Pilates: Holistic Health Fitness Goes Retro

In response to the latest trend in fitness, exercise and health, people are flocking to Pilates classes and Tammy Plaxico's phone is ringing off the hook. One of the few extensively trained instructors in the Stott Pilates method, Plaxico has a waiting list for some classes she limits in order to maintain personalized attention. Eight messages blinking on her answering machine reveal she's being pursued by fitness suitors. Maybe I'm one of them. I dance and life weights but tight muscles and recovery time limit both activities. I'm feeling frustrated so I decide to investigate Pilates, wondering if there's something for me there.

Pilates (pronounced puh-LAH-teez) is "hot" these days, sweeping east from California fad lands like a brush fire. Its spreading flames have already sparked over 500 satellite studios across the nation. Demand is growing but the supply of truly qualified instructors is low. What's fanning interest is client satisfaction, proving word of mouth is more than just hot air.

Developed in the 1920s by legendary physical trainer Joseph H. Pilates, the method uses over 500 exercises and several unusual looking pieces of equipment that work the entire body efficiently through stretching and strengthening. It's the happiest marriage between exercise and physiotherapy, a fusion program combining modern biomechanics with more traditional Middle Eastern concepts of patience, self-control, deep breathing and precision. What interests me is how it runs counter to the beliefs of some fitness experts who think the best or only way to tone muscles is by increasing bulk and diameter, but which also causes tightness and injury.

Class Actions

Looking elfish in tights and cropped hair, Plaxico flows around the room greeting students as they trickle in for an evening class. This particular group has worked together for over a year. The mood is jovial, like a college dorm. Some of Plaxico's students say they found her after injuring themselves in sports, in other activities, even with other trainers. All say Pilates improved their condition. It's a safe bet no one's going to drop out of this class at BodyMind Balance, a Worcester, MA studio Plaxico owns and operates with one employee, Denise Lockbaum, a Stott certified mat instructor.

Before class begins, Plaxico asks class permission for me to observe. No one minds. The women range in age from 20's through late 50's. All have flat stomachs, look strong, flexible and in control. She coaches them through movements that look like water ballet or liquid yoga postures. Flowing movements, rather than holding poses, prevents body tension from building up, Plaxico says. A few students do modified versions of some exercises, reflecting prior private sessions, something Plaxico recommends before taking a class. Nothing escapes this instructor; her memory of her students and performance levels is impressive. Cues to specific individuals help the rest maximize their experience. Here's a woman who loves people, loves bodies, studies bodies – and remembers well. Apparently the class remembers, too, snapping to orchestrated attention for each sequence. Overall, vibes are good and the class looks like a perfect fitness video. They can do things I can't do, such as a sideways one arm push up, reaching to the sky then lacing that arm through the space beneath the supporting arm. Strength is obvious. Balance and grace are amazing, skills that have apparently come from using their own body parts as resistance tools, like cross training from within.

A fellow observer raises an eyebrow. "I've tried it all and am looking for something different. I like what I see here," says Jean La Fond, a former belly dancer from Worcester.

Sweat stains spread on several leotards, showing this is no candy ass workout. "Do you feel tired after all that?" I ask one woman after the 55 minute class. "No, I feel energized. I usually like doing this in the morning," she adds. Hearing that, La Fond wants to sign up.

Pilates was originally meant as a one on one, rehabilitative activity. Joseph Pilates, a German expatriate, worked for a time as a hospital orderly during World War I. Seeing a need to help bedridden soldiers develop the core strength necessary to get up out of bed, he fashioned strengthening equipment out of old hospital bedsprings. What differentiates Stott Pilates instructors from others is their ability to customize client programs based on injury or need. Plaxico earned her Stott certification in Toronto after extensive training and passing a grueling exam. She's qualified to work with a variety of client issues, including back pain, joint replacements, acute and chronic injuries and pregnancy. Her students are pleased how her training has accommodated them.

"I'm a violinist," says Laurie Knorr of Boylston, MA. I had a lot of wrist issues from playing in an asymmetrical position and Tammy did research on my wrist problems. We would spend half of some lessons on strengthening my wrist. Now my bow hand is stronger. I'm really glad I did several months of private sessions with her first before taking a mat class. I can't see myself stopping Pilates," says Laurie.

"Tammy can modify exercises so nearly everyone can attend. My husband recently broke his ankle and can't do any weight bearing activities but is taking the Saturday mat class. Pilates is a safe effective way to learn to move your body," says Christine Jorjorian of Princeton.

