Graceful Gut Work
Key to Pilates Is Strength at the Core

By Lauren Murphy   Fox News
NEW YORK — I clearly remember my mother correcting me on the pronunciation of the word when I first came across it in a magazine.

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"Pi-LAH-teez," she enunciated, naming the exercise technique named for Joseph H. Pilates, a boxer, dancer, yoga student and Zen practitioner who developed the method in the 1920s. Reading about it, I pictured a dancer's body, lithe and sinewy, the product of graceful arm and leg movements.

Pilates, "a series of controlled movements designed to stretch and strengthen muscle without adding bulk," according to the Harvard Women's Health Journal, is gaining mainstream popularity after going underground for a number of decades. It's now no longer a dancers' and models' workout.

As a former ballerina, my mother was familiar with Pilates. But my first substantive encounter did not come until quite recently, a block from my Manhattan office, at the downtown Power Pilates studio.

I discovered that despite my previous athletic experience — I have played baseball, run competitively, taken numerous dance and aerobics classes and become a yoga devotee — Pilates demanded a kind of control, centering on the core muscles of the abdomen, back and glutes that challenged me more than anything I have tried.

A Roomful of (Strange) Movements

The studio looked like a cross between a grown-up's jungle gym and a torture chamber: Trapeze-looking objects, yoga-mat-sized blocks in cool, pale blue, traction-like devices with stirrups for the feet and hands. I was excited for some major stretching.

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I was greeted by a tall, lean young woman instructor named Dana. She guided me through a warm-up — knees in to chest, then stretching ceilingward; some elegant variations on sit-ups involving the legs — which I did on a padded body-sized block with a set of bars at its base.

This was all done in conjunction with careful inhales and exhales, giving me a good stretch through my hamstrings and calves. The strenuous stomach-burning movements heated me up right away.

Unlike dance and aerobics, Pilates movements must be extremely precise and controlled — even more so than yoga poses. "A lot of the moves are originally from yoga moves, but the emphasis is much more on core strength," said Howard Sichel, owner of the studio and president of Power Pilates. "The space you create in the spine improves posture by strengthening what holds us up — which is our trunk."

In Pilates, the lower back must always be supported; the neck must remain long, uncrunched. Special attention is also paid to the feet — they are either turned out in ballet second-position, flexed or pointed during the series.

Graceful Gut Work

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"Really scooooop it out," Dana said, touching my stomach. This became a mantra throughout the hour-plus workout. I was not accustomed to using my abs so intensely while also trying to coordinate the other movements.

As I moved through the series, I made a conscious effort to tighten and pull up in my stomach muscles, while staying relaxed and loose in the hips and glutes. I actually fell into a trancelike concentration. Dana's voice kept bringing me back into reality.

Sitting up with legs outstretched, I did some pull-downs with a lightweight steel bar (resistance, not weight, is key). I then moved on to a different machine, on which I laid flat on my back with my neck in a headrest.

In this move, I placed the tips of my feet on the steel bar, with knees bent, and then pushed myself to straight legs, with abs tight. I did this about 10 times, then switched to a subtly different position for more resistance work.

My favorite exercise was the leg circles. Placing my feet in straps out in front of me, I carefully made medium-sized Os, working the top of the thigh from the hip socket. This required great control, but felt quite liberating. At this point, after all this scooping, my stomach muscles were getting the hang of what to do.

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By session's end, the moves were feeling more fluid, with muscle groups I usually ignore working harmoniously to produce a low burn centered in my midsection. This sensation was quite different than the post-yoga glow, perhaps because it's not really a spiritual practice.

"In the sense of meditation, no. People do feel energized with Pilates," Sichel said. "There's a significant energy surge. But spiritual? No."

That wave of energy hit me at the end, when Dana gave me a "push-through," where she pushed firmly on my lower back as I sat with legs outstretched and hands above me on a bar, loose like a noodle. Tension left my body. I blissfully smiled.

Stronger, Sleeker

A friend who had tried Pilates told me her waistband was looser after just two sessions. And according to Vogue, "Pilates devotees insist it really works — especially on the Bermuda Triangle of thighs, stomach and rear." Sichel, who has practiced Pilates for 17 years, backed up this claim while explaining why the practice is experiencing such a resurgence of popularity.

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"There are immediate aesthetic changes," he said. "Think about it: The idea is to be lifting the vertebrae off each other in your lumbar spine," he told me after class. "You're creating a concavity — bringing your abdominals toward your back."

That made sense, though I wondered if that was a difficult concept for even the physically fit to comprehend. He said maybe, but offered a reason why: "They've lost that connection — of what it feels like to lift up. People don't have a connection to their body."

Sichel said Pilates can also be addictive. If so, is it because we all sit, hunched over, at computers all day long?

"You're changing someone's body," he said. "People are bored with looking the way they do. They're tired of having chronic injuries. They want to stand up straighter."