How to Break the Habit

Creating a balanced body is the ultimate goal in Pilates. But how do you detect and overcome those compensations? Start with these Reformer exercises.

By Mandy Hylands Wright • Edited by Amanda Altman

My passion as a Pilates teacher is to help my students become more aware of compensations that have become habits. I’m constantly on the lookout throughout each session to find these detrimental patterns, which can result in serious injury and damage to the body left unaddressed.

As I enter my 50s, this interest in good mechanics and functional movement has only intensified. I want to enjoy the next decade of my life and on, and limit dysfunction, pain and restrictive movement patterns as much as possible.

I’ve found that during times of stress we often revert to old patterns regardless of how much we’ve worked toward the good ones. We often stop exercising, sleeping well and drinking enough water, and choose sugary, fatty foods, along with alcohol and Netflix binges. Reinforcing good habits seems counterintuitive as our bodies store the stress we’re experiencing. Unless we find positive ways to release this tension, it slowly solidifies in our joints and muscles. Ultimately, rounded shoulders and spinal compressions result. That’s why we need to learn to take responsibility for our bodies, and create new awareness within ourselves.

Sound ambitious? Remember that the mind and body share a symbiotic relationship: Just as we have the power to control our thoughts, we have the power to control awareness of our movement.

As a teacher, how can you sharpen your eye and spot these compensations or deviations? Where are these compensations occurring? What muscles are inhibited? What muscle is overworking? Simply ask yourself, What do I see? Make a note and continue observing. Eventually, you’ll see a common thread and have this aha moment: The same compensations are occurring throughout all the movements! Be patient, though—a keen eye can’t be purchased, it must be earned. That’s another reason it’s essential that educators continue to receive regular sessions. Picture a chef who never ate, but only cooked; how would they ever improve their craft?

Students, heed the advice of my mentor Rael Isacowitz: “Ninety percent of the success of an exercise is in the setup.” Make a mental checklist to make sure you’re setting yourself up for success, and also check in throughout your session: Are you aware of bony landmarks? Do you feel balance within your pelvis? Are your scapulae neutral? Try shifting from one leg to another, and observe where you tend to carry all of your weight. Discover your natural posture, and what you can do to correct it. Taking a video of yourself while doing an exercise is a great way to get feedback.

One of my most successful undertakings has been my weekly sessions with my teacher Constance Holder. I have invested in my education, and it has enabled me to grow in my work and personally, beyond my expectations.

But back to this series: The following movements highlight compensations, and help me guide clients in discovering enhanced balance and harmony within their bodies. Because life’s too short to not feel good!


Prop: Reformer Sitting Box
Breath: Varies
Reps: Varies
Tip: Modify an exercise if you feel any strain or tension. It’s more important that you’re using the correct muscle group.

Double-Leg Stretch

Spring Setting: heavy (all springs)
Purpose: increases abdominal strength and shoulder mobility

• Limited mobility in shoulder flexion and in the thoracic spine.
• Weak hip extensors and abdominals.

Setup: Lie on the Long Box with the tips of your shoulders at the back edge. Curl your upper torso up while bringing your legs to tabletop with your hands pressing down on both knees. Engage your abdominals and softly press your lower back into the Box.

1. Inhale as you extend your arms by your hips and your legs to a high diagonal.

2. Exhale as you circle your arms overhead and extend your upper torso over the Box, allowing your head to dip toward the well.

3. Lift your upper torso as you circle your arms toward your hips.
4. Bend your knees to tabletop and return your hands to your knees to come back to the starting position. Do 8–10 reps.

WHAT TO FOCUS ON: Initiating the movement from your abdominals.

Modifications: Be aware if your lower back is compensating for weak abdominals. Try extending your legs at a higher diagonal, or keep your knees bent as you hinge from your hips.

Chest Expansion (Single Arm with Rotation)

Spring Setting: light
Purpose: works the lats and abdominals unilaterally to observe compensations

COMPENSATIONS TO LOOK FOR: Pulling on the neck, an indicator of weak abdominals.

Setup: Kneel on the carriage against the shoulder rests while choking up on the straps. Inhale to prepare.

1. Exhale as you draw one arm down and back. Inhale and hold.
2. Exhale as you rotate to the side of your extended arm.

 3. Inhale as you return to the starting position. Do 8–10 reps on both sides.

• Keeping your pelvis under your rib cage, and your abdominals engaged.
• Minimizing deviations if you find yourself shifting laterally during the rotation.

Modifications: Omit the rotation, and/or use both arms to pull down and back.

Get the rest of this article and more exercises like this in our current issue, available on newsstands and on Magzter!

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  1. Bonus Move: Quadruped Position on the Reformer – Pilates Style – Live Life to the Core Reply

    […] “How to Break the Habit” in our March/April issue, Mandy Hylands Wright spills her tips for detecting and overcoming […]