Class over, the students go home. Now it's my turn to try mat work but not before Plaxico assesses my posture and body type. She observes things most doctors miss, such as flat feet (hidden by thick wool socks), a swayed back rib cage, and a slightly more developed left trapezius muscle. Then she picks up on my most private body secret – that I was meant to be left handed, not right handed as my well meaning mother trained me to be. Subtle postural anomalies have tipped her off. Her keen diagnostic abilities, five years of Stott Pilates experience and a Master of Fine Arts degree in dance from the University of Iowa are all benefiting me.

She places me on the mat with the delicacy of an orchid arranger. Torso stabilization, correct knee alignment and perfect form are all crucial to Pilates. "The core, as I prefer to call it," says Plaxico, "was what Joseph Pilates believed to be the most important part of the body to develop. It's where all vital organs reside. Everything needed for life is found in this core area. It's only logical that this would be the first area of focus."

Pilates originally set out to strengthen his own core and overcome childhood afflictions. He studied yoga, Zen meditation and ancient Greek and Roman exercise regiments. He became an accomplished diver, skier, gymnast and boxer who also worked as a circus performer and trained detectives in self-defense.

"Interned during World War I, Pilates taught prisoners exercises to increase strength and flexibility through physical fitness, breath control and mental acuity," she explains.

Plaxico first teaches me to breathe properly, a challenge in itself. Trying to flatten my abdominal muscles against my spine, rather than letting them pouf out during exertion is difficult. Exercises that looked simple are not when trying to use the new breathing techniques I've just learned. Something as simple as curling up off the mat with knees bent, vertebrae by vertebrae, taxes my balance as I try to keep head and neck in proper position. "I really feel challenged," I laugh.

"A first class does challenge mental capabilities," she says. "The mind is always an important part of a Pilates program but beginning stages are a matter of re-teaching the body how to move. Pilates establishes new neuromuscular patterns while breaking old habits. It's about focusing the mind on how the body moves," she adds.

My abs are talking to me now but I feel exhilarated…and puzzled. Where did the hour go? And how can so little feel like so much? My introduction to Pilates was so engaging, I even forgot to feel self-conscious working with someone I just met. "I feel like a lot happened here, but I have no idea what," I confess. Maybe feedback from other students will help me figure it out.

Voices of Experience

"It's hard work trying to figure out what Pilates is about," says Dawn La Rocco, a Grafton, MA resident who's been taking Pilates with Plaxico for over a year. "You need to know it's like nothing you've ever done before. It's incredibly intricate exercise but refreshing mentally. It takes awhile for the muscle connections to 'click.' You get the gross movements first, then it takes a long time to refine the movements. The more you put into it, the greater the results. You have to focus and not think about your problems. You use muscles you never knew you had. It's a terrific workout…one you can do for your whole life," La Rocco adds.

Long term students say Pilates changes lives.

"I used to live in constant fear of hurting my back…but now after a year of doing Pilates, I've learned how to put it in a neutral position so I can protect it, avoid hurting it or having back spasms and excruciating pain," says ex-aerobic fan Kim Long, a Shrewsbury, MA mother of three. "I no longer have to use muscle relaxants or bed rest. Pilates strengthened my body from the inside out. It taught me how to use my own body to strengthen itself. Now I understand more about how my body works. I even take a can of soup off a top shelf in a more mindful way."

I observe two more classes then talk to Plaxico about what I've seen. "There are eight basics to any Pilates-based routine," she explains. These are breathing, concentration and control, centering, precision, flowing movement, shoulder girdle stabilization, head and cervical placement, and knee alignment. Full, deep, post-lateral rib breathing keeps blood cells oxygenated, helps the abdominal muscles contract and helps release tension. Concentrations and control are important in doing the movements. What's important is quality of movement, rather than number of repetitions. Developing the body's core abdominal muscles is what centers the body. Each exercise should be performed with precision and care. The breath initiates each movement, the abdominal muscles contract and only then do the limbs move. I tell clients that I don't want them even lifting a finger without first engaging the abdominal muscles," she explains.

Pilates is intriguing but it may not be for everyone. "You need patience," cautions Maria Jacobsons of Princeton, MA. "It's not like Weight Watchers where you see a two pound weight loss each week. It's its own art form, a whole different philosophy. Everything is in small increments."

"It's slow and controlled," adds Michelle Nietsche of Worcester, a disciplined gymnast with a background in ballet. "It's about doing things right. You can't get that in a gym or class atmosphere. It also depends on who you are," she continues. "Some might drop out because they think it's too hard. Some may drop out because they think it's too easy. In weight training, for instance, the weights do the work for you. In Pilates you have to make yourself work," she says.

