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Pilates is a gentle non-aerobic exercise method. Advocates claim it lengthens and strengthens the muscles while improving overall health, without overtaxing the heart or joints. Pilates focuses on core body power, increasing the strength of abdominal and back muscles, and therefore improves posture. Like Yoga and Martial Arts, Pilates combines physical exercise with mental concentration to create a mind-body practice. Because Pilates is gentle, even people with previous injuries can try (although if you have been injured, you should get clearance from your doctor, and seek out a trained instructor). Celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Liz Hurley and Jennifer Aniston swear by Pilates for its powerful results.

What (or Who) is Pilates?

Joseph Pilates was born in Germany in 1880 and moved to England as a young man in the early 20th century. He had an interest in Eastern arts such as Zen meditation and yoga, and worked as a boxer, circus performer and self-defense instructor. During World War I, he was interned by the British government with other German citizens and spent time at two camps for “enemy aliens.” During his time in the camp, he began integrating his self-study and fitness experience to train others who were held there. These fitness practices were the beginning of the Pilates Method. After WWI, Pilates moved to the US and started teaching fitness in New York City. Connections with George Balanchine and the New York City Ballet led to increased popularity of his fitness classes among dancers. When Joseph Pilates passed away in 1967, his widow and former students vowed to carry on the tradition. Since Pilates hit Hollywood in the 1980s, it has become increasingly popular. Today, at least 10 million Americans practice this fitness form.

What Kind of Fitness Is It?

There are two basic work-outs in Pilates: mat-work and machine-work. Pilate’s classes at gyms and fitness centers usually focus on mat-work. Mat-work involves specific exercises that focus on abdominal and back muscles with controlled breathing patterns. Pilates called the practice of these exercises “Contrology.” At the end of a Pilates mat-work class, you might not be sweating, but your abs will be dying and you’ll know you got a killer workout. Dancers and gymnasts often use Pilates to make their abs stronger and increase power. Pilate’s machine work is usually done in a Pilates studio under the supervision of a private instructor. (See “What are Those Crazy Machines.”)

Where Do I Start?

Classes. Check your Campus Fitness Center first, since many offer Pilates classes. If they don’t, ask them to add it next term. Check out the Web links in “How Can I Find out More?” and “What Type?” to find a certified Pilates instructor in your local area.

Homework. If you want to try practicing Pilates in your room, you’ll need a mat and a good video. Balanced Body has been producing Pilates equipment for 30 years and offers a wide selection of equipment, books, and DVDs for all levels. If you decide you want to really get into Pilates, they offer teacher training and sell Pilates machines. Gaiam also sells Pilates mats, DVDs, and equipment for home practice.

How Can I Find out More?

  • The Pilates Method Alliance is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to certification and continuing education standards for Pilate’s instructors. Their website offers resources for learning more about Pilates and finding a certified instructor.
  • offers a full Pilates site with articles about Pilates, exercises with instructions and pictures, and links to resources.

What are Those Crazy Machines?

Pilate’s machines are elaborate contraptions that provide resistance against movement. An instructor guides every detail of the machine work-out, usually in a private session or a small class of less than 6 people. Joseph Pilates developed many of the machines during his internment in World War I at the Isle of Man. There were many injured and ill individuals in the camp, so Pilates developed rehabilitation programs for them. For instance, he used springs from hospital beds to create resistance and developed exercises that could be done while seated or lying in bed. The most famous Pilates machine is called “The Reformer.” It looks like a narrow table with a sliding center and elastic straps, and provides a low-impact resistance based work-out, while the person sits, lies or kneels on the moving center. A “Trapeze Table” (also called a “Cadillac”) can be used for everything from assisted sit-ups to complicated acrobatics. Sound complicated? That’s why Pilate’s machine exercises require an experienced instructor—so don’t try this at home!!

The Controversy Left Behind

When Joseph Pilates died, he left no will and no clear successor to carry on his tradition. His widow Clara kept the NYC studio going, and later passed it on to their long-time student Romana Kryzanowska. Other students of Joseph Pilates opened studios in New York, Massachusetts, and California. However, when one instructor tried to trademark the word “Pilates” in the 1990s, the challenge went to Federal Court, and a judge determined that Pilates was a generic term for a type of exercise, which could not be trademarked. Many forms of Pilates exist today:

  • Kryzanowska calls her version True Pilates , because it’s the “exercises and philosophies of Joseph and Clara Pilates that we teach, as handed down to protégé Romana.” Her studio is in NYC, but the website lists events and certified instructors throughout the US.
  • STOTT Pilates was founded by Moira Merrithew, a former professional dancer who studied Pilates with Kryzanowska. Ms. Merrithew says that she has modified Joseph Pilate’s traditional program based on principles of modern exercise science, and offers teacher training, a listing of certified instructors and a complete line of DVDs and equipment
  • Winsor Pilates is well-known due to a series of infomercials and celebrity spokesperson Daisy Fuentes. Mari Winsor claims her two Los Angeles Pilates studios are full of celebrities. Her products and DVDs are among the highest selling Pilates videos

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