- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 11, 2001

Arms slipped through leather loops and feet planted firmly above a row of tension springs, Lilly Ray tackles the Reformer. What resembles a medieval torture device has helped Ms. Ray work out stiffness in her joints, keep her muscles

toned and regain her sense of balance.Ms. Ray is a devotee of Pilates, a method of body conditioning that focuses on slow, controlled movements. The goal of Pilates (pronounced Pill-ah-tees) is to strengthen the abdomen, back and buttocks. The resulting strong torso called "the powerhouse" by Pilates teachers will take pressure off the other areas, improving breathing, balance and posture.

"Pilates works my body in a completely different way than other exercises I had done," Ms. Ray says. The 62-year-old Cleveland Park woman at one time or another has practiced weight lifting, yoga, aerobics and tennis. Eight years ago, cancer surgery caused the loss of her right eye. Afterwards, Ms. Ray found she didn't move as naturally as she had before the illness.

"It took a lot of work to be moving around," she says. "I started doing Pilates about 18 months ago. It has helped a great deal in terms of balance. It has strengthened my confidence to go out and do other things."

Pilates is ideal for anyone looking for a low-impact toning and strengthening program, says Elizabeth Larkham, director of Pilates at the Western Athletic Club in San Francisco and a spokeswoman for the American Council on Exercise.

"Anyone with a body can benefit from Pilates," she says.

That seems to hold true at Excel Movement Studio, the facility in Northeast where Ms. Ray trains. Clients include everyone from those new to exercise to baseball players looking for another form of conditioning, says Excel co-owner Lesa McLaughlin.

"The goals are the same, whether you are working on a mat or apparatus," she says. "You are always focusing on strengthening the powerhouse, on building a foundation to move the rest of the body more freely."

Before beginning a Pilates program, a person with any physical limitations, such as joint problems or shoulder pain, should consult a medical professional, says Lynn Millar, a professor of physical therapy at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Mich., and a spokeswoman for the American College of Sports Medicine.

"Pilates is fairly safe," she says. "It really is just a form of calisthenics, but there are some positions, particularly on the apparatus, that might not be appropriate for people with those conditions."

What is old is new again

Pilates classes are popping up at gyms from coast to coast, but the method actually goes back more than 70 years. In the 1920s, German gymnast and boxer Joseph H. Pilates developed a series of exercises to aid in the rehabilitation of World War I veterans. Mr. Pilates rigged springs and pulleys to a hospital bed so patients could exercise slowly while lying down. He called the method "controlology."

In 1926, Mr. Pilates moved to New York and opened a studio. In the following decades, dancers and actors began practicing Mr. Pilates' method.

"Controlology movements are designed to exercise to its full extension every single bundle in the 800 voluntary muscle-motors each of us have been given," Mr. Pilates wrote shortly after moving to the United States. "In fact, the very essence of controlologic philosophy is that each brain cell is trained to cooperate with others."

The Pilates method, as visualized by Mr. Pilates, combines Eastern and Western philosophy. It is Eastern (and similar to yoga) in its approach that exercise is a path of calmness, being centered and whole, with an emphasis on stretching and limberness, says Sean Gallagher, founder of the Pilates Studio. That New York organization has trained and certified more than 500 Pilates instructors. The Western part emphasizes motion, muscle tone and strength.

"Perfect balance of body and mind is that quality in civilized man which not only gives him superiority over the savage and animal kingdom, but furnishes him with all the physical and mental powers that are indispensable for attaining the goal of humankind health and happiness," Mr. Pilates wrote.

Mr. Pilates, who died in 1967 at the age of 87, based his method on six principles of body conditioning:

• Concentration You must pay attention to your movements as you are doing them. Always think about each step, and you will begin to notice how interrelated every motion in your body is with all of the others. Visualizing your next step actually will help your central nervous system choose the right combination of muscles to perform the exercise.

• Control This is of fundamental importance. Motion and activity without control lead to a haphazard and counterproductive exercise regimen.

• Centering The human body has a center (the powerhouse) from which all motion proceeds. Centering leads to a trimmer waist and a flatter stomach and to correct posture that can prevent back pain and other maladies.

• Flowing movement Pilates does not require many repetitions. Rather, it is based on a few repetitions of exercises done in a specific order.

• Precision This goes with control. Concentrate on the right movements each time you exercise. Otherwise, you will do them improperly and they will lose their value.

• Breathing Pilates emphasizes the importance of keeping the bloodstream pure. This purity comes as a result of proper breathing during exercise, which oxygenates the blood.

Pilates today

Pilates can be done on equipment such as the Reformer or on a mat, where the body uses gravity and its own muscles to create tension, says Kerry DeVivo, co-owner of Excel Movement Studio and a Pilates instructor since 1995.

"It is important to do the exercises in order," she says. "Pilates is a layered system. Each exercise prepares you for the next.

When working on a mat, that means starting with "hundreds," followed by roll-ups, single-leg circles and "roll like a ball." Later in the lesson come the "open-leg rocker," "the saw" and the "seal."

"The [exercise names] either tell you where you are going to feel it, what you are going to look like or what you are going to do," Ms. DeVivo says. "When you do the roll up, you will roll up. When you do the spine stretch, you will feel it in your spine. When you do the swan, you will extend your spine like a swan would."

All mat classes begin with the hundreds, which are similar to sit-ups. Lying on their back with their legs in the air at a 45-degree angle, students raise their shoulders off the ground and pump their arms close to their sides for 100 counts. The move gets blood circulating and works the abdominals, Mr. Gallagher says.

The other 18 core exercises follow in order, with five to 10 repetitions of each, Ms. DeVivo says. Ideally, clients should practice the mat work in order daily, she says.

"At least four times a week," Ms. DeVivo says. "That is what Joseph Pilates suggested."

Advanced Pilates students will be able to work hard enough to gain cardiovascular benefits from Pilates, but beginning students may want to supplement their workouts with cross-training such as walking, biking or swimming, Ms. McLaughlin says.

"It takes a little time for you to feel the aerobic aspect," she says. "If weight loss and cardiovascular health is an issue, then we suggest you continue doing aerobic work."

Ms. Ray, who started with mat classes and has worked her way onto the machines, now takes two Pilates classes a week. She practices the mat moves at home, lifts weights twice a week and goes for walks.

"I thought I was in pretty good shape when I started doing this," she says. "I discovered that was only partially true. I have not gotten injured at all, and now I am working at quite a good level. Pilates doesn't get boring, and it keeps your mind working all the time. I am trying to talk my 35-year-old daughter into doing it."

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