for the foot bar but the length of the machine was varied through a very simple method.
- The machine has a set of boards of varying widths which act as the “stop”.
- One can vary the length of the machine according to the individual needs of the client and to the requirements of the exercise.
- It is possible to use the full length of the machine.
- In the semi-circle, which Brett Miller demonstrates in his video, Jerome always worked with straight arms and right to the end of the stretch.
- I agree with that this is a much deeper and satisfying approach. The other feels restricted.
For your interest Jerome used no boards for the ” Mermaid” and used the whole length of the machine! Jerome Andrews worked teaching alongside Pilates for 10 years. In fact I recently learned that Pilates had wanted Jerome to “inherit” the rights to his work. The reason this did not happen was because Jerome did not want to continue living in the U.S.A. and moved to France where he was resident for over 40 years.
I was very careful to make an exact copy of the machine, under Jerome’s guidance, paying attention to every detail, including measurements and the type of wood. The only thing I could not exactly reproduce was the material that covered the machine. I found a similar modern material that gave enough “track”. Track was important for certain exercises. Jerome told us that Pilates preferred quite hard surfaces so that you could work with the contact of the skin and the surface.
Modern machines that I have worked with are so comfortably padded that you have a sense of comfort and luxury but you completely loose the ability to be able to work with this continuous contact between the skin and the surface. After I learnt this I had all my machines reupholstered to a much firmer surface. I also had mats made that were of the same firmness as Jerome’s mat which was again direct from the master. The folding Reformer has no padding at all!
JEROME ANDREWS PREFERRED CLOTHING FOR PILATES
In relation to this I should mention that Jerome, following Pilates’ ideas, insisted that we work out in as few clothes as possible.
- The clothes should be revealing of the body and he preferred bare legs.
- In his lessons we wore either a leotard with no tights or bikini type wear.
- Men would where shorts that were like snug fitting swimming trunks just like you see in the old pictures of Pilates. There was no hiding!
- Hair was always out of the way and clearly revealed the neck.
- I must say as he worked with us each individually, with the rest of us observing, it was very interesting to see the change in the working of the leg muscles as we went through the various and extremely precise positions of the feet.
- We would not have been able to see these changes and understand just how important that precision of the feet was if we had been wearing tights let alone baggy shorts or pants. I was very impressed by what I observed and never forgot it.
Like Laura I find when I teach on an every day basis on the usual machines as opposed to the Jerome machine I use the bar in the lower position far less frequently.
LEG WORK WITH THE BAR UP IS THERAPEUTIC
- The footwork with the bar up is therapeutic if done with attention to detail and with the correct application of energy (no unnecessary tension).
- The fact that the feet are set higher means that it is easier for the lower back to drop and relax.
- This is helped greatly by the fact that the student is lying down and can concentrate on surrendering the weight of the back into the mat (or surface as Jerome would say). Any tension in the lower back is therefore further released.
- The more the back relaxes the more likely we are to succeed in the student accessing the deep abdominals.
Because the feet are set higher it is easier to “rest” the feet on the bar in the selected position (an area of support). As the student utilizes the area of support and truly feels it he or she can go on to deeply release any tension in the hip joints.
- This in turn will allow the lower back to relax even more and the back of the pelvis to broaden.
- I am sure we all have seen back pain goes with tightness in the hips.
- We can then get the student to connect the pelvic floor without recreating tension in the hip joints ,or back, and as a continuation, working through the fascial connection between the pelvic floor and the internal abdominal muscles, and using that, and the areas of support, push out.
So, yes, through a process, which is helped by the bar being higher, we arrive at working the deep abdominals more effectively and causing a release as well as relief of the spine.
One more thing I would like to say here. Jerome spoke about and emphasized the movement of the spine or, to put it in other words, the spinal succession that related to each exercise. The idea was that the deep abdominals would follow action the spine. The hips were free, released and the back of the pelvis soft in order to achieve this.
