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Pilates Evolved

© Joan Price. May not be reprinted without permission.

I thought I knew plenty about Pilates. I occasionally do Pilates mat videos for the intense abdominal work and unique exercises, so different from the weight training and line dancing I do as a regular fitness habit. I knew that Joseph Pilates created Pilates 80-plus years ago for rehabilitation of soldiers with war injuries, then it spread to the dance rehabilitation world, and has lately become ubiquitous in health clubs.

But I was blown away by my Pilates experiences at two Marin County, CA fitness centers: the Mill Valley Health Club, (www.millvalleyhealthclub.com, 639 E. Blithedale Ave., 415-380-8787) and Bay Club Marin (www.bayclubmarin.com, 220 Corte Madera Town Center, 415-945-3000). As a fitness professional myself, I found Pilates both humbling and inspiring. The variety of apparatus training and mat exercises, coupled with my realization of my own muscle imbalances and incomplete rehabilitation from old injuries, left me craving more. In fact, after my return home to Sebastopol, I contacted three local Pilates instructors as my first step towards implementing my own, regular program.

"Regardless of your age, you can benefit from Pilates," says Carol Appel, Pilates Director at Mill Valley Health Club. "Pilates can increase flexibility, vitality, and strength; reduce back pain; fine-tune any athletic performance; and rehabilitate and prevent injuries. Pilates will give you mind/body groundedness and enhance your other activities, whether you hike or are just trying to get out of bed and down the stairs."

Pilates can benefit elite athletes and professional dancers, and is just as valuable for those of us trying to age with quality of life. Pilates can have a profound effect on vitality, control, and elimination of pain as we get older, says Appel, who has been teaching Pilates for 25 years and serves on the Board of Directors for the Pilates Method Alliance (www.pilatesmethodalliance.org). Pilates helps with balance, lessening the risk of falls and broken hips. And there's no need to stop when you reach 60, 80, or 90. "It's an epiphany when you're pain-free and vitalized," says Appel. "Pilates can have life-changing effects."

My personal training appointment with Shelley Ballestrazze at Mill Valley Health Club gave me a taste of the variety of apparatus exercises using the big reformer, Allegro reformer (a smaller, sleeker model suitable for classes), wall units, and Pilates chair, variously equipped with adjustable springs, handles, bars, straps, and pulleys for countless exercises that emphasize the core (torso) muscles. Having done mat workouts only, I was unprepared for the power of apparatus exercises for strength, control, and flexibility.

Pilates emphasizes core training-deep, powerful use of abdominal and back muscles. "We've been doing abs all wrong," Ballestrazze informed me as she took me through a sampling of exercises. "Pressing the back down makes the abs 'dome' rather than flatten." The right way is to inhale expanding the ribs, then exhale pulling the belly in while keeping the back neutral, not flattening it.

I was astonished at the muscle imbalances revealed during our training. "We tend to favor one side when we exercise, and often weaknesses on one side go undetected, which starts creating imbalances in the whole body, particularly the spine," Ballestrazze explained. "Pilates balances everything out." Pilates is also helpful as an antidote to sitting in a chair all day, with the resulting back weakness and tightness of the hamstrings, lower back, and hip flexors. "Pilates strengthens those muscles that go up and down your spine. You sit with better posture. It aids your digestion. You get more air in your lungs, more oxygen to your brain," explains Ballestrazze. "The benefits are not just aesthetic."

I liked that Pilates requires just a few reps of an exercise -- quality over quantity. "We do minimal reps and make each one count," says Ballestrazze. "If you go to a golf driving range and get a big bucket of balls, after a while, you just want to get rid of them. But if you have only five balls, aren't you going to take the time to hit each one correctly and make each one count?

Regular practice of Pilates mat exercises several times a week can result in improved posture, increased abdominal tone (especially in that pesky lower ab area), back comfort, strength, flexibility, coordination, and balance, says Elizabeth Larkam, director of the Pilates program at Bay Club Marin. Larkam is a world-renowned innovator of Pilates-evolved mat programs that expand Joseph Pilates's original 40 mat exercises into an endless variety. She has developed and trained instructors to use small apparatus that can be carried easily into classes: foam rollers (used in physical therapy and Feldenkrais), resistance rings, flex bands, small balls, large fitness balls, BOSU balance trainer, Reebok core board, and rotator disks.

I took Larkam's mat class and was amazed at the variety of exercises using just a mat, foam roller, and resistance ring. (I was also humbled by the number of exercises made me - Ms. FitBody in my own mind - struggle and sometimes collapse on my mat watching Larkam's regulars do them easily.)

I observed a 2-person Allegro class instructed by Larkam, whose long, lean, sculpted muscles and elegant movements show the effects of her 18 years of Pilates practice. Students Jean Schulz, a lawyer, and Denise Silver, owner of an executive search company, moved swiftly through an intense and graceful series of strengthening and stretching, all emphasizing core control and exacting form. They worked out mostly on the Allegro reformer, a rectangular frame with a sliding, cushioned carriage that you can lie, sit, or prop a knee on, while hands or feet are attached to pulleys via handles or loops. Occasionally an exercise used an added prop, such as a foam roller placed perpendicular to the carriage. The exercisers positioned themselves on their backs on the roller, hips lifted, feet on the carriage, and moved the carriage from side to side without lowering their hips, breaking form, or falling off the roller. That accomplished, they increased difficulty with one leg in the air. (Larkam's Pilates videos may be ordered from Balanced Body at www.pilates.com, or request a catalog from 1-800-PILATES.)

Pilates workout design and certification stayed rigidly standardized until 2000, when the Pilates trademark protection was lifted (by the same judge who decided the Martha Stewart case, incidentally). Over the past 10 years, Pilates-inspired workouts have exploded into U.S. health clubs and fitness studios, and Pilates exercisers have grown from 5,000 to 7 million.

And yes, Pilates has been changing -- or evolving, as instructors prefer to express it. Why change a good thing? "With the increased number of people coming to the mat exercise classes, many people found the original technique to be initially too difficult to master, and the predominance of cervical flexion (neck curving forward) and spine flexion (back bending forward) was not good for people with osteoporosis or postural difficulties," Larkam explains. "So for many reasons, it's been important to expand the original repertoire of mat exercises while staying true to the Pilates principles such as control, precision, and deep breathing."

The proliferation of Pilates-inspired classes, new equipment suitable for fitness studio, and cross-over classes (spin Pilates and yoga Pilates, for example) have led to a huge interest in Pilates in the fitness community. Unfortunately, it has led also to untrained or poorly trained instructors in some clubs. Since the Pilates trademark protection was lifted, and with it the rigid certification requirements for calling a program "Pilates," there are no national standards. The best courses require enormous dedication and training hours (Larkam's and Appel's programs, for example, requires more than 650 training hours), but, unfortunately, someone can take an Internet course, test from home, and get a "certification." So find out how your instructor qualified to teach Pilates.

Pilates is a fabulous workout. Celebrities from Jennifer Aniston to Catherine Zeta-Jones do it, along with the Cleveland Indians, San Francisco '49ers, and even Dr Phil's wife. Bottom line: You've got world-class programs and instructors in Marin. What are you waiting for?

-This article first appeared in The Pacific Sun, Marin County, CA, July 2004.

***
Afterword: I explored Pilates classes in my home town of Sebastopol, CA, and found several top-notch instructors. I am now enjoying sessions sessions with Chantill Lopez at Pilates Collective.