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Back to Basics: The Pilates Fundamentals

“A few well-designed movements, properly performed in a balanced sequence, are worth hours of doing sloppy calisthenics or forced contortion.”— Joseph Pilates

This quote reminds me of why I fell in love with the Pilates Method and why getting back to the basics is so important for getting more out of a Pilates practice. But first, a bit of Pilates history.

My first teacher, Melanie, studied with a “first generation” teacher named Michele Larsson.  A first generation teacher is someone who has studied with a Pilates “elder”, someone who studied with Joseph Pilates.  Michele’s teacher was Eve Gentry. Eve was a dancer, taught “Contrology” in NYC and then was given Joe’s blessing to teach his method in New Mexico. To me Eve Gentry’s greatest gift was her creation,  the “Pilates Fundamentals.”

As a new student, I had no idea that Melanie was teaching me the fundamentals, gentle movements that teach proper form, before you learn the Pilates exercises. At the time, I was working as a Personal Fitness Trainer and group exercise instructor. I thought I was in the best shape of my life and then I experienced Pilates. The subtlety of each movement and the intensity of the deep muscles I was accessing was new to my body. 

Understanding the Fundamentals is not just for a beginner Pilates student.  Actually, it’s the most important work an experienced Pilates student (or teacher) can come back to.  These movements not only set the groundwork for all the Pilates exercises, they deepen the work you have already been doing. 

Recently, I started to incorporate the Pilates fundamentals as a gentle way to “wake up” my body after sitting too long at my desk or when I needed to take a few minutes to relax.

The Fundamental movement principles build upon all of the Pilates exercises on the Mat, Reformer, Tower and Chair. Here are four of the principles that can be immediately incorporated into your daily life (no Pilates experience necessary) or your Pilates workout.

Breath

Joseph Pilates was adamant about deep breathing as he dramatically stated, “Lazy breathing converts the lungs, literally and figuratively speaking, into a cemetery for the deposition of diseased, dying and dead germs as well as supplying an ideal haven for the multiplication of other harmful germs.”

I would like to emphasize that Joe’s quote is very dramatic, but if we simply look at focused breathing as the perfect way to better health, we can understand why this is the first fundamental we teach a Pilates student.

Start by lying on the back with knees bent, feet flat on the mat, and arms at the sides.

When inhaling through the nose, feel your ribcage expand fully and then exhale through your mouth until all the air is expelled. Keep the inhale and exhale flowing and do your best not to hold your breath.

To add more intention to your breathing, you can focus on deep abdominal engagement by adding what I call 3-dimensional breathing.

  • As you inhale through your nose, feel the rib cage expand.
  • As you exhale, imagine your waistline narrowing as if you were being tightly wrapped in cellophane.
  • Inhale again.
  • As you exhale, narrow your waist AND pull your belly in gently towards the floor.
  • Inhale again.
  • As you exhale, narrow, pull your belly in AND “zip” your belly button up as if you were zipping up tight jeans.

Start with 5 to 10 breath cycles.  Remember, this is a deep breathing exercise that does work the muscles of your torso.  Keep your neck and shoulders relaxed. Experiencing dizziness is not uncommon when practicing deep breathing.

Nose Circles

Who doesn’t have neck stress? Nose circles can release the deep muscles that flex and extend the neck.

Start by lying on the back with knees bent, feet flat on the mat, and arms at the sides.  Your head should be relaxed and supported. No lifting required.

Begin to paint small circles, no larger than a quarter, on the ceiling with the tip of the nose.  Focus on moving the skull without moving the neck or tensing the shoulders.  Your head is “melting” into the floor. Remember to breathe gently!

Start with 10 to 20 circles in one direction and then reverse.

Knee Sways

This exercise is a gentle way to release tension and create space in the lower back.

Start by lying on the back with knees bent, feet flat on the mat, and arms at the sides.

Allow both legs to sway to the side as you exhale.  Make sure to keep both feet on the floor and focus on rotating the hips and lower back. Inhale to “unravel”, bringing your legs back to the starting position.

Repeat to the other side.

Knee sway 5 to 10 times to each side. Keep the movement slow and controlled. Don’t forget to breathe.

