Call Her the Oracle of Pilates

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Teresa Garber gets grouchy, her husband suggests a prescription for her ill humor.

"He says, 'Please go to your Pilates class,' " says the post-production director from the Hollywood Hills. "I guess he's saying it helps with my stressed-out attitude."

When Linda Furie relaxes in a chair, she counts her blessings, starting with the day she was able to sit up without pain or a pillow. Years of jogging had wrecked her back, says the Beverly Hills homemaker, who credits a year's worth of Pilates-based stretching and strengthening with her recent recovery.

These women share more than enthusiasm for the decades-old fitness technique that has mushroomed in the health-conscious '90s. What they have in common are the strong hands and warm heart of Mari Winsor, 50, a pixieish former dancer who operates two busy L.A. studios dedicated to Pilates.

Winsor focuses on working on individual problems.

"I try to relate the work to people's daily lives," says Winsor, whose best advertisement might be the lithe and lean body on her 5-foot-1 frame. "I might say, 'Do you sit at a computer all day long? You must have a bad neck.' 'Are you a housewife? Do you pick up your kid on one side? Your other side needs to be stretched.' I love Pilates because it's a really healthy way to work out."

Chalk up some of Winsor's success to the reflected glory of her high-profile clientele--such fit Hollywood citizens as Drew Barrymore, Dustin Hoffman and Melanie Griffith. Celebrities stretched and toned by Winsor have helped popularize Pilates by singing its--and her--praises in the media.

"People really understand that these people can afford to get any kind of training that they want, and they don't care what it costs. They just want the best," says Ken Endelman, chief executive of the Sacramento-based Balanced Body Inc., which manufactures Pilates equipment.

Now Winsor is spreading the word with her new book, "The Pilates Powerhouse" (Perseus Books), an illustrated blueprint for Pilates-based exercises that can be done without equipment. The book, which hits stores this month, is one of a few to document exercises developed by the late Joseph Pilates, who never wrote them down.

The German gymnast and physical therapist began his work at the turn of the century, combining Eastern disciplines such as yoga and karate with Western gymnastics into a regimen designed to strengthen the body and focus the mind. The technique places exercisers on various beds, enabling them to push or pull against resistance provided by straps that keep feet in place or springs that maintain tension. But the heart of Pilates is mat work designed to strengthen the middle of the body, called "the powerhouse."

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Pilates had been largely the secret of dancers, athletes and the occasional movie star until the early '90s, when it began to explode partly because of aging baby boomers.

When the decade dawned, there were only about 20 Pilates studios in L.A., Endelman says.

"Now there are probably about 500 locations where you can get instruction--studios with private trainers, hospitals and physical therapists' offices," he says.

"It's a really, really nice form of exercise for an older body because it's non-impact," says Judy Gantz, a dance kinesthesiologist at UCLA. "It's smooth movement against resistance. Also, people want the spiritual integrated with their physical regime, and Pilates focuses on body awareness."

Says Winsor: "I love watching people who've been unaware of their bodies become aware of their bodies.

"And you can turn more people on to Pilates than you can to dance. People who are unaware of their bodies are more likely to go into fitness than dance, so you have a lot more possibilities to deal with."

Winsor's career mirrors the path of Pilates. Born in a small Michigan town, she grew up dancing around the house and began studying modern dance at Michigan State University. When the Alvin Ailey Dance Company passed through, she fell in love.

"I wanted to quit and join the circus, basically," Winsor says.

After she graduated, she apprenticed with the Ailey company in New York, then moved to Detroit and San Francisco, where she performed, choreographed and taught. She moved to L.A. in 1984 to work on music videos, and a few years later she was dancing with Michael Jackson in his video for "Smooth Criminal."

"The best thing you could do at that point was work with Michael Jackson," Winsor says. "It made my dance career."

What was left of it, anyway. Winsor was already in her late 30s, twilight years for many dancers, and in 1988, she started supplementing her income by teaching Pilates. She had heard about the technique from Ailey dancer Sarita Allen.

In 1990, Winsor borrowed two beds called reformers and installed them in the waiting room of a fitness studio on Sunset Plaza. The next year, she opened her own 1,500-square-foot studio, Winsor Fitness, in an airy space behind some high-end interior design shops on La Cienega Boulevard in West Hollywood.

Last year, Winsor opened her second studio, Winsor West, in West L.A. with the financial help of Pilates aficionado Danny Glover. She's been certified to teach Pilates by New York physical therapist Sean Gallagher, who bought the trademark for the technique six years ago.

Gallagher says only instructors he certifies may say they teach Pilates, and he's locked in legal battles with those who don't want to pay him for certification. But other fitness experts agree that the many instructors who don't work with Gallagher are also good.

"There are a number of very good Pilates certification programs around the country," says Jan Dunn, a Pilates instructor in Denver and executive director of the International Assn. for Dance Medicine and Science. "Mr. Gallagher's is not the only one."

Winsor's fitness empire encompasses 28 instructors and 300 clients. That doesn't include clients with home equipment who pay Winsor $120 for house calls, roughly double the usual rate.

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Winsor's sometimes frenetic schedule can be a boon. The never-married Winsor, whose boyfriend works as a key grip in the film industry, says her single status sometimes gets her down.

"It's important to have someone you can count on and talk to. I'm in limbo and frustrated about it. Every time it gets overwhelming, I bury myself in my work."

"Sometimes she runs herself a little too thin with the two studios," says her head instructor, Vincent Boyle. "It's difficult being a successful trainer and trying to accommodate everybody."

Client Furie, the wife of director Sidney Furie, kept being rescheduled because of busy movie stars until she nabbed a standing appointment.

"My husband would say, 'These are crazy people [at the studio]. They're always changing appointments,' " Furie says. "I said, 'You don't know Mari. To know her is to love her.' She's very spiritual, and she has more energy than anybody I know."

Irene Lacher can be reached by e-mail at socalliving@aol.com.

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