By Rael Isacowitz • Edited by Amanda Altman
Photos by Kirk Fitzek, courtesy of BASI Pilates
I believe in evolution—that everything in this universe is in a constant state of change. Pilates is no exception. It should be ever-evolving to remain contemporary and relevant. I believe that to teach Pilates is to be knowledgeable, adaptable and creative—to have the thirst for knowledge of a young student, yet the adaptability and creativity that only experience can deliver. I would be remiss not to also mention a quality that is a guiding light for me in all I do, teach and live, and that is humility. It is a vital trait to possess as a teacher, to be able to look beyond the importance of one’s self and focus on a positive outcome for the person in front of you and the community at large.
Over the past few years, I have observed a growing phenomenon that has become increasingly disturbing to me: teachers changing the repertoire, adding unnecessary accessories and trying to stand out, just for the sake of being different. Modifications and progressions, although integral to teaching Pilates, have become so vastly different from the classic exercise that the connection is remote at best and unrecognizable at worst—and for no apparent reason. Joseph Pilates gifted us with an incredible, extensive body of work. It is to be cherished, honored and preserved while nourished and developed.
Certainly it is not my place, nor is it anyone else’s, to draw the line in the sand of what is acceptable, and what is not, in the Pilates method. My purpose here is to simply illuminate the many possibilities we have within Pilates, using the same vocabulary and equipment but in slightly different ways, resulting either in the exercise becoming easier (a modification) or more difficult (a progression). Being that this is a magazine article, not an entire book, I have chosen to delve into five classic Pilates movements, or “root” exercises, as I refer to them. I have then shown derivatives of these roots, just as we do in language, in music and in painting—with words, notes and color.
I like to view the Pilates repertoire as an enormous family tree. We need to be familiar with not only the close and obvious “relatives,” but also the distant ones, and know how and when to bring them together. These intricate relationships are essential to understanding and utilizing the method to its fullest extent. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of movements we practice. We need a system to organize them and categorize them, and that is where the BASI Block System comes in. It is like a filing system that allows us to establish relationships between exercises and easily find modifications or progressions—while keeping it all in the family.
THE ROOT: Criss-Cross
Taught in the BASI Comprehensive Teacher Training Program
The Original Goals: to promote abdominal strength with an emphasis on the obliques. The primary muscles working are the abdominals, and the fact that the legs are bending and straightening simultaneously simply adds an element of coordination and changes the effective resistance (i.e., the torque). Note that trunk flexion is the priority, and layered upon that is rotation—within the limits of maintaining the same degree of trunk flexion throughout.
Precision is key in all we do, and this principle is amplified in the Criss-Cross: Every joint and every body part must be in place for maximum effectiveness. When done well, the lines are beautiful and the results profound.
The Modern Misrepresentation: People often try and rotate too far, resulting in loss of flexion, which besides decreasing the abdominal work, can result in hyperlordosis. Hyperlordosis can also be caused by attempting to maintain a neutral spine during this exercise, which of course is impossible. As a consequence, the exercise does not achieve the intended goal to its fullest extent, and at times places excessive load on the lumbar spine.
MODIFICATION: Criss-Cross on Cadillac
Taught in the BASI Master ll Program
• Although I’m showing the modified version here—with no springs (the top-loaded spring can be added for additional assistance)—this exercise becomes a progression when the springs are bottom-loaded instead.
• Set the body up so that, when in forward flexion, the shoulders are aligned under the push-through bar with the arms perpendicular and shoulder-width apart.
• Keep the feet on the same horizontal plane, imagining that there is a pole balancing on them; it should remain still as they switch.
• It is important to keep the gaze directly forward and moving with the head, whether in forward flexion or rotation. The eyes guide the head—if you’re looking up, down or to the side, the head will follow. If the head is out of alignment, the body will be out of alignment, which could result, at the very least, in an ineffective execution of the exercise and excessive neck tension.
PROGRESSION: Criss-Cross Variation on Reformer
Taught in the BASI Comprehensive Program
• The hip flexors are being loaded with resistance, in turn, increasing the challenge on the abdominals. If the abdominals can’t adequately stabilize, there is a danger of stressing the lower back. It is imperative to maintain maximum and consistent spinal flexion throughout, with the lower back imprinted on the carriage.
• Keep the legs together as they straighten and bend, focusing on the rotation of the trunk.
• The trunk rotates as the legs bend, and moves through center to the other side as the legs straighten (but not completely).