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An Interview with Lolita San Miguel

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.”

Footwork First

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?”

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