The Pilates Method

By Candice Schultz

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For those people who have always thought of Pilates as a complicated workout, practised only by women or serious athletes, think again. Pilates is a diverse fitness phenomenon that has recently gained popularity across North America. During the last decade, Pilates studios and programs have emerged all over the Island. Now, it's possible to practise Pilates at specialized studios, recreation centres or physical therapy clinics.

German-born Joseph Pilates is the founder of the fitness regimen. Following a history of childhood illness, Joseph created a system that works both the mind and body. Eighty years later, people still rely on the fluid movements to increase energy levels, while building muscles that improve posture and balance.

Heather Munro, fitness programmer at the Esquimalt Recreation Centre, says, "Those who are looking for Pilates, are looking for something quieter, more gentle and core-focused." 

Most of her clients contact her searching for a way to gain strength and flexibility without impacting their joints.

"Most people practise Pilates for the core-strengthening aspect of it. In essence, that's the entire class - learning where your muscles are in your core, and how to initiate them, how to make them function during all sorts of movements," says Heather.

The Pilates method is recommended for older adults because the low impact exercises strengthen the core abdominal muscles that are responsible for supporting the spine, which reduces back and muscle pain. For this reason, it's also been said that Pilates can alleviate some of the aches that are associated with aging or injury. Not to be categorized as strictly exercise, Pilates is a holistic wellness regimen that is appropriate for individuals of any age.

In Victoria, mature adults are turning to Pilates not only as a means of rehabilitation from injuries, but also as a way of getting and staying fit. Lorie Robinson, 65, is one such person. She travels frequently, but when she's in town, Lorie attends Pilates classes twice a week. After she goes away, she practises three times a week to make up for lost time.

"I started three years ago because I had a chronically bad back and very bad sciatica.  I went to physio and he talked to me about strengthening my core. If you're going to strengthen your core, then the best way is to do Pilates," she says. "It really helped my posture."

Since taking up Pilates, Lorie hasn't thrown her back out, and she loves the energetic feeling she has after a workout.

"From what I see here... It's really about the health benefits. Many people are here [because] they've had broken bones, car accidents, Multiple Sclerosis, polio, stroke or sports' injuries; it really makes a difference. It's really interesting to watch, over time, the before and after."

Gerry Poulton, 66, an avid squash player, has also practised Pilates for years. Gerry credits the exercise regime for balancing the muscular strength in his body. Athletes who play racquet sports tend to be stronger on one side, and Gerry uses Pilates as a way to correct this. When he was hit on the wrist with a racquet years ago, Gerry turned to Pilates as a means of rehabilitation.

"I wanted to try and ensure that both sides of my body were doing things roughly equally, because I play a lot of squash, and that's very one-sided. In fact, I went to physio a few years ago when I had an injury and he said I was one of the most single-sided sports-specific types he'd seen, and I went, 'Uh oh. This is not good.' One side of my body was much stronger," says Gerry.

His main reason for continuing to practise Pilates is to maintain his core strength and flexibility - it's the perfect way to cross-train.

Pilates can be practised using either mats on the floor or reformer equipment. The approach depends on the individual. Those looking for a lighter workout should opt for mat exercises. The need for minimal equipment can allow one to exercise at home after they learn the basics, and is less expensive. For these reasons, mat Pilates has gained increasing popularity over the years, and is the method that most associate with the fitness regimen.

For some, it can be uncomfortable transitioning from a standing position to lying on the floor. If this is the case, reformer Pilates may be a more appropriate option. These machines use a system of springs and straps to encourage smooth, fluid movements. They allow the individual to tailor the ease or difficulty of the workout, depending on their strength and comfort level. The straps and footrests encourage proper alignment, and allow the individual to smoothly complete their exercises while concentrating on breathing.

Susan VanCadsand, Program Director at Victoria Pilates, says, "Mat Pilates teaches the fundamentals and works on your core because you don't have resistance... These machines allow the body's neutral patterning to understand how to move safely without injuring yourself. Mat Pilates has its place as a starting block. It's cheaper because it's more generic and you can do it in a larger group, but this becomes more one-on-one programming."

Lorie, Gerry, Berit Kvarnstrom, 71, and her partner, Richard Rice, 75, demonstrate the Pilates Reformers with grace and confidence, and show that the equipment isn't nearly as daunting as it first looks. The springs on the machines offer resistance to increase strength without adding bulk muscle mass. This results in a smoother, leaner muscle. Each movement naturally leads into the next and the group shifts between sustained stretches and repeated exercises. Repetition of these movements combined with one-on-one attention allows the students to push their limits and make sure that they're completing the exercises correctly 100 per cent of the time.

Susan believes that individualized instructional time is one of the most important aspects of teaching reformer Pilates. For this reason, she schedules her classes appropriately, offering private classes and no more than four clients per instructor.

"We have enough eyes to constantly make sure people are not going to do the exercise incorrectly."

Even after six years, Lorie says that Susan still corrects her postures and movements because every action is specific. As the students work through their warm-up and into their exercise, Susan and instructor Suzanne Dyck, make minor adjustments and assist the students in holding and transitioning between postures.

Berit and Richard have been practising Pilates at the same studio for seven years.

"I have a knee issue, and it was much worse before I started. It actually improved because I have much stronger ligaments now, to hold it together. So it works."

These participants can't imagine life without their Pilates. The movements build strength, flexibility and balance, while the concentration and breathing circulate the blood. Joseph Pilates believed this helped flush out toxins. Full inhalations and exhalations bring oxygen into the blood, which travels to the muscles and reduces tension.

"The breathing part is the energizer," says Berit.

Pilates is a multi-dimensional approach to wellness that is appropriate for individuals of all ages and abilities. Whether looking to increase fitness or rehabilitate an injury, Susan's advice to those thinking about trying Pilates is to just try it: Book an appointment, watch a class or tour the nearest facility.

"We love it," says Berit. "It just makes you feel good."


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