Pilates and Me

January 6, 2011

Portrait Seen Widely Online
Joseph Pilates

Joseph Pilates was a sickly kid who overcompensated by remaking himself into a superb athlete. He began developing his system of mind-body exercises while interned by the British as a German national during World War I and later gained renown as a teacher and trainer. He was apparently a hard-assed teacher, and his sytem was for the elite athletes and dancers who came to his New York City studio. Now Pilates – at least in some form – is accessible to just about anyone.  

I’ve done Pilates five times a week for about nine years. The workouts have improved my flexibility and balance, strengthened my core, and reshaped my body. My waist is two inches smaller than when I started, and my calves are almost an inch smaller. I’ve lost about ten pounds. Since the closest certified teacher is fifty miles away and charges big bucks, my instruction so far has come entirely from DVDs. All of them include some explanation of the principles of Pilates, and most offer modified (easier) forms of the more difficult exercises.   

The first DVD I bought was Pilates for Weight Loss with Ana Caban. A lucky choice since it has lots of explanation and a separate routine for beginners. Though I gave that DVD to a friend, I now have several others featuring Ana. I like her friendly approach and easy pace. Produced by Gaiam, a “lifestyle” company, her DVDs have a New Age flavor that’s restful and only occasionally annoying. Sometimes I get a little tired of the sitar music.   

After taking up riding lessons, I wanted to improve my balance, so I invested in one of those big inflated balls and bought The Method: Target Specifics Stability Ball. The cover of this DVD is discouraging. A lanky blond without an ounce of excess body fat perches on her ball, hands on hips, flashing a grin that says, “Do this routine a thousand times; you still won’t look as good as me.” Katalin Zamiar, who leads the routine, is even more daunting. We’re told she “holds three black belts and 21 years experience in the martial arts and boxing.” Judging by her looks, she must have thrown her first Karate kick when she was three years old. The challenging 50-minute routine has nonetheless become one of my favorites. It’s divided into four separate workouts targeting different parts of the body, so I can omit one or two when I’m short on time. Katalin sets an earnest, businesslike tone. 

My least favorite DVD, CorePlus Reformer Workout, also by Gaiam, features Mari Winsor leading three women through a series of exercises employing elasticized cords (a stand-in for the Pilates reformer, which costs several hundred dollars). One of the women, a beginner performing the modified exercises, is maybe fifteen pounds overweight. Mari patronizes her relentlessly. “Yes, I see those muscles working!” she chirps brightly. I feel like strangling her with the CorePlus Reformer.

I'm working with a Pilates ring.

Me Soon After I Started Pilates

The most impressive instructor in my collection is Moira Merrithew. A formal dancer and founder of Stott Pilates, Moira has obviously had lots of training and experience. Her approach is so quiet I don’t realize at first how hard she’s making me work. I get sleepy performing the stretches at the beginning of Strong and Streamlined, but near the end I find myself precariously balanced on one hand and one foot, my body twisted like a pretzel. I also have Moira’s Superior Balance stability ball DVD, perfect for when I need to be reminded there are things my body cannot do.

One DVD really, really scares me. Its official title is Classical Pilates Technique, but my husband calls it Prison Pilates because the exercises are performed in a bare room rather than on a beach or beside a sparkling mountain lake. There’s no music, no soothing narrator offering encouragement or explaining how the exercises should be done. They’re demonstrated by a guy who moves through the routine as ruthlessly as a drill sergeant. Prison Pilates is not for pansies. It might be the one DVD in my collection Joseph Pilates would have approved of, but an exercise routine isn’t much good if you would rather chew on tinfoil than do it.

He Makes It Look So Easy

 The biographic info on Joseph Pilates comes from About.com.

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