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Body Watch | YOUR BODY

Power With Pilates

It's a regimen that strengthens and stretches, engaging body and mind. The 70-year-old method is enjoying a rebirth.

December 18, 1996|KATHLEEN DOHENY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the beginning, you barely sweat.

Afterward, you feel peaceful and in control. You don't feel like you've run or been through an aerobics class, but you have worked out.

"You know you've done something--you feel energized," says Jay Grimes, a veteran teacher of the Pilates Method, an approach to exercise that's been enjoying a rebirth.

Created 70 years ago by a German physical trainer named Joseph Pilates (pronounced puh-LAH-tees), the exercise regimen that stretches and strengthens as it engages both mind and body is now attracting celebrities as well as boomers weary of high-decibel stints at the gym.

Five years ago, there were about 75 studios in the world, one Pilates expert estimates. Now, she counts about 1,000. And for those who can't afford a steady diet of the pricey studio sessions, there are a growing array of home-based options.

The Premise

The rhythmic, gentle exercises that make up the Pilates regimen are meant to develop elongated, balanced muscles that give people the long, lean look of a dancer.

While most people with a nodding acquaintance with the method equate it with exercises done on a medieval-looking machine called the Universal Reformer, that's only part of the story. Beginners are encouraged to take a "mat class," in which the exercises are done on a padded mat in an empty studio, and then to progress to doing the exercises on the Pilates machines.

And the Universal Reformer, a bed-like apparatus with a sliding carriage, looped straps for arms and legs, and springs to provide resistance--is just one of several machines used.

Whether performing the exercises on the floor or on the machines, proper breathing is important.

"Some people compare Pilates to yoga, but it's not accurate," says Melinda Bryan, a registered physical therapist and director of Pilates Programming at the Performing Arts Physical Therapy and the Pilates Studio in West Hollywood. "Yoga focuses [primarily] on breathing, but Pilates is a more dynamic method. There is stretching and strengthening with focus on the 'powerhouse.' " This powerhouse, considered the body's center of energy by Pilates advocates, extends from the lower part of the ribs to just above the pubic bone.

Joan Breibart, president of the Physicalmind Institute in Santa Fe, N.M., which teaches a Pilates-based method and trains teachers, calls the exercise regimen "yoga in motion."

In the Beginning

A typical mat class begins with a warmup and progresses to exercises with intriguing names--such as "the seal" and "the teaser"--that eventually work the entire body. There's "the hundred," an exercise in which you lie on your back on the mat, lift your head with the chin tucked and knees bent into the chest. Next, you raise your arms, palms down, straight out. Now, contract the abs. ("Keep your back on the mat!" admonishes Grimes during a recent session.) Straighten the legs and raise the arm 1 or 2 inches off the mat in a pumping motion for 10 sets--or 100 worth. And oh, yes, don't forget to breathe.

Advancement

Once students master the mat classes, they move to the machines.

"After 10 sessions, you feel a difference," Bryan tells new students. "After 20, you see a difference. And after 30, you have a brand new body."

The exercise intensity can be varied, she says, so the method is tailored to any fitness level or age group. "We have people from 10 to 80," she says.

Beginners will notice improved flexibility. And, at advanced levels, there is cardiovascular benefit in addition to the strengthening and toning effects, teachers say.

But that's not the point, Breibart says. "You're not doing it for cardiovascular benefit," she says. The prime motivation, in her view, is to learn about your body and what it needs. Among the other benefits are balance, coordination, body awareness and control.

Advocates' Input

While some Pilates converts are refugees from high-impact aerobics and marathons, others were sedentary before. Nancy Archibald, 37, of Redondo Beach had severe back pain because of sciatic nerve problems and disk problems and initially went to Bryan for physical therapy, in which she incorporated Pilates exercises. When insurance for the physical therapy sessions ran out, Archibald continued taking Pilates sessions. She takes three classes a week and is hooked. "I have days where I am 95% pain free," she says.

The Downside

Getting that long, lean "Pilates body" can get expensive. In the Los Angeles area, a one-hour mat class costs about $12 to $20, a semi-private one-hour session on the machines costs about $35 to $50, and a private one-hour session on the machines is about $65. Discounts are offered for buying a series of classes.

Finding the classes can be tough, complicated by factions within the Pilates community. There have been legal disputes over who can use the Pilates trademark. As a result, some studios call their approach Pilates-based or describe their method without using the word "Pilates."

Home Scene

Now there are also instructional videos for exercisers and reformers for home use. The at-home reformers range from about $479 to $899 plus shipping.

But Breibart cautions novices to seek out a studio class first. If you can't afford a class, observe one. Such observation is crucial to prevent incorrect technique, she says.

Resources

* For referrals to Pilates or Pilates-based classes, call the Pilates Studio, (800) 474-5283, or the Physicalmind Institute, (800) 505-1990.

* For information on videos and home equipment, call the Physicalmind Institute, (800) 505-1990, or Current Concepts Corp., (800) 745-2837.

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