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Pilates Beginners: The 5 Basic Principles

Pilates as an exercise method attempts to continuously optimise movement patterns and foster a deep body awareness to enhance the efficacy of every movement in every workout. Most Pilates exercises combine elements of stability, mobility and flexibility to condition the body holistically. At the core of contemporary Pilates lies five fundamental principles: Breathing, Pelvic Placement, Rib Cage Placement, Scapular Movement and Stabilisation, and Head and Cervical Placement. Let's delve into each of these principles to understand their significance and how they contribute to a balanced Pilates practice.

1. Breathing

Breathing is the cornerstone of Pilates - Proper breathing techniques can promote both physical benefits such as optimised blood oxygenation and reduce tension in key areas such as the neck, shoulders, and mid-back. It also can promote mental health benefits such as stress release, enhanced mindfulness and greater body awareness.

In Pilates, we attempt to adopt a three-dimensional breath pattern, expanding the rib cage in all directions during inhalation including laterally (sideways) and posteriorly (to the back of the rib cage). We breathe in through the nose and out through slightly pursed lips, attempting to make the noise of a wave. This conscious exhalation can also help stimulate the natural stabilisers of the trunk and pelvic floor connection. 

2. Pelvic Placement

Central to Pilates is the concept of pelvic stabilisation, which ensures optimal alignment of the pelvis and lumbar spine in all positions and during all movements. The two primary pelvic/ spinal positions used in Pilates are the neutral and the imprint. In a neutral pelvic position, the natural curvature of the lumbar spine is maintained, with the pelvis resting comfortably on the mat - I like to use the imagery of having a small butterfly living underneath your lower back, as we move around in a neutral spinal alignment we should never ‘crush’ our butterfly. 

You can check your neutral alignment by looking at the relationship between the three ‘bony landmarks’ of the pelvis. In other words, we ultimately want to have our hip bones ( front of the pelvis, also called ASIS and the pubic bone in line with one another when lying on our backs. You can check this by placing the heels of your hands on your hip bones and bringing your pointing fingers towards your pubic bone, the triangle made by the hands in this position should be level or parallel to the mat. 

Neutral alignment is one of the most stable positions for the body and helps to promote correct muscle firing patterns. From a neutral position, one should be able to contract the pelvic floor ( think something like a small kegal exercise) and the TA muscle (transverse abdominis) which wraps around the abdomen like a corset, which can be ‘tightened’ subtly to produce a sensation of stability. 

Imprint is the second pelvic placement, which involves a slight tilt of the pelvis towards the mat, which is achieved by engaging the abdominal stabilisers. We initiate this movement with a sub-maximal contraction (around 20% contraction) of the pelvic floor, think of narrowing sitting bones together, deep within the pelvis or having a spiral elevator ride up to 20% within the pelvis. Next, we contract the TA muscle, like trying to narrow our hip bones or gently tightening a corset around our abdomen and lastly the oblique muscles (ones which run diagonally down across the waist) begin to connect and help achieve the small tilt of the pelvis. The lower back should start to lengthen towards the mat, it does however, not necessarily have to touch the mat completely, your tailbone ( sacrum) should feel heavy on the mat and the rest of the lower back (lumbar spine) should lengthen slightly towards the mat. 

Often what I see when clients begin to imprint I see either an under-contraction or an over-contraction of their abominable layers. An under-contraction results in an unstable pelvis and lower back which could result in discomfort of the compromise of the joints during larger movements. An over-contraction of the abdominals could result in the superficial abdominal layer, the rectus abdominis, ‘popping up’ or creating a bulging type of effect which could mean that the deeper connection of the stabilisers has been compromised or released altogether. 


3. Rib Cage Placement

The alignment of the rib cage plays a crucial role in maintaining spinal integrity and promoting efficient movement patterns. In Pilates, practitioners are encouraged to breathe three-dimensionally into the rib cage and abdomen, allowing the ribs to expand laterally (sideways), anteriorly (forwards), and posteriorly (backwards) with each breath. Proper rib cage placement ensures that the thoracic spine (mid- to upper-back) remains lengthened and supported, preventing excessive flexion or extension that can lead to strain or injury. You can enhance their overall posture and alignment by cultivating awareness of rib cage placement.

4. Scapular Movement and Stabilisation

Proper scapular (shoulder blade) movement and stability are essential for maintaining healthy shoulder mechanics and preventing tension in the neck, upper back and shoulders. In Pilates, we focus on maintaining a sense of width and stability across the shoulder girdle, allowing the scapulae to glide smoothly along the rib cage during movement. By developing awareness of scapular placement and mobility, we can optimise our upper body strength and mobility. We should be able to move the shoulder blades independently from the rest of the spine. Meaning that when we attempt to protract and retract our scapulae we can glide them over the upper back without having to move the thoracic spine or the rib cage. 

5. Head and Cervical Placement

The alignment of the head and cervical spine is integral to overall posture and spinal health. In Pilates, we strive to maintain a neutral alignment of the cervical spine, ensuring that the head is balanced directly above the shoulders. Proper head and cervical placement promotes spinal integrity and prevents unnecessary strain or tension in the neck and upper back. By practising cranio-vertebral flexion ( a Pilates head nod) and extension with mindfulness and control, we can enhance our spinal mobility and alignment, supporting a strong, healthy and pain-free neck.

Incorporating these five basic principles into your movements can deepen your understanding of your own body's movement mechanics and enhance the effectiveness of your workouts. By cultivating awareness of breath, alignment, and movement patterns, you can unlock new levels of strength, flexibility, and mind-body connection. Whether you're new to Pilates or a seasoned practitioner, embracing these principles can guide you on a journey toward greater vitality and well-being.

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