Free as a Bird

Michele Larsson and Kevin Bowen share a sampling of the exercises that Joseph Pilates created to help Eve Gentry rehabilitate from a radical mastectomy.

By Michele Larsson and Kevin Bowen • Modeled with Ruth Alpert • Edited by Amanda Altman

In 1956 at age 46, Eve discovered she had a lump in her left breast. Surgery was recommended by her doctors, who also informed her that if the lump was deemed cancerous during surgery (it’s unclear how that would have been feasible), she should be prepared to wake up without her left breast.

Her breast was indeed removed, as was her right pectoral muscle, leaving her with both vertical and horizontal scarring. Eve later recounted how hysterical she felt, and that she knew the only person she could go to for help was Joseph Pilates.

Joe told Eve not to worry—“we fix.” She trusted him implicitly (they had been working together for about 15 years) and thus began her 10-month rehabilitation to return to the stage to dance. We don’t know much about this time, except that according to Eve, it was very painful as she went through the process of rehabilitation, freeing her body to move despite the large scars and missing musculature. We do know that the Ped-o-Pull and the head harness were integral to her postsurgical rehab. She also developed the exercise she called Circular Saw (at right) at this time.

Eve’s Ped-o-Pull was unique in that it had a telescoping pole, which allowed for a greater range of motion. It was key for Eve to hold her arms straight above her head and pull the springs down through a full range of motion. Joe also made a special head harness for her. The harness band is wider than those we have today; it’s also padded and features two springs. The original model is pictured throughout the following exercises.

The head harness was integral in teaching Eve how to organize her body as a unit, and to further learn how to differentiate or make any adjustments for her unbalanced musculature.

Eve returned to the stage to dance a new piece she choreographed, entitled Antenna Bird. Spreading her ”wings” with her arms held high and strong above her body, she was triumphant in her recovery. All thanks to her teacher, mentor and friend, Joseph H. Pilates.

Prop: head harness
Reps: 5–7, unless otherwise indicated.
Breath: Exhale on the exertion of the movement, or as you stretch the harness.
• It’s essential to have someone monitor your alignment when you’re new to working with the head harness.
• If you have any cervical issues, disc herniations, stenosis, etc., these exercises are not recommended.

Circular Saw

Apparatus Setting: 1 spring on push-through bar, attached from above
Purpose: works the upper body and trunk rotation
Setup: Sit facing the push-through bar with your legs extended and feet against the upright supports. Grab hold of the bar with your left hand, gently pushing it up; cross your right arm in front of your body, lightly grasping the left pole with your hand.

1. Remove your right hand from the pole, and reach out and around through the right side of your body while keeping your arm straight and gazing at your right hand.

2. Reach back on a right diagonal, elongating through your shoulders to stretch.
3. Reverse the movement to return to the starting position. Do 5–7 reps, and then repeat on your other side.

Tips: Allow your gaze to direct the rotation. Focus on the diagonal connections throughout your body.
Modification: Attach the spring diagonally for more support.

Head Harness Seated

Apparatus Setting: harness attached on the middle support of the uprights without any tension on the spring
Purpose: organizes the head, neck and torso around the spinal column while leaning backward and then forward
Tip: Feel an energetic connection going up and down your spinal column.
Modifications: If your hamstrings are tight, add a moon box or small platform under your pelvis for Facing End. Decrease the range of motion in both.

Facing End

Setup: Place the harness comfortably around your head with the strap a bit lower on the back of your head. Sit up on your pelvis with your legs extended and feet against the upright supports. Hold onto the front of the harness with your hands, bending your elbows to your sides. (Note: If your harness has a longer spring, you may need to add a roller in front of the uprights to create more space.)

1. Organize and stabilize your torso to prepare.
2. Lean back in a neutral spine position to about 45 degrees, grounding through your sit bones and elongating through the top of your head.

