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The incredible lightness of being

By Veenu Sandhu
Last updated on: July 04, 2015 14:14 IST
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Just what makes Pilates, a fitness system that focuses on stretching to help the muscles find their balance, so damn good?

Veenu Sandhu tries it out and returns home blissed.

A good one hour of exercising would ordinarily leave me all sweaty and a bit out of breath and have my muscles protesting, sometimes through the day.

So, after an hour of stretching my arms and shoulders, exercising my neck, upper and lower back, thighs, knees, calves, ankles and toes, when David Johnson, the Pilates director at The Lodhi hotel in Delhi, asks me how I feel, I am surprised to hear myself say, "Light; almost as though I'm floating." Johnson smiles knowingly.

That's the beauty of Pilates, a fitness system or a core strength training that helps correct muscular imbalances.

Developed in the early 20th century by Joseph Pilates, originally a gymnast, diver and bodybuilder, it is as much about making the muscle work better as it is about strengthening the muscle.

This means every person can find his or her comfort level, or body balance, to do these exercises. And that makes it widely accessible "to people from age 10 to 100," says Namita Agarwal, founder of Fitness Fusion in Delhi that holds Pilates sessions for various age groups and for people with different medical needs.

There's a uniqueness in the way Pilates is done.

Here, you work on extension, by strengthening and lengthening your body against the resistance. In contrast, in other movement patterns, your resistance increases as you close in your joints.

In Pilates you open the joints, pushing into a stretch to be strong rather than contracting as we would ordinarily do in, say, weight training.

In the process, the entire body, from the head to the toe, gets exercised with every movement.

"Somehow, after a Pilates session, I feel an inch taller," says a colleague.

Having just tried it, that's not hard to imagine, given the amount of stretching involved.

In fact, a number of people are sending their children for Pilates to help them gain height, Agarwal claims.

Pilates can be done both on the mat and on equipment.

Originally designed by Joseph Pilates, the equipment has over time undergone several modifications, "though a lot of the dance colleges around the world - particularly in England and America -- still have his old, original equipment," says Johnson.

It is also done barefoot, as in yoga, but is different from yoga.

I had arrived at the Pilates Studio at The Lodhi in sneakers that I obviously had to get out of before I could get started.

We begin with a mat exercise with a soft ball placed under the neck.

It sinks in to adjust to the neck and the lower part of the head as I first move my neck from side to side and then rotate my head.

The neck muscles get exercised, but without the damaging strain.

Next, the ball is shifted to the upper back and then the lower back; more rotation follows -- side to side and up and down.

The ball is moved right through the length of the spine, exercising the muscles along it and also, through a gentle movement, the muscles of the legs.

So far it looks easy.

And that's another thing. Pilates, which was originally called Contrology (or the art of control), can be very easy or very difficult, depending on what you choose to do.

And it's not as if the easier levels or exercises will not be beneficial, because the exercises are suited and modified according to the individual's needs.

"People are still discovering more about Pilates," says Johnson, 55, who has been practising it for the last 10 years and still travels around the world to learn more about it.

The Pilates equipment, however, is not widely available.

Besides, it is costly.

But one of the things that any Pilates' studio will always have is the 'reformer'.

It's an unusual contraption used for multiple exercises, some of which seem to have been inspired by gymnastics.

Not surprising, given that Pilates himself was a gymnast.

It has a mat that glides on a horizontal track that is attached to springs which can be adjusted from light to strong.

The person can lie down on the mat and push the footbar away and feel the tension of the spring in the leg muscles.

There are also straps on the top of the mat that can be used to exercise the arms and legs as you push against the springs, setting the whole body in motion.

You can also go into a plank-like position, with your feet balanced on one end of the machine and your arms pushing the mat away from you to as far as your body will allow.

In doing so, you work your own limitations of movement.

The spine, the legs, the arm and the back, all feel the stretch.

The equipment has been designed to tell you whether or not you are moving correctly.

Cushions and pillows too act as props in some exercises.

What stands out in all of these exercises is that no one part of the body is getting exercised separately, or in isolation.

Pilates does not cut up the body into bicep, tricep, chest, back or legs, the way most fitness regimes do.

And in doing so, most regimes devalue or undermine the body's own movement patterns.

Pilates, instead, is all about movement integration.

"Pilates is process-orientated, rather than goal-orientated," says Johnson.

The focus is not on how many sets of the exercise you did and for how long and how fast you did them, but on how you did them and how you felt while and after doing them.

It also challenges the idea of no-pain-no-gain -- the premise that only if you feel the muscles crying out would you have benefited from the exercise.

The wide spectrum of exercises work for a wide range of people -- those looking for general fitness, athletes, dancers and those in rehabilitation post surgery or post accident.

That is the reason why places like Vardan in Delhi, which offers physiotherapy, too work in Pilates.

Vardan holds both one-on-one sessions and group classes.

The Pilates Studio also offers private, duo and group classes.

And while the fitness club at The Lodhi can be accessed only by members and guests, the Pilates Studio is open to outsiders.

The focus here is on breathing (like in all other exercises), lengthening the spine, moving the spine, finding good hip and shoulder movement patterns and finally, on balancing the body well.

Similarly, Fitness Fusion has Pilates for toning up, pain relief, post-natal care, children and senior citizens.

But how do people who do not have access to a trainer or the equipment get started?

For that, there are authentic and credible web broadcasts that guide you through Pilates. Among them are Pilates on Demand and Pilates Anytime, which are online Pilates' studios.

These also offer free trials.

You can go to the site, find the teacher you like and work at the level that you like.

The routines are good and the teachers reliable.

"This is better than going through YouTube, which can be rather dodgy. On YouTube, you have a lot of people showing stuff without it being edited or tested," cautions Joseph.

"The YouTube videos of Lynda Lippin, a certified Pilates' teacher with years of experience behind her, are, however, recommended by those who swear by her.

So, Pilates is good at helping with the postures we are forced into and the laptop- or keyboard-oriented lives we lead.

But while it rebalances the body, does it also help lose weight?

"When accompanied with cardio and a bit of diet control, yes it does," says Agarwal.

Johnson too says that a bit of cardio is recommended with Pilates.

In Pilates, because everybody finds their own unique aspects of doing the exercises, there are greater chances of people sticking to it. But is it the best fitness system to follow?

Johnson smiles. "Everybody has their own journey," he says. "Is one fitness system better than the other? No. It is always what you like or prefer. So find your own journey."

How Pilates and yoga differ

Both Pilates and yoga work on the concept of coordination between the mind and the body.

But while both have sequences, yoga is performed in a "held position, in which you perform the asana in a static position," says Johnson. "Pilates is about moving in and moving out; it's a series of rhythmic movements."

Yoga is also always done on a stable surface, like on a mat.

"In Pilates, we take away that stability, so the body has to respond to that unstable or moving surface and find its strength and balance in doing so," he says.

The body's response is more natural than we can think in our heads. Pilates tries to tap into those natural systems of the body to fire them up.

Photograph: Sombilon Photography/Creative Commons

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Veenu Sandhu
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