Marlene had never been athletic, didn’t like to exercise and in middle age had gotten a little plump. Two years ago, she had a car accident and needed physical therapy. The therapist worked with her at the clinic three times a week and gave her exercises to do daily at home. “But no matter how many times I did them,” she says, “I could only do them properly when he was watching me and telling me how. I didn’t know if I was tightening the right muscle or whether I was twisting too much or not enough. It was horrible. I felt so uncoordinated. I just didn’t have any body awareness.”
Then the therapist recommended that she investigate a specific exercise program called Pilates (puh-LAH-teez). Created more than 70 years ago by a German immigrant named Joseph Pilates, the system is intended to improve muscle strength and tone without adding bulk.
Pilates consists of dance-like movements that are done on a machine called a Universal Reformer, a horizontal wood frame attached to a movable carriage by a series of adjustable springs that regulate tension according to each exercise. Exercises are performed in reclining, sitting, kneeling, standing and piking positions. For years, dancers have been attracted to the method, especially after injuries, because it builds what they refer to as the “core muscles” or “power center,” those located in the abdominal region that provide strength, flexibility and power.
If nothing else, Marlene learned body awareness while doing Pilates. “I was actually able,” she said, “to know on my own that my pelvis should roll this way, or that I was out of alignment because I really wasn’t working the right muscle. I got better so much quicker, you wouldn’t believe it.”
My first exposure to Pilates came nearly 20 years ago, when I was a fitness correspondent for a television show and produced a short piece on the subject. But I’d really never done Pilates, having been put off by what I considered the kind of cultish air surrounding it. For one thing, Pilates has always appealed primarily to the privileged minority. Because each class must be kept to a very few people so that the Pilates trainer (who has undergone special training) can devote full attention to each of the participants, the average session costs $60.
In the last few months, however, more than a dozen people have asked me my opinion on Pilates. That and being introduced to Marlene made me think that I should investigate for myself. So I did.
I visited Bret Caslavka’s NOVO Fitness Group in West Los Angeles, where it became immediately obvious that this was going to be a different kind of exercise experience. Though people were busily involved in their routines, the room was quiet--meditative, I guess you could say.
And no wonder. The key word in Pilates is concentration--doing each of the exercises slowly and mindfully, breathing rhythmically, with full attention on the muscle being worked and on your body’s alignment. Strengthening and stretching while maintaining a hyper-awareness of your core muscles, you feel a real connection between your mind and your body.
Afterward, I actually felt taller and my posture seemed more naturally erect; my body did indeed feel aligned. Other women I talked to there just gushed with enthusiasm. One said that she, like Marlene, had been unable to do anything after a car accident until she discovered Pilates. Another declared, “I do this more for my head than my body.”
Today, the Pilates method is being spread to the masses with a series of floor exercises that are performed without the reformer. Slow and rhythmic, they employ the philosophy of the original Pilates, but can be done in larger--therefore cheaper--classes.
For anyone interested in Pilates, a word of advice. Pilates by itself will not improve your cardiovascular fitness; the exercises have to be combined with another type of workout that sustains an elevated heart rate. Still, I think Pilates is worth investigating if you’d like to improve your strength, flexibility and balance; or if you’ve gotten tired of your old routine and are looking for refreshment; or if you have any injuries that limit your ability to exercise. Remember, though, that your Pilates experience will only be as good as your instructor, so be aware of his / her training and experience; and ask for references, such as how long they’ve been teaching, where they’ve taught and where they were schooled.
Maybe what I love most about Pilates is the way it represents the vitality and creativity of the fitness world. It shows everybody like Marlene that there really is something for every body.
Copyright 1998 by Kathy Smith
Kathy Smith’s fitness column appears weekly in Health. Reader questions are welcome and can be sent to Kathy Smith, Health, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. If your question is selected, you will receive a free copy of her book “Getting Better All the Time.” Please include your name, address and a daytime phone number with your question.