Pilates is all about stretching in different directions at once, which we call the oppositional, or two-way stretch.
Press down to go up, I say when guiding someone through the press up on the high chair; the breathing on the Cadillac; the flying eagle on the Wunda (or, these days, on the mat with the Magic Circle).
Keep lifting up as you roll down, I advise during overhead exercises.
Lengthen tall to go back (the thigh stretch); reach your limbs forward as you pull your waist behind you (the roll up).
The list of contradictions is exhaustive, and—despite being a former English teacher with an MFA in creative writing—my brain, I’m embarrassed to admit, is most comfortable with black and white. Sadly, at least for my brain, there are no absolutes in Pilates, and this doesn’t just apply to how we cue but to what and how we teach because every body is
different. “It’s all shades of grey,” first-generation teacher Jay Grimes of Vintage Pilates confirmed during a recent (virtual) weekend workshop.
Though I’ve been taking Pilates for nearly a decade and teaching for over six years, it wasn’t until quarantine when I began singing again, that Jay’s words, especially his famous, aforementioned “two-way stretch” concept, started to click in a meaningful way. Of course, I’d heard it said countless times before and had dutifully parroted the terminology right back at my own students. I could explain, and even demonstrate, what had to be done: stretch long in two directions and maintain a strong middle.
But the two-way stretch, which should have been so engrained in my neuro-muscular memory, remained elusive—even slippery—until my vocal coach (a former Pilates client) had me point my fingers both up and down during a recent lesson. She wanted me to feel that to go high, I must gather strength by pressing down from below. Sound familiar? She even went a step further, adding that collectively, the throat and inside of the mouth “feel like a stretchy rubber band” (had she really meant—a two-way stretchy rubber band?) and that “you’re pulling it [the sound wave] in two directions.” Lightbulb!
The connection to an entirely different activity (singing), in combination with the visual of watching my voice teacher gesticulate and the kinesthetic aspect of mirroring her gestures with my own hands (via Zoom, of course), was the aha! moment that made me suddenly understand our Pilates opposition in a much deeper, low C-curvy kind of way. The next time I took to my mat, or my rented Reformer for that matter, I pictured those arrows. I’m still picturing them.
So now, when it’s time for the spine twist, and I tell you to “find your down, so you can go up,” you’ll know I really mean it. And, if you breathe from your diaphragm (another singing/Pilates parallel) when exhaling to wring out your lungs—“squeezing all the juice out,” as Jay would say—you may even get a gold star!