Pilates movement, in a nutshell, is stylized and exaggerated everyday movement.
“Stylized” means taken out of its everyday context, formalized, and choreographed. “Exaggerated” means taken to its largest available movement range and, in case of the apparatus work, loaded with resistance. Every Pilates exercise relates back to an everyday movement (or its preparation) – the Saw, exercise number #11 in Joseph Pilates’ original Mat work, is a great example.
The Saw combines spinal rotation and flexion from a seated position. This results in a forward bend, which in a healthy individual should take the wrist just past the flexed foot – according to Joseph Pilates, anyway. This vintage calisthenics movement gets its name from a pulsing motion that has your hand “sawing off” your toes.
While exercise often neglects any direction other than forward and back, and side to side, it’s true that our spine constantly rotates. Every time you move your hand across the keyboard, every step you take… even when your spine doesn’t actually twist, rotation is a possibility that the spine either indulges in, or counters when you move. Whenever you pick up an object that is not right in front of you, and possibly lower than where your arms can reach, you combine spinal flexion and rotation. What looks like a hazardous movement direction for the spine on paper is a certainty in our everyday lives.
[Homework: Observe how many times you perform a Saw-like motion throughout the day!]
To the untrained eye, the Saw exercise may look like the position most people find themselves in at the end of a long desk day: sunken in and slouched over. However the benefit of the exercise – like many Pilates movements – is best seen in the effort it takes to return to the beginning position. We begin in, and return to, an upright seated position, legs out diagonally and straight for a wide and solid base of support, feet flexed, spine straight, arms spread open “as wide as possible”. The effort it takes to simply “be” and breathe in this position makes it an exercise in and of itself to many. And in fact, this effort should be maintained when twisting and bending forward, to avoid “sinking in” and “slouching”.
The movement encourages the full breathing that Joseph Pilates talks about in his writings: emphasizing a full exhale, wringing the air out of the lungs entirely.
But what is one to do when even just being in the starting position seems impossible? Typically, bending the knees is the go-to modification to enable a more upright position, though elevating the hips by sitting on a rolled-up Mat or box and keeping the legs straight is always a far superior option. Or, take the movement upright altogether.
The Saw has two standing equivalents in the exercises that Joseph Pilates captured on film – one of which is a literal translation to the vertical position (pictured left), the other a more involved and full-bodied twisting action. Joseph himself used these and other standing exercises in the beginning, middle, and end of his rare Mat classes.
Adding the upright Saw variations to your practice is a great way to further explore the movement in its everyday context and to challenge your skill level and overall balance.
To learn more about the Saw and explore all the different variations, check out my video tutorial on Pilates Anytime (and don’t forget to do your homework above)!