Nietsche takes two Pilates classes, one in mat and the other in Reformer, one of several pieces of equipment that Joseph H. Pilates invented. This long table with cords and straps looks as menacing as the medieval rack, but cleverly stretches nearly every muscle in the body. It works the whole body without stressing the joints, so is particularly attractive for those involved in sports or activities where muscular control and injury prevention is key. It's advanced stuff, I soon realized. The machine's springs and straps put added resistance on your limbs, so if you don't have enough torso strength to stabilize yourself, you slide around, looking like a trussed chicken. It has its rewards for those who can do it.

"The Reformer is amazing. It reshapes your body. After a couple of months I could see longer, leaner quadriceps and hamstrings," says Knorr.

Another intriguing piece of equipment was the Cadillac. It looked like a bed frame out of an S & M movie, but taught me how one side of my body was weaker than the other. Plaxico noticed how one hip torques out to compensate during exertion, an observation giving me insight into occasional sciatica symptoms. I can see the value of working with her on this equipment in the future to correct imbalances, but for now, mat work is enough of a challenge.

"Most individuals find the mat work alone incredibly challenging. It's important to be able to successfully perform the key principles there before progressing to the equipment," Plaxico advises. "The mat work offers a lengthy series of exercises that utilize one's own body weight. It develops the abdominal strength needed to stabilize the torso, the powerhouse of Pilates. Once the core is developed and a foundation has been established, then the focus can shift to re-balancing the rest of the body. Muscles around joints are often out of balance and this is a common culprit of injuries. If there is a strong foundation and everything around that foundation is balanced, then the entire unit can function with ease and efficiency. It's similar to the structure of a building. If there isn't a solid foundation and balance, then the building will deteriorate and eventually collapse. Our bodies work in similar ways," she explains.

Professional Training

With Pilates classes springing up everywhere, it's important to check instructor credentials. "There are other people offering Pilates-type classes, but where are all these instructors coming from?" questions Judy Luzzi of Sterling, MA. "We feel fortunate that Tammy has superior credentials, but you may get someone who isn't as knowledgeable as Tammy. My daughter's friend found a combination yoga/Pilates class. She bought a tape from the class, took it home, then hurt herself by pulling some muscles. She didn't have anyone to critique her," warns Luzzi.

I agree. I attended a Pilates-based class in my own gym. It was packed with over 40 people, a far cry from the one-on-one experience Pilates was meant to be. The instructor gave instructions over a microphone without monitoring students. She had us doing exercises I recognized as advanced. When I asked the instructor about her credentials, she said she was certified "from New York and Montana" but hadn't passed any exam. "I want everyone to get the positions first, then later we'll concentrate on the breathing," she said, a red flag because correct breathing is the first concept Pilates students learn. I was sore for three days after the class, another bad sign. I won't go back. I'd rather find a qualified Stott trainer like Plaxico who can help me build up my body, rather than tear it down in a crowded class where quality is compromised.

Some things get better with age. The Stott version of Pilates seems one of them. Years ago Martha Graham and the dance community used Pilates because its fluid dance-like movements increased flexibility without aggravating injuries. Madonna uses it today for a longer, leaner look. In Pilates you work with your body, not against it. Mind and body work together, sounding the death knell for self-adversarial thinking that pits you against your body as if it were some enemy to be conquered.

"I don't go to the gym anymore," says Jill Fournier of Uxbridge, MA. I've canceled my membership. I had a trainer but didn't feel I was making any progress with a problem shoulder. Now I see the progress I've made with Pilates. I think I'm getting everything I need."

I'm intrigued enough with Pilates to want to pursue it, too. It's already taught me things about my body and the learning promises to continue. What could be more exciting than a journey of self-discovery through the vehicle of the body?

Tammy Plaxico is the director of BodyMind Balance, a complete studio offering private, semi-private and group mat classes and equipment work, based on client needs. She is certified under Stott Conditioning International Training and Certification Center in Toronto, Canada.

For information contact the studio at 645 Chandler Street, Worcester, Mass. 01602. (508)754-3327 or email info@bodymindbalance-ma.com. You can also visit her website at http://www.bodymindbalance-ma.com

Nancy Wright is a freelance writer, speaker and Reiki Master who lives in Littleton, MA. She is getting ready to self-publish her book Suitcase Down The Nile: A Spunky Woman's Transformational Journey Through Egypt. Her email address is NancyWri@aol.com