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What Is Pilates Anyway?

Written by Rita Kennen

Pilates, the "latest and greatest" fitness trend actually dates back to the early 1900s and has done wonders for everyone from ballet dancers to NFL athletes.

Close your eyes. Think of your whole body as one strong, integrated unit. Imagine your abdomen as its center. Hold that experience in your mind, and you've touched upon the core philosophy of Pilates, a unique, non-impact approach to exercise.

Pilates is a non-impact approach to exercise.
Doing Pilates-based exercise builds both strength and flexibility.
Joseph Pilates designed his body-conditioning program to increase his own strength.
Pilates exercise increases your awareness of how the muscles in your body work.

In Pilates, it's the quality of movement that counts, not the quantity of your pain or sweat. If you're burnt out from decades of aerobic pounding, consider Pilates. Instead of repetitions, exercisers concentrate on form and breathing, keeping the abdomen as the center around which all movement focuses.

Many people are aware of changes in their bodies after only 10 sessions, say Pilates proponents.

"Once the body is properly aligned, people describe feeling balanced, taller and having more energy," says Greta Jorgensen, a professional ballet dancer who also teaches Pilates. "It's all about awareness. The concentration required to perform the movements correctly gives you more control, as well as an awareness of how your muscles function."

A series of exercises usually performed on machines, Pilates is the brainchild of a frail youngster who longed for a strong body. Suffering from rickets, asthma and rheumatic fever as a child, Joseph Pilates experimented with yoga and Zen as therapy for his own weakened body, then began developing his first machines while serving as a nurse in England during World War I.

Applying his background in engineering, Pilates found that he could enable patients to exercise by attaching springs to hospital beds. These jerry-rigged hospital beds were the design foundation for Pilates' specialized exercise equipment, which now goes by such whimsical names as the Reformer and the Cadillac.

"The wonderful thing about Pilates is that it builds both strength and stretch, which are difficult to get at the same time," says Yasmen Mehta, a pilates instructor.  "Other exercises give you one or the other, but Pilates gives you both at the same time. It's mainly the nature of the machines. The two main ones work with springs, and your body is constantly being challenged against the spring."

The pleasure of Pilates is that it works the muscles internally. Each movement is choreographed with its own rhythm and breathing cycle, so that it directs vital energy to specific areas of your body. Pilates proponents say it centers the body, aligns the spine and improves posture and body contour. Martha Graham used Pilates in her dance training. Several NFL football players practice Pilates, too.

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