Master Preliminary Pilates Exercises on the Mat for Mind-Body Wellness - dummies

Master Preliminary Pilates Exercises on the Mat for Mind-Body Wellness

By Therese Iknoian

Mat work isn’t an end, but rather a means to an end. The goal of mat work in mind-body wellness is to help you discover how to move better and stronger in daily life (or on stage or even in other activities), although it offers great toning, strengthening, and flexibility, too.

Actually, you can use the floor or a towel instead of a mat. But some moves require some cushioning for your neck, spine, and pelvic bones.

Most modern approaches to the work of Joseph Pilates incorporate a series of first-step movements, which were not part of his original work. But creators of off-shoot methods these days find it helpful to break down some of the basics before proceeding to their other moves.

Depending on the method, you may hear them called “fundamentals,” “essentials,” “principles,” or even “beginner.” Long story short, they show you how to walk correctly so you can then run correctly.

Get warmed up with the basics

These first-step or preliminary movements of Pilates are a great opportunity to familiarize yourself with focused movement. They can also help you assess your body’s alignment and help you breathe when it is aligned, as well as help you check your progress. And if you have injured your foot or back (or ever do get injured), they can be a nice road back.

These may seem childishly easy. But if you focus correctly, you get more of a workout than you imagined.

Align your spine the Pilates way

To Joseph Pilates flattening your abdominals and aligning your spine was a technical art that was not only crucial, but made a lot of sense.

Start by lying on your back with your knees bent. Put the heel of your right palm (the meaty part of your palm where it meets your wrist) on your right hip bone, and the heel of your left palm on your left hip bone. Now flatten your fingers toward your pubic bone, as if you were trying to hold your stomach.

Note the position of your hands. They should be on the same plane or parallel to the ground. If your fingertips are higher, your pelvic girdle is tucked under slightly. If your wrists are higher, you have too much of a sway back. Try to straighten out the plane of your hand.

First, though, try these three starting positions. These are the exercises that help you first discover alignment and position, and the basic exercises, which are the beginning exercises of the program. Refer back to these three as you progress to remind you what they are:

  • Starting position #1: Lie flat on your back, with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Elongate your arms and rest them at your sides. Properly align your pelvis, find a neutral spine, and tighten your abdominals.

  • Starting position #2: Lie flat on your back with your legs extended.

  • Starting position #3: Sit up on your buttocks with your weight just behind your pelvic bones. Extend your legs, straighten your back, and open your shoulders.


“You’re going to teach me how to breathe?” you ask. Yes! Because it’s likely that you sometimes forget to breathe consciously. But breathing fully is very good for you, and essential for performing Pilates exercises, and any mind-body routine, well. Use these steps to help you breathe more fully:

  1. Use Starting position #1

  2. Inhale and exhale slowly but actively.

    When you inhale, feel the back and sides of your ribs expand and press downward and outward. When you exhale, contract the ribs, progressing to an end point where you are contracting your abdominals to press out all the air you can.

    You need a sense of fully using your breath, and not just of breathing shallowly in the upper chest.

Use proper body positioning

Most Pilates methods talk about “imprinting” the body into the mat or floor as part of a basic exercise progression so you are fully connected.

Basically, imprinting refers to lying on your back with your shoulders, upper back, mid-back, low back, and buttocks all touching the floor in proper alignment, as if you were lying back in soft snow and trying to make a complete snow angel; then doing some basic movements while “imprinted” to make sure you can stay stabilized and focused.

Some modern approaches to Pilates movement, on the other hand, take you through the positioning of each body part separately instead of just telling you to make contact with the ground. For the Western brain, that makes a lot of sense.