What Are You Looking At? The Importance of Eye Focus and Pilates Exercise

by | Jun 28, 2013 | Functional Movement, Pilates, Pilates Exercises, Techniques & Teaching Tips | 0 comments

Using Eye Focus and Pilates Exercise to Improve Form & Function for Healthy Movement Habits

bI know I’ve written about this topic in the past, but recently have been cueing my clients and drawing their attention to where they’re looking during different exercises.  It doesn’t matter WHAT the exercise is, where the eyes focus can have an effect on how well you will be able to find and use the right muscles for the movement.

The eyes can help or hinder movement initiation, stabilization, and articulation of the spine.

  • Look up – and the neck extensor muscles kick in.
  • Look down – and the neck flexors start working.
  • Look straight ahead – and the front and back of the neck should be doing just enough work to balance and hold the neck position.

For good posture our head needs to be perched right up on top of the neck.  In Pilates we do exercises standing up, lying down, kneeling, face up, face down, and upside down.  So what happens to the head when we change where the eyes are looking?  Well, quite a lot actually.  Our eyes help us orient the body in space.  Regardless of what position the rest of the body is in, the eyes strive to find the horizon line, since this is the perspective we use to orient the body in space.   Let’s look at a few Pilates exercises to see how they’re affected by where you’re eyes are focused.

The Importance of Eye Focus – A Pilates Exercise Example:  The Teaser

If you relate this eye focus concepts to doing exercises like the Pilates Teaser, (which at a more intermediate level is a combination of both spine flexion and extension,) the eye focus can make a huge difference for articulating the spine to roll up to the V-sit position and back down to the mat sequentially and with great control.

To Roll UP to Teaser – If the eyes look to the chest and gaze from the breastbone down to the belly button, the spine will stay in flexion longer, ensuring that you’re using the abs and stretching the back to help peel the body up off the mat.  As the eye focus shifts to look towards the legs from the crotch, to the knees, and up to the toes, the focus change cues the back extensors to lift the hips and the spine into the extended V-Position.

To Roll DOWN out of Teaser – The eye focus works in reverse…  The gaze shifts from the toes, to the knees, to the crotch, then from the low belly, to the ribs, to the chest, then out across the room, and up to the ceiling.  The focus change cues the pelvis to scoop and spine to bend, which is what activates the core to support sequentially working through the back to roll down and end up flat on the mat.

You can apply this thought process to every exercise you do, because exactly where you are looking WILL make a difference.

Another Exercise Example:  Pull Straps & “T” on the Pilates Reformer

Often on these two extension exercises, the lift starts with the head, then hops straight into the lower back – NOT well-balanced work thought the whole back because the eyes are immediately searching for the horizon line.  Challenges are:  (a) The neck and low back are our strong extensors to start with, and (b) the eyes seeking the horizon line tend to crank the head back too far without activating the upper back muscles to weight load lifting the head and articulating through the whole spine.

To Start Lifting the Spine – Pull Straps and/or “T”

Start with the eyes looking straight down (or towards the long box if your version of Pull Straps & “T” have your ribs on the edge to start in a face-down hundred’s position.)  As the shoulder blades pull down and the arms start to move, the eye focus needs to shift from straight down, to down and out, to out and forward in the “well”, to the front edge of the reformer, and then up the wall in front of you.  It’s the work of the upper back in connection with the eye focus that helps maintain joint space to sequentially life the spine into extension.  When the eye focus shifts, clients have a better chance of activating the upper back for well-balanced whole spine support for extension.

To Lower the Spine – Pull Straps and/or “T”

Returning to the starting position from a lifted “extended” arch, the lower back releases first, and the lower abdominals activate to “pull” the body back to flat (or curved over the front edge of the box).  Since the return to the starting position is the lifting motion in reverse, the eyes look out towards the wall, to the front edge of the Reformer, out in the “well”, and back to look straight down at the floor (or if curved to look at the long box.)

Pay attention to your eye focus on this or similar extension exercises and notice how much more of your upper back works to help support you, AND how much smoother and easier it will be to execute the exercise.  This will hold true for ALL “Swan-type” exercises in Pilates Matwork, exercises on the Reformer, Chairs  & Barrels, and Yoga poses like Upward-Facing Dog, and  Cobra Pose if that’s your thing.

What the eyes are doing can have a dramatic effect on how easy or challenging an exercise is to do with good form and function.  A good tip and cue to help remember where to look while you’re moving especially while doing flexion/extension exercises is to think about “painting a stripe” in front of you with your eyes.  Your stripe might start on the floor and work up the wall, or start on the ceiling and work down, or visualize the stripe moving from your head to your toes… it will depend on the exercise you’re doing!

One more Pilates exercise to Pay Attention to Eye Focus:  Short Box Tall/Hinge

There is a tendency, because we want to SEE where we’re going, to look backwards with our eyes to initiate the movement.  When the eyes look back first, the head falls backwards off the neck and the spine arches instead of maintaining a stable “neutral” position.  This causes the abs pooch out to counter-balance, and the low/mid back takes the brunt of the strain when tilting the body backwards.

The Tall/Hinge movement for this exercise should be coming from the hips and pelvis.  It’s the socket of the pelvis moving around the ball of the femur, with the spine held in a stable position and the head staying right on top of the shoulders – Ears over shoulders, shoulders over hips.

If the eye focus stays looking at the feet throughout the exercise, the pelvis can hinge and the head will stay right on top of the shoulders and the abs will support the “front” of the back, while the whole torso hinges backwards and forwards.

Just like the socket moving around the ball of the leg to hinge, the eye ball socket is moving around the eye ball to keep the focus on the feet and move the body for this exercise.  (Perhaps thinking about the movement of the eyes in the sockets, or sockets moving around the eyes is a deep concept – but it’s relevant for better body mechanics and good functional movement.)

Eye Focus and Exercise Safety

From an exercise safety standpoint, there are so many exercises that eye focus plays a pivotal role to cue the body for healthy movement habits.  Looking in the wrong direction can make movement more difficult, or more dangerous – depending on the exercise.

Do you know where you need to be looking for healthy movement habits for your Pilates, fitness, and sport activities?  Pay attention to the movement to determine where you need to look to help you execute all your exercises with good form and function.  By focusing on where you’re looking with your eyes you can significantly improve and fine-tune your exercise technique.


Not sure where to focus on an exercise?  Visit me at http://www.facebook.com/centerworks and post a question with the name of the exercise and I’ll share my suggestions to help everyone tweak their technique and “SEE” my response!

Have other questions about Pilates, Foot Fitness or Functional Movement?  Feel free to contact me and you just might see a new article appear!  Love the opportunity to connect, hear from you, share my thoughts, and answer your queries to help you maximize the results from your training program.

Aliesa George: Over the past three decades, Aliesa George has helped assist people with their personal health journeys by sharing, teaching, and developing Pilates, Foot Fitness, and other Mind-Body programs.


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