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Mind Over Matter
How Pilates uses your brain to build your body


It may seem like everyone you know is suddenly doing Pilates. Perhaps it’s the estimated 10 million Americans now practicing the Pilates method, up from 1 million in 2000.

While the fitness phenomenon has certainly taken over body image-obsessed Hollywood, the "craze" is actually more than 80 years old and is rooted in rehabilitation techniques.


Pictured above: The Triangle Pose improves strength, stability, and balance.

Read on to find out how a Pilates regimen can benefit you, regardless of age, aptitude or health conditions. You'll also hear from several Chicago-area Pilates instructors who may hold the key to a leaner, stronger, better you.

What is Pilates?

German-born Joseph Pilates got his start as a self-defense instructor for detectives at Scotland Yard in the early 1900s. During World War I, he was held in England as an enemy.

It was during his internment that he developed what would become the "Pilates method" by refining his fitness ideals and training other detainees using whatever equipment was available. Eventually, Pilates returned to Germany, where his streamlined fitness system was embraced by the dance community.

In 1926, Pilates moved to New York City and began training countless dancers and athletes. By the 1960s, Pilates' students were teaching his method in their own studios, spreading his wisdom throughout the country.

Pilates promotes body awareness - engaging the mind to strengthen and tone the entire body. The principles include proper breathing, control, alignment and precision. The techniques can be modified and practiced by people of a wide range of age groups and fitness levels and is even believed to help alleviate chronic pain and help the body avoid future injuries.

"Pilates works the full body through ways the body naturally moves and functions," explains Master Teacher Patrick O'Brien of From the Center Pilates Studios, located in Uptown and Lakeview. "With extension, flexion and rotation, you get a full range of motion and planes of movement that address the different relationships throughout the body".

Mind-Body Connection

One of the most unique and attractive qualities of the Pilates method is the importance placed on the mind-body connection. By emphasizing proper breathing and concentration of movement, Pilates makes you acutely aware of your body and promotes good posture, free-flowing movement and flexibility. It also reduces stress and enhances mental clarity.

"It's the mindful aspect of it that makes it Pilates," says Cindy Reid of Flow, Inc., a yoga and Pilates studio in Lincoln Park. "You're not going to have an affected change in your muscular patterning if you're watching TV or listening to a Walkman," she notes.

For Marilyn Glielmi of Sana Vita Studio on Chicago's near West Side, breath work is one of the most important aspects of Pilates.

"It adds a sense of calmness and relieves stress," she says. "When you're engaged in Pilates, you have to focus on how your breath is connected to your body."

You may have heard that the benefits of Pilates include the Holy Grail of workouts: flat abs and long, lean muscles without unwanted bulk. This is because Pilates based his system around the concept of the core, or the "Powerhouse," the deep abdominal muscles that envelop the spine.

All movements that come from the Powerhouse are said to help develop proper breathing and spinal alignment. Pilates also improves muscle elasticity and joint mobility by engaging the entire musculature in smooth, continuous movements.

Mat vs. Machine Workout

"There are more than 60 Pilates exercises done on the floor," says From the Center's O'Brien. He also adds that about half of those movements are designed for the beginner level.

These exercises maintain a focus on breathing, which helps bring oxygen to your brain and allows you to relax.

In a typical mat class, trained and certified instructors will guide you through each exercise and teach you how to breathe and properly perform each movement so you get optimal results. It may be a good idea to schedule a few private lessons if you're unsure about jumping right in. If you are comfortable with joining a mat class right away, start at the beginner level so as not to overwhelm your mind and body.

Equipment for Pilates can range from small resistance bands for thighs and arms, to horizontal Reformer tables, which are outfitted with moving carriages that slide along a frame. Reformers provide springs and ropes for more resistance than a mat workout. Another popular piece of Pilates equipment is a Trapeze Table (or "Cadillac"), which is also a four-legged, horizontal table, but with additional posts, straps and springs attached for both beginner and advanced exercises.

The classical Pilates format for most training includes warming up with mat exercises, moving on to a Reformer series, then addressing any special needs, from aesthetics to health conditions, with targeted movements.

Whatever type of exercise you're doing, it's essential that you perform it correctly.

"If someone can understand movement concepts, can house them and reproduce them, they can do any movement," O'Brien says.

How Pilates Stacks Up

If you're wondering how Pilates measures up to your current workout - from cardio to weight training to various sports - consider that many professional athletes, from runners to golfers to hockey players, use Pilates as a component of their training.

By developing a strong core, you’ll increase agility and strength, as well as correct posture and balance, benefiting your overall performance in other workouts. You'll also protect yourself from injuries by developing more elasticity in your muscles and mobility in your joints.

Pilates looks at exercising the body in different ways from traditional weight training or cardio. By mimicking how the body naturally moves, Pilates can correct damage done by other workouts.

While you may be used to hearing about "tight thighs" and "buns of steel" in usual workouts, you'll hear buzzwords like "pelvic stabilization" and "core strength" in Pilates.

If you're looking solely to burn calories and lose weight, you may want to consider other forms of exercise, such as running or biking, to expend the most energy possible.

However, as a part of a varied fitness routine, Pilates has an overall affect on your body shape, making you look longer and leaner. And, what's not to like about that?

November 2007

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Our Favorites: Mind Over Matter

  • Flow, Inc.
  • From the Center Pilates Studios
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  • Sana Vita Studio
     


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