Revisiting the Basics: Elephant

Revisiting the Basics: Elephant Edition

Hey there!

Today’s post is on my favorite Pilates exercise animal, the Elephant.

It's everything, this one.

It's useful.

It's challenging.

It's versatile: do it on 1 leg or morph it into an Arabesque, the Elephant‘s got something special for you.

Elephant 101

Revisiting the Basics: Elephant Edition

In your very first lesson, the Elephant delivers a valuable skill you’ll need to execute complex Pilates exercises.

Exciting, right?

Think about your Reformer workout: your Tendon Stretch, Snake/Twist, Up Stretch, Headstand 1.

Have you ever struggled to close the carriage in these exercises?

I know I have.

An excellent Elephant will save the day!

The Elephant in the Room

There’re many Elephants out there and sometimes it’s hard to know which one will serve you best.

Did you know that a few tiny (and magical) details can transform your Elephant experience?

In the Elephant you don’t get the best view of the exercise. Really all you can do is stare at the carriage underneath you or your stomach or your thighs… what’s going on up there on your back tho?

Never you mind about that for the moment.

All Roads Lead Back to Romana…

In my recent visit to another helpful basic, the Frog, I shared one of my my favorite quotes from Romana Kryzanowska:

Pilates is INTELLIGENCE guided by the WILL using MEMORY and IMAGINATION assisted by INTUITION.

Pro Tip: Use your Imagination to better your Elephant.

Imagination Tip #1:

Feel your heels press deeply into the carriage in front of the shoulder blocks. What if they could venture below the level of the upholstered bed of the Reformer?

Where do those heels originate in your body?

Imagine the long line of the back of you that starts at the shoulder seams of your shirt.

If you love to use your arms and shoulders once you grab that Footbar it can be liberating to invite those shoulders and your upper back down toward your heels.

It might even open your chest.

In might help your elbow joints relax and unlock.

It might make you use your center a bit more.

Bottoms up!

Imagination Tip #2:

Remember later in your Reformer order you’ll be working on the Short Box.

When you sit on the Short Box with the pole overhead, imagine you could lift everything that's on top of that box: your bottom, your low back, your waistline, your arms.

Imagine you are pushing that pole upward by lifting your bottom. You know, that underneath part you sit on…

I know, crazy, right?

Now turn yourself into an Elephant.


What if your bottom pushed that Footbar away? What would that feel like?

Give it a try.

It may make you use your stomach better without even trying.

Show me your hands!

I’m always amazed by minor tweaks you can make to a wrist, a little finger, a big toe, the ball of your foot, that radically change an exercise sending more awareness and engagement to your center.

Tiny tensions that steal your powerhouse include:

A locked elbow.

Revisiting the Basics: Elephant Edition

Your apparatus (the Footbar) assists you to connect your hands, arms, and shoulders into the larger muscles of the back. Locking the elbow joint can break this connection to the back muscles and put a strain on the joint(s).

A broken wrist.

Revisiting the Basics: Elephant Edition

Similar to a locked elbow, a broken, leaned-upon wrist breaks your connection to the back and literally weighs heavily on the wrist joint.

A lifted pinky who’s off to have tea or a manicure.

Revisiting the Basics: Elephant Edition

Without the grip of your fingers, a valuable connection is missed and your poor pinky is unable to lead you into your beautiful back muscles.


“Bulldog” wrists.

Revisiting the Basics: Elephant Edition

Similar to your #pinkyprobs above, the inward turning of the hands creates an imbalance front-to-back in the body. The leaning-in thumbs and forefingers allow the shoulders and chest to overwork and compromise the connection of the outer hand (the pinky again!) into the back muscles.

If this is you, see what happens if you try to straighten our your “bulldog” hands to get more work in the grip of the smallest fingers. It might be very exciting. If it is, give it a try when you do the Rowing exercises.

Cool calm, connection…

Grip strength even, and alignment!

Revisiting the Basics: Elephant Edition


My footbar is naked which I prefer to allow for better wrist alignment and work in my stomach, which keeps me “light” on my hands. Thick padding on a footbar and small hands can make this connection difficult to achieve. If your hands sweat a thin sticky pad can help you feel secure with just your stomach and your grip strength.

“Stand back,” said the Elephant, “I'm going to sneeze!”

In your training program maybe you learned a bunch of “rules” about how to do the Elephant.

Rules you heard may have included:

  • Stand on your feet.
  • Lift up your toes.
  • Press your feet into the mat.
  • Your shoulders should be over the footbar.
  • Your back is round.
  • Your back is flat.
  • The Elephant is like Downward Dog.
  • This is Pilates, the Elephant is NOT Downward Dog.

The good news is that at some point in your long and celebrated Pilates career they will all be true.

They’ll all speak to someone’s body (maybe to your own) to better their Elephant.

For example, look at the 2 that are the most troubling:

  • Your back is round.
  • Your back is flat.

The Elephant shape must fit into the greater Pilates system: let this be your test.

Now's when to use your ‘we only have one exercise’ mantra.

The Elephant is your Roll Up stood up on its feet.

Revisiting the Basics: Elephant EditionRevisiting the Basics: Elephant Edition

It's also your horseback.

Revisiting the Basics: Elephant Edition

This is the shape you are after.

Now look at your (imaginary) student:

Are they too flat to be a Roll Up? Then they need to be round(er).

Are they too round somewhere in their back to be a Roll up?
Then they need to flatten somewhere (and probably round somewhere else).

