There are many ways to achieve and keep fitness in your life. Some folks opt for a regimen of cardio exercise or a focus on nutrition, but the practice of Pilates offers an interesting and very effective way to achieve a new level of health and fitness.
Pilates was originally called Contrology by its creator, Joseph Pilates. Born in Germany, Pilates was sick as a child, so he devised ways to improve his health and strengthen his body. Pilates became so muscular that at age 14 he was used as a model for anatomy charts.
He began working with sick people and teaching them his methods, rigging beds with springs so that even the bedridden could perform his exercises. He eventually moved to the States and opened a studio in New York, where he worked until his death in 1967.
My personal Pilates journey began some 10 years ago with a search for a stretch class to address my super-tight hamstrings and lower back. At the end of my first mat-Pilates class, I felt frustrated because we did more than stretching and I could not perform the exercises without causing pain to my neck and lower back. I was in great shape — so I thought — but Pilates left me humbled and intrigued. It turns out my body was imbalanced. The muscles of my upper and lower body were strong but my abdominals were weak, making it difficult or impossible to perform the Pilates exercises. But, with regular practice, my imbalances were corrected, leaving me with stronger abdominals and more flexible hamstrings and lower back than I ever thought possible.
My client, Marc, started doing Pilates to address chronic neck and shoulder pain. During his initial assessment, I noticed Marc’s rounded shoulders, forward head and chin and tight chest muscles, also known as the hunchback syndrome. His front body was strong and tight but the opposing muscles in the rear of his body were weak and undeveloped. Marc was put on a program to balance the strength in his shoulders and stretch his chest muscles by working the small supporting muscles in his upper and mid back and, within weeks, he was pain free and standing and walking taller. Marc had also become more aware of his body mechanics so when he started slipping back into old habits, he could make corrections on the spot.
Pilates can be as unique as the person doing it. For example, if the client is unconditioned and stiff, the workout will be modified accordingly; if strong and athletic, the intermediate and advanced protocols will be incorporated into the program to adequately challenge the individual.
Beyond use as a regular fitness routine, Pilates is an excellent rehabilitation system for back, knee, hip, shoulder and repetitive stress injuries. Pilates addresses the body as a whole, correcting asymmetries and chronic weaknesses to prevent re-injury and bring the body back in balance. It can take several sessions to get used to engaging some of the deep muscles we don’t often focus on, but it is well worth the effort to achieve a pain-free, more balanced body.
If you plan to take a class or do a private session, be prepared for detailed instructions. Pilates views the body as a complex piece of equipment and it’s important to know as much about it as possible to keep it functioning like a well-tuned machine for many years to come.
Pilates is not a simple fitness program — it requires commitment as it emphasizes core strength and stabilization, requiring each student to master principles of concentration, centering, efficient movement, precision and careful attention to breathing during exercise.
The payoff is a better body and greater health attained efficiently with an “elegance” of movement and mental focus unlike most other forms of exercise.