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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.


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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