October 26, 2000
Learning Pilates, one stretch at a time.
It is called Pilates, and I had been hearing about it for some time but dismissed it as a faddish '90s workout. It fit the mold perfectly: It had the requisite exotic name (pronounced puh-LAH-tees), you had to go to a gym to do it, and celebrities hailed it as a miracle workout that managed, with perfect '90s perversity, to give shapely women the bodies of 12-year-old boys.
Pilates, I had heard, involved archaic equipment with names like "the reformer" and "the barrel," but that was about all I knew when I arrived at TriBeCa Bodyworks, a Pilates studio on Duane Street, determined to see if my bias was well-founded. A model-thin woman blew by me, a single line of sweat dripping down her radiant cheek. Great. I hated the place already.
Alycea Baylis-Ungaro, the owner of the studio, had instructed me to bring loose clothing and to wear socks. No sneakers were necessary.
Showing me to the changing room, she whispered, "Even men do Pilates. We get a lot of them." It is true. During my workouts at least one-third were men. Besides, there is, as I soon learned, nothing feminine about Pilates.
The exercise method was invented by a man, Joseph Pilates, a boxer and physical therapist from Germany. Obsessed with body conditioning, he developed the framework for Pilates while serving as a nurse during World War I. So that patients could exercise in bed, he redesigned a hospital bed and developed simple exercises. Modern Pilates apparatus relies on the use of springs to provide resistance, much like weights, but easier on the body. He opened the first Pilates Studio in the United States in New York City in 1926.
A workout developed that long ago, when athletes smoked and tennis players wore long pants? Still, I signed up for three one-hour Pilates sessions. The first, Alycea said, would just be introductory. For $65, she would lead me through the fundamental exercises. Later sessions would get more intense, Alycea promised, at $55 a session. A bargain! I could not quite believe I was handing over this much money to exercise. I am a reasonable person. I live near a park. I own a pair of sneakers. Why not just put them on and run around the park?
The reason became clearer with each exercise. Alycea took me to the Reformer, a long, low, bedlike apparatus with a flat, padded carriage that slid back and forth the length of the bed. It made a dentist's chair look friendly. Alycea had me lie face up on the carriage, with my knees bent and my feet on a raised steel bar at the end of the apparatus. I was to straighten my legs as I pulled in my stomach.
The carriage, which is set on three long springs, was difficult to slide out, then snapped back against the end of the apparatus with a loud "Bang!" that echoed through the studio. Heads turned. Alycea did not look pleased. The next time, I was told, do it smoothly, no banging. And I was told to stop arching my back. Pilates exercises are designed to protect and strengthen the back.
"The more distance you put between your belly button and your spine, the more pressure you put on your back," Alycea said.
By changing the position of my feet on the steel bar and pushing, I worked different muscle groups in my legs while working my stomach muscles.
"It's a real New York workout because it's really efficient," Alycea said. "You have to use all your muscles at once." And you get it all in a neat and snappy 60 minutes.
We moved on to more complex movements, my least favorite being the "hundreds." Lying face up on the Reformer, I had to raise my feet six inches, suck in my stomach, squeeze my buttocks together and, holding a stirrup set on springs in each hand, keep my arms at my sides and bounce them up and down, 100 times. With so many details to focus on, you hardly feel the pain.
I was beginning to understand why Mr. Pilates called his workout contrology. For every exercise that focuses on strengthening muscle, another stretches the body and encourages balance. And each movement - whether a derivative of the sit-up with legs jutting in the air, or lying flat and pulling on leather harnesses attached to springs - involves stabilizing the core of the body, the torso and buttocks, while moving the arms or legs. (This is the part that appeals to women: The movements are small and repetitions are short, so you tone muscle without bulking up.)
After about a half hour on the Reformer, Alycea introduced me to the Cadillac, which looked a lot like a gurney with harnesses and pulleys. After more stomach exercises, including sit-ups and leg lifts, Alycea had me lie on my back and put my feet into the harnesses. With my feet above my head and my back raised off of the mat, I was hung like a side of beef. Then, using my stomach muscles, I had to pull my body down to the mat against the resistance of the springs, curling my spine, vertebra by vertebra. It felt as if I was stretching every bone in my back. But there was no pain. Instead, I felt stress ebbing until it was gone. I could have done it all day.
But that was not the best part. Alycea had me sit up and stretch to touch my toes while she pushed and rubbed my back. I was forgetting about the $65.
I left my first session with my stomach muscles dazed and confused, but I was still troubled that I had not broken a sweat. But when I arrived for my second session, Alycea reminded me that the Reformer workout did not get longer, it got faster.
"And that's where the aerobics come in," she said.
And did they ever. I was more relaxed with the machines and my movements became smoother and faster. But when I slowed down, I heard about it.
At most Pilates gyms, you do individual sessions with a personal trainer to learn the movements - there are more than 500 - until you get up to pace. After about 30 sessions, you can advance to what is called a duet - two people with a trainer - then to groups of three and four.
I had never employed a personal trainer, but I found that having one by my side was surprisingly comforting. I liked having someone there to coddle me while I suffered through the workout. Besides, it is far too easy and tempting to cheat with Pilates.
What is extraordinary about Pilates is its broad appeal. Some professional dancers do it to maintain flexibility and stay fit without adding excess stress to their bodies. And unlike running or aerobics, Pilates is good for the elderly, people with injuries, and even pregnant women.
"They do it right up to delivery," Alycea said.
As for me, Pilates was a revelation. I had not realized how tight my muscles had become working in an office, slouching over a computer keyboard. By the third session, I was a convert. I was getting the aerobic workout I wanted while regaining some of the flexibility I had lost.
But if I start to get that 12-year-old boy look, I just may have to ease off. For a while, anyway.