I do, occasionally, lower the bar to make the “Knee Stretches ” lighter and for some upper back work that I have personally created and added.
I agree having the springs come to a completely relaxed position is useful for some students.
ADVANTAGES OF HAVING THE SPRINGS UNDER CONTINUOUS TENSION
- I like the option of having the spring always under tension, or in a light state of tension, even in the down position in some cases for the following reason.
- Taking the footwork as an example. I believe these exercises to be therapeutic even for those who have quite serious back problems.
- One of the things we wish to achieve is literally more space in the spine.
- I tell my students that I want them to leave the studio at least two centimeters taller.
- This is particularly important for those with scoliosis.
We know that living bones have a degree of stretch and can change shape. That fascia has the ability to contract and release. When fascia releases and relaxes we have a sense of well being.
I like to do the following on the way down in the footwork. Starting from the point where the legs are straight I tell my student to imagine that there head is going to stay in the same position. Sometimes I sit directly behind the student and actually hold the head. That at the first moments when they go to bend the knees the carriage does not move. They achieve this by lengthening. This lengthening includes a gentle opening of the psoas muscle.
We have all seen that contracted psoas muscle or muscles go hand in hand with back pain. The student continues the descent with a feeling of keeping the spine light and long. This can be done of course with either of the spring options but the second provides resistance throughout requiring the student to work harder but also I think, more importantly, it makes it easier to feel.
THE IMPORTANCE OF CONTACT AND SUPPORT
- Going back to the fact that Jerome’s machine has only one position for the bar. I honestly think it didn’t matter and doesn’t matter because of the extreme precision of the work.
- It was always therapeutic no matter how extreme the movement and Jerome did move right into working with our perceived limits.
- What he was critical of was the foot bar on “modern” machines.
- They were too soft to achieve proper contact and feeling of support.
The bar, he said, was deliberately round and had a specific circumference. In the case of the “Folding Reformer” it is completely unpadded. He insisted in our toes being spread and in full contact with the bar throughout the movement. This continuous, full contact applied to toes, metatarsals and heels alike. He stressed the contact of the palm of the hand and which specific part of the hand and which fingers were used in each movement and throughout the movement. A rounded bar meant the hand could slide, where necessary, over the bar avoiding a “break” in the wrist.
By the way the shoulder bar end is removable too!
Just to wet your curiosity further. The footwork he taught us was with the head and shoulders lifted forward. I stress the neck never got tired because we worked through a specific spinal succession. Boy, does this really work deep in the abdominals! I do consider these versions more advanced and I usually teach them only to very aware advanced students. My teacher trainees learn them at towards the end of their course.
I have found leg alignment to be absolutely crucial to healing back pain as well as alleviating knee and hip problems.
THE UNIQUENESS OF EACH STUDENT
- I cannot agree more that each student is unique and requires a different series of exercises, adjustments, preparatory work, different psychological and physical approach according to their individual needs.
- There is no recipe.
- This is creative teaching and this is what makes our work challenging but also fascinating.
- We never stop learning! From what we heard, yet again, in the You Tube interviews at Jacobs Pillow Pilates was a creative genius and free, strong spirit.
He created and adapted machines according to the needs of his students something I could never do. I might adjust, modify but create and build an entire machine I could not. I heard a story about Pilates’ teaching while I was still a student at the London School of Contemporary Dance. The elderly mother of one of my teachers went to Pilates with a slipped disc and in extreme pain. She had never been to the studio before. What did he do with her? He did the Jack Knife!! Was she cured? Yes.
The question is how do we, slowly with time. I do think it does take a lot of time, bring ourselves and our teacher trainees to the point where we can help a student through intuition , a huge vocabulary of movement to call on, a touch that heals, a presence that allows the student to trust and open up on all levels.
Jerome assisted, that is effectively apprenticed, with Pilates for 10 years apart from all his dance, martial arts and yoga experience. I think there is a lot to be said for learning by osmosis, by being with an experienced elder in the community. But maybe this is another discussion.