Lineage Links: This first-generation Pilates teacher is a passionate and longtime advocate for the functional health of the human foot.
Seventy-seven-year-old master teacher Lolita San Miguel believes in always putting your best foot forward. Toward that end, she teaches Pilates instructors how and why the foot can impact our overall well-being.
“The feet are very beautiful and amazingly talented,” she says. “Just think of all the things they can do, such as standing en pointe as a ballet dancer, running long distances, executing intricate moves as a gymnast or just being able to dynamically react to walking in a particular environment. I think most people take their feet for granted and only pay attention when they begin to hurt or suffer an injury after years of abuse. This can affect a person not only physically, but emotionally as well.”
Having traveled the world teaching Pilates and ballet for more than 50 years, San Miguel says she spends much of her time explaining to instructors how important the feet are to performing the Pilates method efficiently and effectively. In fact, she tells her students, “If you don’t remember me for anything else, remember me for the feet. I regret that the awareness of the foot is becoming less and less important in Pilates—lately, the focus seems to be more on the abdominals and core. When I studied with Joseph Pilates, we spent a lot of time working on proper use of the foot, and [it was for that purpose that] he invented gadgets such as the foot corrector and the toe stretcher, along with valuable exercises like rolling little balls and picking up sticks and towels.”
A Sound Foundation
One of the many important cues San Miguel learned from working with the master was that the Pilates pointed foot is more relaxed than the ballet pointed foot. “Joe would say to me and many of the dancers at his studio, ‘You are pointing your foot too hard. You have to use your entire leg. There’s too much tension in the foot. Think of reaching through your whole leg and exiting from your toes.’ This was a very common correction then and one that I still constantly make when teaching. If teachers don’t have that awareness, you can bet the client won’t either,” she says.
San Miguel believes that all Pilates exercises, from beginner to advanced, begin with the feet and need to be executed with proper alignment and tracking. It is a fundamental first step toward a positive outcome. “Tracking is the relationship between the hip, the knee and the foot,” she explains. “As you bend your knees directly over your toes, they must be aligned with your hips or sitting bones [ischial tuberosities] so that when you bend your knee, the foot, knee and hip are aligned. Watch that the feet or knees do not roll in over the arches (pronation) or roll out toward the little toe (supination). This is paramount—instructors must observe foot, knee and hip alignment while clients are lying down doing footwork or during standing work, such as squats or knee bends.”
During footwork, proper placement of the foot on the bar of the reformer is essential, says San Miguel. “When doing work in a Pilates ‘V,’ instructors should always be aware that all 10 toes are on the foot bar,” she says. “When bending the knee, it needs to be in line with the second toe. I have observed instructors judging placement from the big toe, then leaving the little toe hanging in the air. If you don’t have your little toe placed on the bar, you are not using the outside of your leg. You have to balance on all five toes, not four; the little toe should not be in midair. Whatever piece of equipment [you use] or however you are working your foot, remember that the metatarsals consist of five toes, not four.”
San Miguel believes that, of all the exercises performed on the reformer, none is more important than correct footwork. When asked what she recommends to advanced instructors as well as beginners, she says, “a lot of footwork. I don’t care whether you’re making a twist or doing whatever tricks you can do on the reformer—you have to correct your footwork first. That’s basic. You can never spend too much time on footwork.”
When a client walks through the door, says San Miguel, instructors commonly make the mistake of telling the client to begin footwork on the reformer and then walking away to do other things, such as recordkeeping. “The teacher has to be watching when [the client] does his or her footwork,” she says. “It gives it the importance it deserves. You have to take the time. I don’t mean dedicate the whole hour to footwork, no. In every class you should dedicate at least 5 minutes to working the feet.”
San Miguel believes the Pedi-Pole, developed by Joseph Pilates, is beneficial for teaching proper tracking of the knees and feet, as well as spinal alignment in both parallel and turnout positions. She says that when you have a straight spine, your pelvis is immediately aligned and your feet are going to align better. Since the Pedi-Pole exercises are done while standing, they also improve balance, strength and flexibility. She feels this simple and inexpensive device has been overlooked in recent years but is slowly regaining popularity. “The Pedi-Pole is an example of Joe’s genius,” she says. “All the elders and I have been talking about it, and now it seems to be gaining awareness again.”
The importance of proper gait mechanics is another aspect of San Miguel’s foot essentials teaching. “When you first strike the heel, you roll the foot all the way through the arch to the toes,” she says. In her Pilates master mentor program, designed to pass on her knowledge to small groups of well-trained Pilates professionals, she dedicates part of the first session to gait. “My students walk down and back a long hallway while the rest of us watch. This gives all of us an awareness of how they move. Is your right foot turning in more than your left? Is your head forward? Is one shoulder much higher than the other? Are you bending your knees? Gait tells me so much about their body language, physical habits and how they move their bodies. Pilates is not just doing roll-overs, roll-ups and the corkscrew. Yes, that’s all part of it, and it’s very important. But, if you don’t know how to walk, what’s the point of teaching the hundred?”
© 2012 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.
Feature: Look at the core as a relationship—with gravity, with your body, with other people and with the environment.
