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The Book of Reformer:  Chapter 3


The Book of Reformer: Chapter 3

Westwood Pilates

By Mela Debiase

There is something exciting about getting your long box up on your Reformer for the first time!  You have gotten a pretty good warm up so far from Footwork to the end of the Rowing series. You’ve connected your center with your breath, warmed up the lower body and upper body separately and also coordinated them together in the exercise so aptly named: Coordination.  You’ve been lying flat on the Reformer for the warm up or sitting during the rowing series, however now you have to balance on this box. Ooh….. cue music for the cirque troop. Just kidding, there is a lot of box, but “raising things up a notch” challenges you a little more.  You still have a lot of support as it’s a pretty big box to lie on, but your balance and symmetry is challenged differently. By moving yourself further up as you hold on the straps, it’s going to change how those springs feel when you reach into them, never mind that you are going to do the Teaser soon which is a balancing act even when you are on a the mat….on the ground.

I drew inspiration to write The Book of Reformer from a client who said she saw the Reformer workout as chapters of a story. I so loved this idea that I decided to write out how I see the Chapters of the Reformer. I highly recommend you read my first blog on Chapter 1 and 2 before reading any further to get the most out of this blog. I follow the order of the exercises as remembered by Jay Grimes, a 1st generation teacher. The order is Joe’s order, these Chapters are my way of looking at the order and making sense of it. Perhaps if you are struggling to remember your order, seeing the exercises in chapters will help you. Some chapters are obvious as they are named a “series” eg. The Long Box Series (Which I personally like to refer to as A Balancing Act!  Please by no means change what you call it….it is the Long Box Series, but feel free to make your own story too). Some chapters might be short for you right now, but in time as you add exercises they will become longer and filled with more drama.

Chapter 3: A Balancing Act

The 1st Long Box Series

- Swan

- Pull Straps

- Backstroke

- Teaser

- Breaststroke

- Hamstring Curls

- Horseback

So before we start talking about the Long Box Series, I think it’s important to recognize the basic shapes the spine can make, which we explore in Pilates.  Various exercises in the system work different spine shapes. The spine shapes we use here in the Long Box are:

-The C curve (rounding or flexion)

- Back extension (the opposite of C curve)

Sometimes we move from one shape to the other or use a combo of these spine shapes in exercises, but the long box really explores the spine flexion and extension.

The first exercise, Swan, is a very challenging exercise that takes us from a C curve into a Back extension on the Long Box and is not necessarily right for every body.  It’s important to recognize when an exercise is not good for your body type. Jay Grimes rarely teaches this exercise on the Reformer as it’s a pretty challenging exercise.  Romana Kryzanowska encouraged us to take the client over to the Ladder Barrel to do Swan there instead. In both these versions of Swan you are connecting your lower body to the apparatus in order to find the length and freedom in your back extension.  Opposed to the Swans you might do on the Cadillac or Wunda chair where your upper body is connected to the apparatus. Joe may not have done this, gone to the ladder barrel in the middle of your Reformer workout, however I do like how Romana takes us to the ladder barrel to do Swan, as it really prepares your back to do Pull Straps. Perhaps if you are going for flow on your Reformer workout, you’ll skip the Swan (if you normally do it on the barrel) to keep things moving.  If it’s convenient to go to the barrel and your studio allows it, I suggest you do as you will not regret what information it supplies to your body as a stepping stone to the next exercise - Pull Straps.

In Pull Straps we are working our spine into the same back extension as Swan but now we are using the straps to connect our upper body to the apparatus. Remember these straps are there for you to pull one way, only so you can lengthen the opposite way and create a 2 way stretch!  It is helpful to take the information your lower body learned in Swan (whether you did it on the Reformer or Barrel) and apply it to your Pull Straps.

Next we turn around for the Backstroke, moving more into a C curve like shape.  I love how on the Long Box we start with back extensions and then alternate with exercises that explore round spine shapes.  Just like in the matwork how after Swan we take a rest pose, or in the Back Bends on the Ladder barrel you round forward between backbends.  Backstroke is preparing us for Teaser. It took me a long time to realize that Backstroke is not just getting me into my center but teaching me to find my Back Connection!  In Backstroke if you really imagine you are propelling yourself through water you have to use your back to reach into those springs, feeling your shoulders wrap down and underneath your back.

Now your Teaser starts in a shape reminiscent of the swan but upside down, I know a lot of us like to think of this as a rest or the calm before the storm (ha!), but you should be working to connect your center and find your 2 way stretch here so that you are all ready to roll up into your Teaser. I use everything I’ve worked on in the Long Box so far to roll myself up into the teaser.  Here comes your big balancing act! Like a synchronized swimmer whose legs just magically float out of the water, it looks effortless but you know underneath there they are using the resistance of the water with their upper bodies to find all this lift that supplies this floating appearance to their legs!

There seems to be a million different things you can do once you get up to that Teaser, with arm circles, leg circles, shaving, arms and legs moving from side to side in opposite directions etc….I say choose your own adventure, but don’t lose sight of why you are here in the first place.  You should be sitting behind your tailbone, rounding your lower torso into a curve, finding your lower body reach from underneath you through your legs, not balancing in a V shape on top of your tailbone. You should have your back connected to the springs with a lift through the upper spine. Find the meat of your story before you start adding the fluff!

Just like that we are back in the water, on our bellies propelling through the water in Breaststroke. This brings back all the good stuff we worked on in Swan and Pull straps but is a much more challenging direction to reach into the springs and maintain your 2 way stretch and back connection.

Hamstring Pulls or Curls comes next, I see this as a chance to make sure I reconnect with my lower body, not just in the pulling action but also with the lengthening.  Optionally I can take hold of my feet at the end taking my body into the biggest back extension yet, it’s just a juicy moment but it wouldn’t feel so good on my lower back if I hadn’t found length there first in the previous back extension exercises.

And surprise surprise, we’ve been in back extensions so what must follow, some rounding and flexion.  This is not the rest pose though like after the Swan in the Matwork. No, no…...this is the Horseback. Here you are in your balancing act again, you must float on your box but like that synchronized swimmer, you must learn to use the spring/resistance for your benefit, and like a jockey on his horse you must hug and hold on with your inner thighs. I never understood the Horseback spine shape until one of my teachers told me “it’s the Teaser, it is just flipped forward”.  This was a mindblowing moment for me, it didn’t make the exercise easier but at least I understood what I was trying to achieve here. It made my Long Box make more sense. It made me see how I keep repeating the same shapes and alternating between these 2 basic shapes (variations of the extension and flexion of the spine). Pilates is so wonderful like that. It’s all the same exercises but with gravity in a different place in relation to the shape you are making, and your body connecting to the apparatus in a different way that changes the way it teaches your body and the parts of your body it awakens.  

That’s why if you are struggling with some of these exercises on the Long Box, you might find that there are other exercises on the Cadillac, Chairs or Barrels that will help you find the connections you are looking for on the Long Box.  For example, doing Horseback on the Ladder barrel is a great way to introduce the exercises to someone. I have also found the Armchair/Babychair very helpful for me to understand my Back Connection as I reach forward into the springs in Teaser and Horseback.

I am by no means an expert at the Long Box, my own personal body issues are challenged on here, but I hope this video demo helps you put together the words of my story with a visual. I am demonstrating with less repetitions as the focus here is understanding the journey we are on. I highly encourage you to explore your own personal story as from your perspective you may face different challenges than I do and different visuals to help you reach the same goal we are all working towards attaining - a strong balanced body.


Stay tuned for my next blog on Chapter 4: The Dance of the Thick Pad…….