March 2004, pages 78 ff.
The Other Mat
by Stacie Stukin
Exercise instruction by Jillian Hessel
Pilates may not offer spiritual or meditative benefits, but its core-strengthening exercises can invigorate your yoga practice. PLUS: 6 great exercises to incorporate into your yoga routine.
1. The Hundreds
This classic Pilates exercise warms every muscle and pumps oxygen-rich blood through the body.
Begin lying faceup on a mat with your legs extended, feet softly pointed. Stretch your arms at your sides, palms down. On an inhalation, press the small of your back into the mat, engage your core muscles, and imagine energy traveling out from the Powerhouse in both directions — through the crown of your head and through your toes. Exhale completely from your lower abdomen as you slide the ribs toward the waist and curl the head, neck, and shoulders off the mat. Simultaneously, keeping your lower abdomen scooped back toward your spine, raise your legs until your toes are at eye level and stretch your arms alongside your torso, about 4 inches off the floor. (You may need to bend your knees as you come up and/or raise your feet a bit higher to maintain scooped abs.) Pump the arms vigorously up and down, accenting the downbeat; breathe in through the nose for 5 arm pumps and out through the mouth for 5 arm pumps. Do 10 sets (10 breaths each), then slowly lower your legs, head and arms.
2. Neck Pull
The bending portion of this exercise promotes spinal flexibility and stretches the hamstrings; drawing the spine tall as you sit up strengthens the upper back extensor muscles.
Lying on your back, extend your legs and flex your feet, keeping them hip-width apart. Place your hands behind the back of your head, thumbs just below the occiput (the ridge where the skull meets the neck), and open your elbows away from each other. On an exhalation, contract from your core muscles and curl the upper body forward into a scooped-out, curved shape. Feel as though you're lengthening your spine even as you curve the crown of your head toward your kneecaps. At the bottom of the curve, fold the elbows inward and stretch the entire spine by pulling your occiput gently with your thumbs (Figure 2A). Then, on an inhalation, roll your spine up to vertical, placing each vertebra on top of the others like building blocks. Open the elbows wide again, slide your shoulder blades down your back, and use your thumbs to draw your head and spine upward.
On an exhalation, strengthen the engagement of your core and slowly round yourself back onto the mat vertebra by vertebra (Figure 2B). Come down with control and keep your elbows open as wide as you can in this phase of the exercise. Repeat 6 to 10 times.
3. Roll Over
Strengthens your core muscles and emphasizes spinal articulation and control. Caution: If your lower back is vulnerable or weak, bend your knees throughout this exercise and limit the range of motion.
Begin lying on your back with your arms stretched long at your sides, palms facing down. Lift both legs to 90 degrees, softly pointing your feet and squeezing your legs together. Exhale completely. As you inhale, contract your lower abs to initiate lifting your pelvis off the mat. Let your legs travel up and over your head; concentrate on peeling your spine off the mat vertebra by vertebra until your legs are parallel to the floor. (Do not bring your legs lower than this.) Hold the inhalation as you open the legs hip-width apart and flex the feet, sending energy out through your heels toward the wall behind you (Figure 3A).
Exhale as you roll down through the spine with control, vertebra by vertebra. Keep your feet hip-width apart, continue reaching through your heels, and do not drop your legs down toward your torso as you roll down. Bring the legs as far down as you can without arching the lower back or pooching the lower abdominals (losing the scoop of the abdomen back toward the spine); your legs will probably be at about the same angle as in the Hundreds. Then point the feet and draw the legs together again (Figure 3B). On your next inhalation, perform another Roll Over. Repeat the exercise 5 times, then reverse the leg sequence (that is, roll over with open legs and close them to roll down) and do 5 more repetitions. When you have completed 10 Roll Overs, either bend your knees and bring your feet to the mat or, if your lower back and belly muscles are quite strong, lower your legs slowly to the mat, keeping them absolutely straight. To provide a gentle counterstretch for the back, hug your knees toward your chest.
A full-bodied rolling exercise, Seal is similar to yoga's spinal roll; it works on creating balance and control as well as uniting dynamic, rhythmic movement with the breath.
Sit in a tight ball shape at the front edge of a mat with your knees bent and the soles of your feet together. Reaching your hands inside your thighs, grasp your outer ankles. Let your knees open away from each other and relax your neck to bring your chin toward your chest. Point your toes and balance in this shape with your feet hovering slightly above the mat (Figure 4A). Holding the tight ball shape, use an inhalation to roll back onto your shoulder blades (Figure 4B); do not roll onto your neck and head. Hold the body long enough in this position to clap the soles of your feet together like seal flippers 3 times. Exhale as you roll back up to hover in the original position, again clapping 3 times. Repeat the exercise 10 times.
5. Side Lift with Twist
This exercise is similar to yoga's Side Arm Balance but includes a movement that feels like a diagonal Downward-Facing Dog. It builds upper body strength and the oblique muscles of the torso.
With your knees bent, sit on the outside of your right hip and leg; place your left foot flat on the floor in front of your right ankle. Place your right hand with your palm facing down in line with the right hip and reach your left arm, elbow very slightly bent, parallel to the ground, bringing your left wrist just past your left knee (Figure 5A). Inhale, lifting up through your spine, then exhale completely. On your next inhalation, engage your core muscles and press down through the right hand to lift your body into a side bend, arcing the left arm up over your left ear at the top of the movement (Figure 5B).
On your next exhalation, simultaneously pivot your torso, legs and feet clockwise; draw your hips up and back; and reach your left arm across the front of your torso (Figure 5C). You should feel a line of energy from the right palm up through the right shoulder and out through the torso and right sitting bone. Most of your body weight will rest on the left foot; the right foot is only a helper. Inhale to pivot back to the overhead reach position, then exhale to return to the original position. Repeat 3 to 5 times on each side.
Much like Salabhasana (Locust Pose), swimming works the back extensor muscles, the backs of the shoulders, and the backs of the legs and buttocks.
Lie facedown, arms extended on the floor above your head. Spread your legs hip width apart and point the toes. (If you have a strong forward tilt to your pelvis and/or tight, painful lower back extensors, place a folded yoga blanket under your hipbones in the prone position.)
Lengthen from the tips of your fingers and the crown of your head down through the toes. Inhale to engage your core and exhale to lift the upper torso, the arms, and the legs. Keep the back of the neck long and don't bend the knees (Figure 6A). If your shoulders tend to hike up toward your head when you lift your arms, open the arms out into a V shape.
As you inhale, begin swimming: Lift your right arm and left leg, bringing your left arm and right leg down but not to the floor (Figure 6B). Inhale again as you reverse your arm and leg positions; exhale, swimming to the first side again. Do at least 10 breath sets slowly, concentrating on elongating yourself and not wobbling from side to side, then speed up the rhythm and see how fast you can swim for another 10 sets. When you're done, come down to the floor, slide your palms under your shoulders, and use your hands to push back and sit on your heels. Bring your head to the floor so your back makes a convex curve and receives a gentle stretch, as in Balasana (Child's Pose).