What Is Pilates Anyway?

Written by Rita Kennen

Pilates, the "latest and greatest" fitness trend actually dates back to the early 1900s and has done wonders for everyone from ballet dancers to NFL athletes.

Close your eyes. Think of your whole body as one strong, integrated unit. Imagine your abdomen as its center. Hold that experience in your mind, and you've touched upon the core philosophy of Pilates, a unique, non-impact approach to exercise.

Pilates is a non-impact approach to exercise.
Doing Pilates-based exercise builds both strength and flexibility.
Joseph Pilates designed his body-conditioning program to increase his own strength.
Pilates exercise increases your awareness of how the muscles in your body work.

In Pilates, it's the quality of movement that counts, not the quantity of your pain or sweat. If you're burnt out from decades of aerobic pounding, consider Pilates. Instead of repetitions, exercisers concentrate on form and breathing, keeping the abdomen as the center around which all movement focuses.

Many people are aware of changes in their bodies after only 10 sessions, say Pilates proponents.

"Once the body is properly aligned, people describe feeling balanced, taller and having more energy," says Greta Jorgensen, a professional ballet dancer who also teaches Pilates. "It's all about awareness. The concentration required to perform the movements correctly gives you more control, as well as an awareness of how your muscles function."

A series of exercises usually performed on machines, Pilates is the brainchild of a frail youngster who longed for a strong body. Suffering from rickets, asthma and rheumatic fever as a child, Joseph Pilates experimented with yoga and Zen as therapy for his own weakened body, then began developing his first machines while serving as a nurse in England during World War I.

Applying his background in engineering, Pilates found that he could enable patients to exercise by attaching springs to hospital beds. These jerry-rigged hospital beds were the design foundation for Pilates' specialized exercise equipment, which now goes by such whimsical names as the Reformer and the Cadillac.

"The wonderful thing about Pilates is that it builds both strength and stretch, which are difficult to get at the same time," says Yasmen Mehta, a pilates instructor.  "Other exercises give you one or the other, but Pilates gives you both at the same time. It's mainly the nature of the machines. The two main ones work with springs, and your body is constantly being challenged against the spring."

The pleasure of Pilates is that it works the muscles internally. Each movement is choreographed with its own rhythm and breathing cycle, so that it directs vital energy to specific areas of your body. Pilates proponents say it centers the body, aligns the spine and improves posture and body contour. Martha Graham used Pilates in her dance training. Several NFL football players practice Pilates, too.

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Pilates works your muscles from the inside out.
Losing weight may be a side benefit of doing Pilates.
Pilates helps people suffering from chronic pain.

Pilates and Weight Lossall about pilates and how it works
Unlike other exercise programs, Pilates doesn't focus on weight loss, although some Pilates students say losing weight is a side benefit. "I lost 15 pounds, and not because I was dieting," says 54-year old Darlene Heath who does Pilates twice a week. "My waist and butt are smaller and tighter, and my posture is a lot better. I find I crave healthier foods."

Helping Injuries
Pilates also help people with chronic back pain, arthritis, tendinitis or problems of the spinal column. Actor Danny Glover started doing the non-impact exercise program to get help for his misaligned left hip. Since he has adhered to a fitness regime that includes Pilates exercises five times a week, he says, the condition has corrected itself.

Instructors feel that while Pilates is not a cure, strengthening the abdominal muscles or powerhouse, as they refer to it, increases flexibility and corrects body alignment. This can't help but improve certain conditions.

I tried Pilates myself, and I can safely say that I'm now more conscious of how I hold my body, and why my neck gets stiff all the time. I see how strengthening certain muscles can make moving through life a whole lot easier. Doing Pilates feels good; I'm eager to try it again.

Here's How Basic Pilates Works

Pilates is done on mats or special machines. The best-known is the Reformer, a machine with adjustable springs and pulleys, adaptable to dozens of exercises. You stand, sit or lie down on a platform that moves back and forth, and use your hands, legs and feet to do the exercises. Because the platform moves, your abdominal muscles are constantly being called on to stabilize the body.

Your abdominals act as stabilizers for your body in Pilates.
Correct breathing is a very important part of doing Pilates.
Pilates requires more supervision than other forms of exercise.
Instructors observe students closely to make sure they are getting the proper amount of stretch.

A basic instruction in breathing is the Ha breath. This means inhaling deeply and then letting out all the air in your lungs as you say the word Ha. First-time Pilates students practice the Ha breath before moving on to clocking.

In clocking, you lie down on your back and imagine your pelvic area as a clock. Your belly button is 12 o'clock. Think of your right abdominal muscles as 3 o'clock, the lower ones at the pubic bone as 6 o'clock and the left ones as 9 o'clock. We go around the clock, isolating each abdominal area, tightening them individually as we go along.

More advanced students move on to machines called the Cadillac, High and Low Chair and the Barrel. Pilates requires more supervision than other forms of exercise. Movements done on the machines are generally performed under the close supervision of an instructor. Mat classes are conducted in small groups.

As students go through other movements on the equipment, the instructor is watches how and where the body is out of alignment. Instructors correct the positions of feet, lower shoulders, make sure breathing is correct and ensure that the student is getting the maximum amount of stretch out of each exercise. Instructors work almost as hard as the students. 

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