Where Pilates Goes Wrong…

I know that I spend a lot of time reminding people not just to obsess about the area that is injured, painful or out of alignment. The general thrust of my writing and talking about the body is to always look at the system as a whole. A key model for understanding this holistic approach is through the Anatomy Trains identified by Thomas Myers. Fascia, the connective tissue that wraps around each cell, each bundle of cells, each muscle, the tissue that interconnects muscle, to tendon, to bone, to viscera. Fascia, I have thought, is the reason the whole body is a whole system. But what if I’m slightly wrong?

As so many of my clients and classes wind down for the end of term, I have more time to think of my own body and training. I went for a run on Monday which absolutely shattered my lower calf muscles (the soleus area). No matter how much I stretched them out, they still felt tight. Walking down stairs was actually painful. Thursday comes and I was determined to get myself out for another run. I hoped that the movement would help to release them. It didn’t and I had to give up after 10 minutes just because the tension was getting silly.

Now, I’ve always struggled with super tight calve muscles. I tell everyone that I inherited them from my Dad, which is true! I swear I have my Dad’s legs! (How many times have I heard that from a client…?) But I also know, because I am a Pilates teacher, that this kind of overuse is a signal that the mechanics of my running are slightly dysfunctional. Something I am doing is leading to this over use. It’s probably wrapped up with my knees being hyper-extended and the position of my weight over my legs when I’m running. It’s symmetrical (both sides are equally tight), which is some good news. It’s probably something to do with the switchover between the soleus and gastrocnemius muscles during the take off and landing phases, (as my teacher Dominique Jansen has said in the past). Or maybe it’s just the shoes, or the fact that I haven’t run for some time.

My brain went into over-drive trying to work it out.

Later in the day I hobbled down to Triyoga to do a Feldenkrais class. We spent the whole lesson working on the shoulder girdle. The whole 1.5hours lying on our backs just doing movements around the shoulders and integrating this into spiralling the back.

I walked out of the class with no calve pain…

[Pause for effect]

This is why I keep on going on about Feldenkrais. But what I realised is that what happened yesterday was not just related to fascia. Feldenkrais talks to the nervous system and invites an overall more functional organisation of the whole body. So yes, we worked on the shoulders, but the whole body was adjusting in the meantime, and something else let go. Not only is the calve pain gone, but my scoliosis is less significant today.

The discovery has been both exciting and worrying. I realised that even though I actively attempt to address the body and person as a whole, Pilates does, unfortunately, still have a tendency to reduce pain to a specific area and to try to treat it. We look for logical connections: the neck and lower back, the neck and gluts, the hip and knee, the foot and lower back, the wrist and the shoulder etc. What we sometimes get wrong is that the system’s natural ability to self organise is so finely tuned to the balance of every part, that even our extensive body knowledge and eye for detail cannot always see the whole. Pilates goes wrong when teachers assume they know better.

Now excuse me whilst I go and have an existential crises.


DR 2

So in my last post I talked about the cause of a DR as the increased pressure against the abdominal wall from the inside out. Pregnancy is one example of why this might happen, however I am seeing, with considerable frequency, the same pattern happening in men. It seems clear that the main cause of the DR is posture. There are contributing genetic factors too, like hyper-mobility, which will make someone more prone to it. There are also occasions where a single event, like a sudden sneeze, coughing or lifting something heavy can bring about a hernia. However the chances are in both cases that the occurrence can be greatly reduced by maintaining appropriate tone in the abdominal wall and ensuring that you do not place too much pressure on it during habitual movement.

In my last post I identified four key areas that need to be addressed:

  1. Centering – asymmetry (unilateral imbalances) reduces the functionality of the Rectus Abdominis muscle. Before loading the abdominal wall you need to find centre.
  2. Releasing the shoulders – restrictions in shoulder movement leads to rib cage displacement. It may seem strange, but ensuring you have full ROM in the shoulder will reduce pressure on the abdominal wall.
  3. Release the rib cage – The ribs need to soften down. I drew a nice picture of this in my last post.
  4. Release the Hip Flexors – When the ribs are displaced, it makes it very hard to connect through the centre of the body, so when these clients do things like abdominal crunches with their legs in the air, they often tighten up in the Hip Flexors. This brings the pelvis into a forward tilt, also in my picture.

The following sequence is not a complete fix. It’s a starting point to address the main points mentioned above:

  1. Centering: start off by doing a low level centering exercise. My favorite is to lie down with pelvis raised onto one of those disc shaped wobble cushions, but a simple cushion does the trick too. You need to make sure that your ribs are not poking up to the ceiling so soften the rib cage and raise your head onto another cushion if needed. Start with pelvic rocks, then small clocks, rolling an imaginary marble around the pelvis. You can then draw one knee in and hold it with your hand and do a few knee stirs. Repeat on the other side. Then hold one knee in towards you to allow the other hip to open up. Change sides.
  2. Lateral Breathing: staying on the cushion but with both feet on the floor begin to breath into the sides of the ribs. As you exhale, allow the arms to lift up infront of you whilst you soften your ribs down. Then try to take one arm overhead, without displacing the rib cage. Keep softening the ribs down as the arm goes overhead. Repeat a few times to each side and then try this with both arms. Drop the ribs! Drop the ribs! Drop the ribs!
  3. You can now begin doing some low level abdominal work. Place your hands onto your belly, so that with each out breath you sink your belly away from your hands. Try drawing one knee in towards you at a time without swinging around on the cushion or collapsing your lower back into the floor. Then try to do the step up where you lift one leg, hold for an in breath and lift the second leg up to join it on the next out breath. Then reverse. Always breathing out when you either lift or lower the leg.
  4. Leg slides: With the pelvis still on the cushion and feet on the ground, you slide one leg down along the floor. As you do this try sinking the belly back towards the spine, breathing out all the way, and watch that the lower back doesn’t arch especially towards the end range of the knee extension. Hold the leg out there for an in-breath, and then press the heel into the floor, engage the muscles around the sits bones and drag the leg back in to the starting position. Repeat 3-4 times to each side, alternating legs.
  5. Bridge: press your heels into the floor as you raise the pelvis off the cushion. You want to think of lifting the pelvis from the muscles around the sits bones, keeping the ribs soft and opening the front of the hips. Remove the cushion from under the pelvis, and then roll the spine down to the floor bone by bone, focusing on releasing through the mid back. You can then repeat the bridge without the cushion a few times.
  6. Lunging HF stretch. Ok this one is just obvious, but don’t forget to avoid hanging into your lower back. As you lunge forwards you think of lifting out of the pelvis, keeping the ribs soft.

I’ve been busy writing this whilst suffering from a nasty cold, which means that I’ve had time to create a quick video of all of this (minus the lunge). It’s just a quick picture so that you know what to do when you’re on your own. Please excuse the red eyes and sore nose 🙂

Pilates Classes and Courses

Pilates @ 229 The Studio

 7E5W6815 web

Relaxed, friendly and supportive classes for all ages and abilities.


Pilates is a safe and effective movement technique. It can help to relieve muscle and joint pain whilst supporting your all round fitness and wellbeing. This is a general level class. Beginners and Improvers are advised to join for the full ten week course, which will gradually increase in intensity. More advanced participants will be offered more challenging alternatives, although an emphasis on good technique and alignment are focal points in the class.


Breathe deeply, strengthen and lengthen your body and leave feeling energized for the week ahead!


Thursdays 6-7pm


@ 229 Studio

International Students House

229 Great Portland Street

London W1W 5PN


£70 for 10 class course or £10 drop in