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Pilates is in Phase

Not just another craze.

by Michael Braunstein

One of the trademarks of Pilates training is that it is a rapid force for change. Proponents like to paraphrase the originator and say, "In five sessions you'll feel the difference. In 30 sessions, you'll have a new body."

"Many calls are referrals from physicians for patients looking to rehabilitate shoulder, back or other injuries," one trainer said. "We've even started to see medical insurance covering the cost of Pilates."
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It's not fair to say that there is a "fitness craze" in America. The phrase implies that the interest in healthy, good-looking bodies is a transient affair. It's not. We've had a yen for the sleek physique since the happy days of post-war affluence. After all, there are Charles Atlas ads from the 1950s on the back pages of vintage comic books, showing us that we don't have to be the skinny kid on the beach who gets sand kicked in his face. Mr. Atlas will gladly share his bodybuilding tips for just a couple of quarters taped inside an envelope. And those Beach Movies of the 1960s didn't do much to dispel the desire to have a shapely bod like Annette Funicello. Gidget wasn't gangly.

Nobody looked good in '70s Spandex with cellulite flowing over the waistband. Disco music droned in the clubs at night and pumped the aerobics class during the day. And the girls wore the same outfits to both. The Dancing Queen dreamed to be seen as "ripped", not "rippled." And if there wasn't an interest in healthy hardbodies in the 1980s, then how did Jane Fonda sell so many of those fitness tapes and Suzanne Somers share the wealth with her Thighmaster? Sque-e-e-e-ze those buns.

By the 1990s, we had Tae-Bo and spinning, Bowflex, Nordic Track and the ab six-pack. Kick boxing, step class, yoga and tai chi -- everybody and every body had another way to get slim, trim and healthy.

A regular Joe
In a field where everyone looks for the latest and greatest, one of the newest and hottest is Pilates. Oh, to be sure, like so many of the others, it's actually been around for a long time. But it really seems to be catching on now.

Everything written about Pilates includes the requisite pronunciation, so if you have been living under a rock, here it is: puh-LAH-tees, under the rules of pronounciation native to its German-born originator.

Pilates is a system of movement and exercise that is designed to enhance the core strength of the body so that equilibrium of motion and balance supports the body healthfully. In the exchange, people find relief from pain, find that they lose weight and gain a new body, as well as the other benefits that getting into healthy shape can give.

One of the trademarks of Pilates training is that it is a rapid force for change. Proponents like to paraphrase the originator and say, "In five sessions you'll feel the difference. In 30 sessions, you'll have a new body."

There are two basic formats for Pilates exercise. Mat Pilates includes exercises that can be performed with one of the best fitness tools we have: our body. No other contraptions are necessary. Doing the exercises on a mat gives added stability and ease.

The second application of the Pilates regimen involves using devices specifically designed to accomplish the movements and exercises Pilates himself envisioned.

Either format can be used alone or in combination.

We've come a long way, baby
Joseph Hubertus Pilates was born near Dusseldorf, Germany in 1880. Like so many before and since, he had a real incentive to develop something that would make him healthy and flourish: he was born sickly. As a child, he suffered from asthma, malnutrition and rickets. He didn't let that deter him. His charismatic personality and drive propelled him to become an athletic and healthy teen.

His family immigrated to England and was living there when World War I began. As a German national, he was imprisoned as a detainee in a work camp. (Sort of like America does now with people of Arabic descent.) Pilates put his time in camp to work. By now, he had become devotedly interested in athletic self-improvement. Eastern philosophies like yoga and Zen were just becoming known in Europe and the West. Pilates took note and studied both.

While in prison camp, he helped in the hospital and cleverly adapted the orthopedic rigging of a hospital bed to become an exercise device. To this day, the pedigree can be seen in the two main pieces of equipment used in Pilates, known as the trapeze table and the reformer.

Legends abound about Pilates and his athletic accomplishments. He is said to have been a master gymnast, a skillful boxer, a talented dancer and even a circus performer. What we know for sure is that he was slowly developing a series of exercises that contributed to a strikingly strong and athletic body, a far cry from the sickly youth he had been. By 1926, he moved to New York City, opened his studio and immediately established himself as a trainer.

Pilates gained fame in NYC and worked with the elite dancers who were creating the modern form. This, and his potent personality, elevated his stature and in the 1930s he published his first book. Pilates' initial program was centered on mat workouts but he eventually adapted his various machinery to extend the options.

He was active in his studio until the time of his death in 1967. In recent years, health aficionados have re-discovered the basics of the Pilates method.

From the East to the East Coast
The movements and form of Pilates are mindful of his early experience with yoga and there are some practitioners who combine elements of the two. Pilates focused his attention on what he called the powerhouse or the core muscles of the torso. Hips, spine and shoulder girdle combine to stabilize the body. It is only slightly removed from the classical concept seen in martial arts, tai chi or yoga -- all of which recognize that core center of energy.

Bruce Ballai, master teacher for the Omaha Tai Chi Association reminded us that Pilates' "core" owes much to the traditions Pilates studied in his youth. In Eastern physics there is a center point of the body that is the seat of energy.

"In traditional Chinese medicine and Tai Chi it's the 'tan t'ien' - it means 'field of cinnabar,' wrote Ballai by email. "The ancient Chinese thought if you refine cinnabar you'd get an elixir for immortality. (Unfortunately you get mercury, and some early Taoists apparently met their own form of 'immortality' that way.) The Japanese call this point the hara, or 'one point.' It is a focal point in Aikido and in Zen breathing meditation."

Pilates incorporated those standards into his program.

The modern adaptation of Pilates still connects with those basics. It emphasizes core stability, breathing technique and fluidity and ease of movement. Mental awareness is emphasized and cultivated as well.

Pilates trainers get calls every day from people eager to try this hot new exercise format. With celebrities like Madonna, Sharon Stone, Melanie Griffith and various members of NFL football teams embracing the trend, the hype has added to the heat.

But the search is not only for hard bodies; it's for healed bodies, too.

"Many calls are referrals from physicians for patients looking to rehabilitate shoulder, back or other injuries," one trainer said. "We've even started to see medical insurance covering the cost of Pilates."

With a reputation of quick results and easy adaptation to the method, Pilates looks to become even more popular. Though Joe may not recognize some of the exercises now, his core of movement and philosophy of structure is drawing droves to try it. And thank goodness, they're leaving the Thighmaster in the closet.

Be well.

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Michael is Executive Director of Heartland Healing and certified by the American Council of Hypnotist Examiners in clinical hypnotherapy. He graduated from the Los Angeles Hypnotism Training Institute and was an instructor at the UCLA Extension University for 11 years.

Heartland Healing is devoted to the examination of various alternative forms of healing. It is provided as a source of information and not as medical advice. It is not meant as an endorsement of any particular therapy, either by the writer or by Heartland Healing Center, Inc.

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