3. Return to the starting position with control.

Facing Away from End

Setup: Facing away from the harness spring, sit up on your pelvis with your legs extended and feet flexed no wider than the mat. Place the harness around your head, just above the occipital ridge. Grasp the harness at a point where there is some slack, reaching your elbows to your sides with your shoulders stable.
1. Repeat the sequence in Facing End, but lean slightly forward instead of backward.

Head Harness Standing

Apparatus: Setting same as Head Harness Seated, but you may need to raise or lower the attachment point of the harness based on the needs of the client
Purpose: organizes the head, neck and torso around the spinal column, and the pelvis and legs around the center plum line of the body while leaning forward, to the side and then backward with resistance around the head
Modification: Move in a small range of motion.

Leaning Forward

Setup: Stand in Pilates stance (heels together, toes apart) facing away from the Cadillac—just far enough away so that there is neutral tension on the harness spring—with the harness around your head, just above the occipital ridge. Place your hands behind your head over the harness strap with your elbows reaching toward your sides.

1. Organize and stabilize your body, from the crown of your head to your feet, to prepare.
2. Lean forward while grounding through your feet, but only go as far as you can maintain your body position in a straight line.

3. Return to the starting position with control.

Leaning Side

Setup: Same as Leaning Forward, but stand sideways to the Cadillac and change the placement of your inner hand by grabbing hold of the harness strap near the spring.

1. Repeat the sequence in Leaning Forward, leaning to your side instead of forward.

Leaning Back

Setup: Same as Leaning Forward, but stand facing the Cadillac.

1. Repeat the sequence in Leaning Forward, leaning backward instead of forward.

Ped-o-Pull Alternating Arm Lifts

Apparatus Setting: 2 light arms springs
Purpose: moves the arms and shoulder girdle in a controlled range of motion with resistance
Setup: Sit with your spine gently pressed against the upright support, knees bent and together, and feet flat on the floor. Holding onto the handles, extend your arms out to your sides at shoulder height. (If you don’t have a seat on your apparatus, stand on the platform with the center of your pelvis and your spine pressed against the upright support.)

1. Pull your arms down by your hips.

2. Lift your arms back up, moving your right arm in front of your body and your left arm out to your side.

3. Pull your arms back down by your hips.
4. Lift your arms back up, lifting your right arm to your side and your left arm in front of your body.
5. Pull your arms back down by your hips. Do 7 reps.

Modification: If you have shoulder issues, reduce your range of motion.

Tip: Lengthen your arms as you pull them down to your hips.

Ped-o-Pull Pull-Down and Front Row

Apparatus Setting: 2 light arms springs
Purpose: works on dynamic stabilization and control through the shoulders, upper back and chest while moving the arms
Setup: Same as Ped-o-Pull Alternating Arm Lifts.

1. Pull your arms down by your hips, internally rotating your hands so your palms face backward, until your arms are completely straight.
2. Lift your arms up with your hands in front of your torso, bending your elbows out to your sides; don’t allow your elbows to move above shoulder height.

3. Push your arms back down in front of your body, until fully extended.

4. Lift your arms, bringing them to the sides of your body above shoulder height while allowing your hands to externally rotate.

Tips: Keep your scapula in check—avoid letting your shoulders elevate too much. Lengthen your arms as you pull them down.
Modification: Decrease the range of motion.

Get more exercises like this in our current issue, available on newstands and on Magzter now!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


  1. Rachel Reply

    Very interesting article! Where can I find a head harness?

    1. Web Editor Reply

      Hi Rachel! Thanks so much. We are truly passionate about Pilates around here. As far as that particular head harness goes, it is not available as it was made my Joseph Pilates himself for Pilates Elder Eve Gentry. However, Gratz does have a similar product called a Neck Stretcher, and we have provided a link below.

      Thanks for your support!

      1. Rachel Prabhakar Reply

        Thanks for the info! Much appreciated.

  2. Pam Warshay Reply

    Hello- I am wondering who manufactures the ped-o-pull shown here?