Over my 40 years of teaching, I have come to deeply appreciate the innate intelligence of the body. I have learned to listen to its messages. Out of this appreciation and listening I have developed the 3-Core BodyMapping Perspective—not as a new concept or belief system, but as an inquiry into what the core is from the body’sperspective.
Once I suspended my attachment to how I had previously understood the core, a door opened, giving me deeper access to how the body works from a whole-person perspective, in relationship with the earth’s gravitational field. Many questions emerged from this inquiry. I wanted to know how the many parts of the body related to one another. Among these connections, I wondered specifically how the following related:
Sensing these relationships enables us to know ourselves on a deeper level and to be self-healing.
The Whole Body
I studied with first-generation Pilates elders, initially with Romana Kryzanowska and then with Kathleen Stanford Grant, Mary Bowen, Ron Fletcher and Lolita San Miguel. Consequently, I learned the diverse ways Joseph Pilates taught each of these inspiring teachers. Each elder told me that Joseph Pilates never spoke about anatomy. Rather, he implored students to “use [their] whole body.” And yet, the fitness community has focused primarily on a static muscle/bone anatomy paradigm of muscles working in isolation.
In following the “isolation approach,” we have come to believe that “core control” results from accessing and contracting the abdominals. I suggest that this view of the core, as an isolated group of muscles, keeps us locked into a static perspective. The only option is to do something to the body. We are distanced from listening and moving with the body. We are not embodying the movement.
We discover embodied movement in the early years of infant growth. Our brain maps chart the internal body and the space around it. We learn to sense our surroundings by lifting our heads, crawling, sitting, standing, walking, running and engaging in many other activities. The “body-mapping” theory reveals how plastic our body-centered maps are—from birth throughout the rest of our lives (Blakeslee & Blakeslee 2007).
A Shift in Focus
Let’s look at a vital juncture in our development—the emergence of our vestibular support. While studying with Hubert Godard, an advanced Rolfer™ and movement teacher, I learned that the inner ear is the first sense to develop in the womb and also the first sense we lose in aging. It occurred to me that some way we are using our bodies and perceiving space could be causing that to happen.
Our orientation is either effortful as we fight gravity (overusing compensatory muscles) or effortless as we partner with gravity (allowing connective tissue to support muscular effort). Since muscles atrophy as we age, it makes sense to learn how to move from a connective-tissue/fascial focus in order to support muscle and engage the perineural nervous system (Oschman 2003). This system forms earlier in our embryology than our classical nervous system and is a slower, more precise analog current and controller of whole-body functions. It is also responsible for overall regulation of the classical nervous system (which is faster, more digital, more “point to point”), and for regulating wound healing and injury repair (Oschman 2003).
In his book Energy Medicine in Therapeutics and Human Performance, James Oschman, PhD, talks about the importance of a connective-tissue/fascial focus: “For the body to function as a whole, there must be a system that reaches to and into every cell,” he says. “For the body to function at its absolute peak of performance, all parts and processes must be interconnected by a system that delivers energy and information [by] the fastest possible means that nature has available. The living matrix (connective tissue/fascial system) is the system of systems that accomplishes these integrative activities, and is a multi-directional, liquid crystalline, semi-conducting web.”
This expanded perspective provides us with a dynamic, “living-systems” approach to understanding movement. It sees “core” as a normal, adaptive response to demand. No extra effort is needed.
Being or Doing?
As Pilates teachers, we are familiar with the phrase “moving with the whole body.” Yet, what I have found over the years is that we often treat ourselves as objects to be trained. We think we have to contract muscles or do something extra to move. I am suggesting that moving from the core is about being responsive to what is actually happening inside, outside and around us.
In developing this perspective, my vision has been to contribute to our growth as teachers by bringing forth a body map from the body’s perspective. Through this portal of living anatomy we can see the vital relationships—from foot to head—that support our movements. The following examples of 3-Core BodyMapping offer insights into exploring gravity in a new and different way.
Area of Body. Helix/dome of each foot to pelvis. In the lower core we ask: “How can I release into gravity’s support while lying, sitting, standing, walking, running, etc.?”
The foot has a double function: it is an adaptive structure that transmits weight from the body (above), along with irregularities from the ground (below); it is also a supportive structure responsible for our quality of movement in all activities. Feet are mirrors for the rest of the body. Tension in the feet translates as tension in the body. If there is weakness in the feet, there is weakness in the body.
Area of Body. Pelvic floor to respiratory diaphragm. In the central core we ask: “Am I allowing breath to support and move me?” This is very different from “How should I breathe?”
By allowing the inhalation and relaxing on the exhalation, we let the “wave of the breath” move us. Breath changes with metabolic need. As we listen to the deep intelligence of the body, guided by breath, our backs open, our organs have space to function and the body discovers internal support.
Area of Body. Diaphragm to cranial base/palate. In the upper core we ask: “How can my head, neck and shoulders feel like they are floating?” We experience our inner ear and peripheral vision as an internal awareness gyroscope that orients us to our gravity-based muscles for support, freeing up the external muscles for action.
As the crura (roots of the diaphragm) soften, the tailbone drops, freeing internal lift and sensory awareness along the front of the spine.
Blakeslee & Blakeslee. 2007. The Body Has a Mind of Its Own: How Body Maps in Your Brain Help You Do (Almost) Everything Better. Random House.