Rotating Arms

The goal is to release tension in the shoulder girdle and create better range of motion.

Start by lying on the back with knees bent, feet flat, and arms out to the sides parallel with shoulders, palms facing up. Imagine someone is gently pulling on both arms from your wrist.

If your chest and shoulders are very tight, you may have to lower your arms toward your hips so they can relax on the floor. You want your arms to be supported by the floor.

Rotate one shoulder off the floor and towards the chest (that palm will rotate towards the floor) as the opposite shoulder rotates backward sliding the shoulder blade down tnd pressing into the floor. The movement is simply as turning a door knob with both arms, just in opposite directions.

Repeat on the other side and continue to rotate 5 to 10 times on each arm.

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Katie is a passionate mover who was brought to Pilates through dance. After a professional dance career, Katie discovered her love of teaching-connecting the mind and body, and working with students of all ages and levels. Her appreciation and understanding of everyone’s ever changing body and needs only became greater as her own body went through pre and post natal stages, an experience which has helped Katie navigate problem solving, and bring a freshness to each session making them feel personal and specific to each body’s needs. Her sessions are full of flow and aim to challenge clients with a sense of comfort, and often a little humor, all of which she has brought to Pure Pilates since 2016. Katie thinks the gift of movement and self care is one of the best things one can do for overall wellness, and is thrilled to seek and fulfill milestones and goals with each of her clients. When she’s not at the studio, Katie is taking care of her three little humans- another job that also makes her smile, laugh, and challenges her on the daily.
Eighteen years ago I discovered my love for Pilates. After having my two children, I felt the need to move my body again. At the time I was living in North Carolina, and worked through many different exercise and training programs. I discovered Pilates, and instantly knew it was right for me. Forteen years later, and a move to New Jersey, I decided to share my love of Pilates with other people looking for some way to move their bodies. Pilates has also been a way for me to keep me strong and flexible to continue many activities. My family loves to be active, and I often find when we are all together (mostly vacations) our days consist of activity and movement such as hiking, kayaking, or skiing(more on this later). As I have gotten older I find it even more imperative now that I keep my body strong. Recently I was in a skiing accident that left me with many knee injuries and ultimately having to go into surgery. I found being able to do light Pilates a few weeks after surgery kept me sane and ultimately helped with recovery time. Pilates has not only helped me be able to keep up with my children, but has also provided me with a body that is able to function at peak performance. My approach to Pilates can be described in one, simple word: movement. Movement can help you, both physically and mentally. Movement, and Pilates, is ultimately about self care. Having a built in time to focus on your body and movement can help relieve yourself of feeling tired, anxious, and stressed. Movement awakens you. Even after one session you can leave feeling calmer and energized.
Enjoyment of life through movement is a vital part of Kathy’s philosophy. When not in the studio she leads an active lifestyle trail running, cycling, skiing and hiking. She also loves connecting with people while traveling with family and friends. One of her favorite cycling trips was riding along the coast of northern California. Learning new things and sharing knowledge is also important to Kathy. She has a passion for food, likes to cook for her family and experiment with new recipes. She is currently trying to achieve the perfect pizza. She is also an avid reader of historical fiction and biographies. Her latest endeavor is learning to play golf.
Carol M. Crincoli, owner Pure Pilates studio, has been in the fitness industry since 1990, with experience in corporate and commercial fitness, recreational programming and teaching as an adjunct professor. She began practicing Pilates in 2003 and received Pilates training through the PhysicalMind Institute in New York, NY. She holds certifications from the Pilates Method Alliance (PMA) and the American Council on Exercise (ACE) as a group exercise instructor, personal trainer and lifestyle and weight management consultant. She was also accepted into the IDEA-PFT Recognition System as an Elite Level Personal Fitness Trainer. She is the only trainer in the NY-metro area for Trent McEntire’s Arcus equipment. Carol graduated from the Boston Conservatory of Music with a BFA in musical theater and a minor in dance. Opening Pure Pilates is the culmination of a lifetime dream, and her mission to "inspire life from the core" is a holistic approach to health and wellness—from exercise and nutrition, to stress management and self-care. Carol is also the inventor of 8th Avenue Rail, an organizing solution for Tower springs.