By Gregory Louis • Edited by Amanda Altman
My first-ever encounter with the Pilates practice was a mat class I took at an Equinox fitness club after my older sister, who had fallen hard for the method herself, suggested I give it a try. I remember her going on and on about how Pilates helped her bounce back after her first pregnancy, and she thought it might help me with some physical issues I was dealing with at the time. I was pretty certain that “some obscure workout program for postpartum women” was not for me, but I gave it a shot anyway. I’m sure you know what happened next: Yes, Pilates changed my life. Go figure.
In that first mat class, we were each given this odd, circular device that the teacher kept saying was “magic.” It seemed ridiculous at first, but as I started working with it, these things started happening. We would squeeze this so-called Magic Circle between our hands, and I could feel a sensation in my deep abdomen. We would hook it around our ankles, press outward on it, and it felt like my spine was growing taller. We would push the Circle down against the mat, and I could feel the pain releasing from my low back. It was, actually, kind of magical.
Looking back on my early encounters with “Contrology,” specifically working with the Magic Circle, I’ve come to realize how formative those experiences were. When I came to that first class—in Los Angeles in my mid-20s—my life was kind of a mess. I was just barely getting by working as a personal assistant, I had no goals of my own, and my main activities were partying and drug abuse. I lived somewhere outside of my body, as far from my mind as possible, out in the darkness and away from the light of my spirit.
Somehow I made it to that Magic Circle session, that fateful day, and all that started to change. The work of this method connected me back to my body, cleared and strengthened my mind and rekindled my spirit. Healthy behaviors began replacing destructive ones. As I continued using the Magic Circle to create meaningful connection to my body, I began to connect more deeply to my true self. You could say magic was happening. I’m beyond grateful for how this practice has changed my life, and I’m excited to share this Magic Circle workout with you.
Prop: Magic Circle
Breath: Unless otherwise indicated, inhale and exhale fully, allowing the breath to fuel your movements.
Tips: For optimal results, incorporate these exercises into your matwork three to for times per week. As I often tell my students, hold the Magic Circle like you mean it! When using a traditional hand hold, connect your palms (not your fingers) firmly to the pads with all 10 fingers pointing forward.
Rib Cage Up-And-Over
Variation of Spine Stretch Forward
THE MAGIC: trains the transverse abdominus (deepest abs) to help lengthen the lumbar spine (lower back) employs the muscles of the anterior chain to stretch the entire posterior chain
GET STARTED: Sit tall with your back flat against an imaginary wall while holding the Circle firmly between the heels of your hands. Reach your legs long in front of you, with your heels hip-width apart and feet flexed. Extend your arms forward at shoulder height.
1. Inhale slowly and deeply as you “squeeze and lift” your rib cage high up and over your hips.
2. Exhale as you bring the crown of your head up and forward over your body, and then down toward your knees. Feel your
ribs continue to lift, and then tilt forward to follow the same trajectory as the crown of your head. Continue until you have exhaled completely, hollowing out your belly.
3. Reach the Circle forward, lengthening your arms and digging through your heels to further straighten and lengthen your legs.
4. Inhale to return to the starting position, stacking your spine vertebra by vertebra into your “wall.” Do 5 reps.
• Imagine that the Circle is an extension of your rib cage—feel your hands wrapping around your ribs.
• As with countless exercises, make sure your upper traps aren’t sneaking into the movement. Mindfully engage the back of your armpits, and keep your shoulder blades relatively connected to your back throughout.
Modifications: If you feel pain in your hip creases just by coming into the setup position (tight psoas) or you are having trouble sitting up straight, softly bend your knees to release the pressure and make sitting up more manageable.
Advanced: As you begin the journey back toward the starting position, actively drive your thigh bones into the floor—feel the opposition of thighs down/spine up to create even more lift in your torso while strengthening your hamstrings.
Variation of Double-Leg Stretch
THE MAGIC: trains the powerhouse to stabilize the spine and pelvis with moving limbs strengthens the arms and chest while maintaining the shoulder-to-back connection challenges the mind to coordinate opposing arm and leg movements
GET STARTED: Lie on your back with the Circle in your hands. Fold your head and chest up and forward, draw your knees toward your center, and reach the Circle forward to the tops of your ankles.
1. Inhale as you reach your arms up and back while reaching your legs forward to a low diagonal.
2. Exhale powerfully as you recruit your low abdominals to pull your knees back to center and drive the Circle up and forward, all the while pressing on the Circle to fire up your shoulders and chest.
3. Empty your lungs completely as you press the Circle firmly against the tops of your ankles to return to the starting position. Do 5–10 reps.
TIPS: Be mindful of your neck. Whenever you’re in spinal flexion while supine, aim your gaze at your navel and imagine that there’s a golf ball between your chin and your chest. Do not look up at the ceiling!
Modifications: Limit the angle of your leg movement and the range of motion of your arms. The legs should be reaching only to an angle where your low back stays connected to the mat; your arms should reach only as far back as you can keep your shoulders away from your ears.
Advanced: Allow your shoulders to move with your arms as you reach behind your head, momentarily releasing your scapula; then use your lats to pull your scapula securely back into place during the return phase. As my friend and fellow teacher Benjamin Degenhardt once instructed me during a session, “Let your body explore the movement more—sometimes doing good Pilates earns you the right to do ‘bad’ Pilates!”
THE MAGIC: strengthens the obliques engages the upper-back muscles while working spinal rotation
GET STARTED: Lie on your back with one pad of the Circle behind your head at your occipital joint (where the neck meets the skull) while holding onto the ring part with your hands. Fold your head and chest up and forward while pulling your elbows outward, and draw your knees to tabletop.
1. Exhale as you twist to one side from your rib cage, not your shoulder, while reaching your opposite leg to a low diagonal.
2. Pull your elbows strongly outward and push the back of your head into the pad as you inhale and move through center; exhale as you rotate fully to the opposite side while switching legs. Do 10 reps.
• Think of the transition of the movement—when you’re twisting across the center to the opposite side—as the most challenging part of the exercise. The transition is not your break, it’s an opportunity to dig deeper! Lift your chest even higher through the center, as if there’s a ball behind your shoulders that you’re lifting up and over.
• Use the power of your exhale to deepen your twist.
Modification: Many people struggle with the idea of not leading from the shoulder/elbow when rotating. If that’s the case for you, simplify the exercise for now by taking out the leg movement. Instead, keep your feet flat on the floor with your knees bent and together.
Advanced: Go deeper into the movement by bringing extra attention to the reaching-leg action. Think about your glute-to-hamstring connection—use the bottom of your butt cheek to really drive your leg forward, as if you were reaching into a strong leg spring. Also, try speeding up your pace.