Don’t you wish you had a freer more flexible neck? The beautiful hunter pictured here can rotate his head and neck as much as 270 degrees. Owls have fourteen neck vertebrae compared to the 7 we have which makes their necks far more flexible. (1) As we gaze at our feathered friend, of course it’s hard not to miss those captivating eyes; owls are well-known for their nocturnal vision. This combination of sharp eyesight along with the ability to turn their heads every which way without repositioning their body certainly puts them at a good advantage over their prey.
While we don’t have the lucky benefit of fourteen vertebrae in our neck, a little focus on where we look especially during spinal exercises can make a critical difference in the quality of movement. In Pilates, we concentrate on spinal mobility along with strengthening the core. However straightforward some of the exercises might seem, I find that it’s necessary to call out where the eyes should look. Does that seem odd? Well typically, and even from some of the regulars, I notice heads and necks bent down or turned a bit off center looking at the floor when the head should be positioned more atop the neck. Sometimes, people keep their eyes closed to breathe and concentrate – which is in great alignment with a mind-body practice– yet they may be unaware of their head and neck position as there are moving.
In Spine Twist for instance, the arms reach away as the shoulders are drawn down and you rotate the torso. Without fail, there always seems to be someone in class who does not turn their head with their spine. My cue? Usually something like “look toward the hand or side you’re twisting towards” or simply “turn your head with your spine.”
Here are some quick Pilates Tutoring Tips on keeping your head and neck in the game for a successful Pilates practice and healthy exercise movement.
The head is the top of the spine. All right, I know that fact might seem quite obvious, and it depends on the particular exercise, but if you’re moving your spine, the top of the spine is likely to be participating in some way. For instance, in side-bending, a common faulty movement pattern involves the eyes looking down at the floor in front of the feet, with the head dropping slightly forward and askew. In this example, you want a continuous reach from head to tail, so you can keep your gaze forward and pretend you’re sliding your back against a wall. You’ll maintain a more upright position with your head aligned on top of the spine.
Consider the head as something of a leader going into spinal movement. As it happens, the head is home to a primary sensory organ we rely on heavily – your eyes.
Eyeballs have muscles too. There’s no competition with Mr. Owl since we rotate on average 45-70 degrees with our necks (2). No matter your average, you may have underestimated the power of your monitor-gazing, mobile-reading eyeballs. Give this a whirl: Turn your head and simply look in the direction you are pointing your nose like in the above example in Spine Twist. Then let your eyes take-over, looking the rest of the way in that same direction. Perhaps you found that with that little enhancement, you actually were able to create a bigger rotation. Viola! Your eyeballs are doing Pilates!
So, while I do practice with my eyes closed at times – there are definitely moves I cue my class or clients to keep their eyes open. Your eyes have muscles too, and they need to maintain fitness and flexibility. Want to keep your eyes fit? Check out this short video example of exercises to help with computer eye strain (2:33)
One quick note on those who wear glasses: Because we gather so much proprioceptive information from our vision, if you wear bifocals or trifocals during exercise, you might discover that your head and neck position may need adjusting. Ask for assistance from your instructor or schedule a one-on-one for specific coaching, if you feel that your neck, shoulder or head position or not optimal.
Shoulders and Chest. I’ve mentioned before in previous blogs that the head and neck position are highly influenced by the shoulders and the thoracic spine. Your greatest range of movement will be available as you strive toward an ideal posture of drawing the shoulders down toward the hips, and keeping breadth in your chest. Since the ribs are attached to the thoracic spine, ideally you’ll get your full inhale and exhale too!
Mirror, mirror on the wall…. Again, closing your eyes during a mind-body practice is really great in helping facilitate a “check-in” on how the body feels – tension, weight-bearing, and orientation to your surroundings. However, your Pilates eyeball muscles come in handy for self-coaching. Use a mirror to provide visual feedback and build even better body awareness of your spinal alignment. View the position as you start; what do you find influences your head and neck position as you move? Take mental notes and file that in your brain – so that you can get your head in the game!
With eyes wide open, for sure, we’ll see you in the studio!