Teaching Skills

Mastering the Gaze

January 21, 2014

Helping your clients master their gaze when executing an exercise will greatly improve the overall movement quality, as well as reduce unnecessary tension in the upper quadrant.

Vision is an integral part of human movement, and its great impact can be traced all the way back to early child development. As babies increase their ability to distinguish what they see and focus distinctly, they develop a desire to see more and learn more. Vision becomes a vehicle for babies to learn. They lift their heads while laying on their bellies to see around themselves. They lay on their backs, turning their heads side to side to learn to roll from back to belly. And they develop stabilization skills to enable the head and spine to twist and curve to track with vision.


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Vision is one of three parts of achieving mobility and balance, the other two are: 1. head positioning and information from the inner ear mechanism and 2. proprioception which is the ability to know where your body is in space. Mobility and balance (or stability) are two of the primary goals that Pilates aims to address, and in particular, each of the STOTT PILATES® Five Basic Principles specifically targets stability and mobility.

So where can we find the influence of vision in Pilates principles? Well, even though there isn’t a principle titled explicitly for vision, the principle of head and cervical placement states that the cervical spine should hold its natural curve and the head should balance directly above the shoulders if the body is oriented vertically, and that in most cases, the head and cervical spine should follow the line of the thoracic spine, whether that is in flexion, extension, lateral flexion, or rotation.

But what about the eyes? Cues and images that use the eyes to initiate movement draw on our evolutionarily instinctive and earliest learned movement patterns. Using the gaze to direct movement can clarify the intention behind the movement and free up attention and brain space to focus on more nuanced parts of the exercise.

Let’s look at Ab Prep.

For the cranial vertebral flexion, or head nod, you hear cues like “Nod your chin on the first two vertebrae.” You could also cue the gaze with “Begin looking at the ceiling overhead and then drop your eyes over your knees.” Then as the body came up into thoracic flexion, “Look between your legs.”

Pilates instructors that have mastered gaze, cue movement in the head and cervical spine as they directly relate to sight.

“Let your gaze trace across the ceiling and down the wall as you flex off the mat,” or “Keep your hips still, then look and twist.”

A simple way to begin cueing gaze more effectively would be to determine where your client’s eyes are focused during an exercise. Then ask yourself whether their gaze is contributing to their application of the Five Basic Principles and the overall movement quality. Then ask does the movement look graceful? Pilates is intended to be graceful and fluid. Directing the eyes can help smooth out transitions between movements and muscle groups, especially in exercises that challenge coordination.

Cueing to the gaze can not only allow your clients to execute some exercises more effectively, it can also allow them the find more ease or less unnecessary tension in the upper back and neck. And since it is one of the most common complaints you will hear from Pilates clients, alleviating back and neck tension with a few simple cues is a pretty great start to helping your clients be happier and healthier.

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    Megan Rogers
    May 7, 2014 at 10:44 pm

    What an important thing to consider!
    Cueing the gaze seems an effective way to increase focus in a Pilates exercise. Your comment that the spine follows the eyes is quite insightful!
    As a dancer and performer I aim to utilize my gaze to increase stability and expression. It is interesting to see how the gaze can be similarly engaged in Pilates to gain the most from a movement.

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    Ambyr Dawson
    February 27, 2014 at 3:04 pm

    I find it distracting to think about my neck and spine while I am learning a new Pilates combination. I want my clients to move as correctly and effortlessly as possible through new exercises. Directing the gaze is the most efficient way to do this. This is so helpful, thank you Holly!

    • Holly Furgason
      Reply
      Holly Furgason
      March 6, 2014 at 3:08 am

      Thank you Ambyr for your comment. The eyes are an easy way to influence how clients move. Good luck teaching!

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    Megan
    February 18, 2014 at 12:14 am

    It is interesting how you refer to the gaze as a way to direct intention. Personally, I find that my mind wanders and my alignment gets sloppy if I am not concentrating on a visual focal point. I look forward to exploring this more in my study of Pilates.

    • Holly Furgason
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      Holly Furgason
      February 18, 2014 at 9:03 pm

      Yes, great observation! The gaze helps focus the mind and integrate movement. Keep up the good work!

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    Alyssa Carnahan
    February 17, 2014 at 10:48 pm

    This was very interesting–I had not considered the role of focus in Pilates, or how it might help a Pilates instructor cue movements or give corrections. I tend to carry a lot of tension in my neck and shoulders and have realized that my focus tends to be indirect or internal. I am going to pay more attention to what I am looking at, and will start thinking of my gaze as a part of my alignment. I am also interested in trying to use vision cues for students in exercises like Ab Prep. Lots to think about!

    • Holly Furgason
      Reply
      Holly Furgason
      February 18, 2014 at 9:08 pm

      Absolutely! Where you direct your gaze is so important for creating ease through the upper quadrant.
      If you cue your students to where they should be looking, the amount of corrections you have to make will be reduce which is a Win-Win!
      Just remember: The spine follows the eyes, so tell the eyes where to lead the torso.

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