What about your feet – should you lift your toes up off the carriage?


What would happen if you pressed all of your foot into the carriage? What happens in your center then?

Give it a try. These are all noble experiments!

Like this series? Which basic should I revisit next?

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  1. “Stand back,” said the elephant, “I’m going to sneeze!” Did you have that book, too? How many times was that book read to me and then by me to my children!? Thank you for another fabulous post – esp the wrist photos – and a surprise trip down memory lane 🙂

    • Anne – Thanks so much for reading and yes I read that book so many times as well!! I appreciate your sharing your thoughts here – next time I promise to be MUCH more speedy with my response 🙂 Hope you are well and safe! xox

  2. Bridget Capon says

    I love this!!! So helpful for my own practice – and for teaching! Thank you Andrea!!!

    • Thanks so much Bridget – thank you for reading and so glad it helped you in your own practice and in your teaching. Woo hoo! Keep up the good work! xox

  3. Hi Andrea

    It’s my first time leaving comment.
    I just want to know what you meant in this post especially ‘imagination tip #2’.
    I just can’t imagine what you wrote there and can’t understand.
    Could you make a video of it? i can’t visualize them…but i’m dying to understand what you tried to explain.

    Always love your post and enjoy them so much.

    • Hi Jenny – Thanks for your patience – and thank you so much for sharing your comments here with me. Yes! Your idea is an excellent one – I am happy to make a video of my Imagination tip #2 as I also found it to be counter-intuitive at first actually. But it is a great help and I will be filming later today and more this week – your request is an excellent one. I must be brave and do a video on the Long Stretch series – as this imagination tip is good for Elephant and all the other exercises in the series too. Thank you so much for reading and for sharing your kind words on my posts. Thanks again for your patience as I work to become more consistent with my posting again. Cheers to you! xox

  4. evvie moravec says

    Love the clarification on grip. I always feel like I rely/put too much pressure into the bar.

    • Thanks so much for reading Evvie and for sharing your thoughts here. Yes I am the same way – give me a Footbar and I want to push on it LOL! The grip is a good help to not park on your wrists for sure. Keep up the good work! xo

  5. Hi Andrea! As always, I love your posts! The “rules” that you mention! That whole section goes straight to my own heart…

    But what I most loved was how you used the word “experiment”. When teaching, I often refer to exercises as “experiments” and a particular way of doing them as “little experiments”: “try this… how does it feel?” to elicit the idea of experimenting with the work rather than slavishly following rules and cues… – this leads to greater awareness and ess dogmatism IMHO

    • Oh Miguel thanks for sharing this with me! Yes it is a good help to have people look into their own experience of their bodies instead of following rules – I so agree. Rules are generic and ultimately serve as guidelines – whereas what is good for a specific person will often be different for everyone. And what gives you the best connection into your center? This is the true test of any rule I think. Thank you so much for reading and for your kind words on my posts. Thanks for your patience as well. Keep up the good work and I hope to see you here again soon. xox

  6. Hey Andrea! I love your videos.
    For some reason, I have not received your posts since January. Are you on Vacation? Did I get cut somehow from your send list?
    As a pilates instructor for now over 40 years, I am facing total hip replacements in both hips. Scheduled for April 28 and May 26. I am still practicing 2-3 times a week – once on the reformer, the rest on the mat. I also do a recumbant stationary bike for 50 minutes , 4 – 5 days a week. I intend to keep this up till the day before my surgery. Wondering what in the world I can do pilates-wise after surgery. Do I really have to wait 6 weeks? Could you give me a modified Stomach series to work on post surgery? I will bet many of your bloggers will have joint replacements and are looking to keep up their core in recovery. help!!! and Thanks!! You’re a wonderful teacher and I get so much from your blogs.
    most sincerely, Linda Nottberg

    • Hi Linda,

      Thank you so much for sharing this with me. I am not on vacation, but thanks for thinking that ha ha – I have been traveling to teach, but I am working hard to stay consistent with posts and my YouTube channel – if you haven’t visited my YT please do I think you’ll find the content there helpful as well.

      I will be thinking about you and your double hip replacement. Now we are in the time of Corona and isolation – has your surgery been postponed or are you still on the schedule for the end of this month? Your surgeon and PT will give you the best and most accurate timeline for when you can resume some normal exercise with restrictions for a bit. See how you feel of course.
      The Stomach Massage may be one of the later things you add back into your routine due to the 90 degrees restriction which I believe is for the first 6 months – you know the guidelines I am sure better than me. But when you are able to add it in you might try gearing our your Reformer at first. But lots of stuff of course on the Mat you’ll be able to do once you are cleared for exercise. Thank you so much for your kind words on my teaching and my blog posts. Take care of yourself and be well! Lots of love and positive vibes to you!!

  7. Joanne Goldstein says

    Great post! I suggest the short box side bend-so many clients say they don’t feel any work or stretch when they do this. For my own work, I’ve been instructed to go straight side and another time over almost on a diagonal 🤷🏻‍♀️

    • Hi Joanne,

      Thanks so much for reading and for sharing your suggestion with me! Wow – you are so right about the Side-to-Side on the Short Box – this has been taught to me so many ways over the years as it has been such a hard one for me to do. I remember that whole diagonal thing for sure. Thanks – this will be good for my practice as well to articulate how to do this challenging basic. I think I have to title the post “So you think you can Sidebend?” LOL Stay tuned and thanks so much – I hope you’ll subscribe if you are not a subscriber already 🙂 xox

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