Pilates: Focused fitness for the body and mind

2006-02-19

Rie Sakai
Rie Sakai

There's no need to plod along with the same old run-of-the-treadmill workout. If fitness training that challenges both mind and body sounds good, consider Pilates. Experts say this regiment of slow-flowing focused motions promises strength, tone, flexibility and a therapeutic potential to heal injuries.

The Pilates (Pi-lah-teez) Method has long been popular in Europe and North America, especially among professional dancers. In recent years, it has been gaining ground here, making it a viable alternative for Japan dwellers.

The brainchild of Joseph H. Pilates in the 1920s, it calls on hundreds of prescribed exercises, often with the aid of spring-resistance machines, for holistic physical training. The former boxer and performer was also an accomplished sportsman who it is said studied yoga and Zen meditation, as well. The result was a unique method that Pilates trainers say offers more than mere fitness.

"Pilates improves body mechanics and function, creating muscular balance so the muscles work more efficiently," says Rie Sakai, 45, director of Pilates Movement Space in Tokyo and Osaka. The ex-dancer became a certified Pilates trainer at Movements Afoot and the Kane School of Core Integration and Physical Mind in New York after it helped her overcome a back injury. "It also improves concentration and focus - the body-mind connection."

Sakai's private sessions employ basic tools such as physioballs, rollers and yoga blocks. She also uses traditional Pilates equipment such as the Reformer - a bench with spring-resistant attachments - and the similar Cadillac, which includes overhead parallel bars and accessories. While full-body Reformer workouts aim to increase strength and flexibility in the core and limbs, the Cadillac can target specific areas. Whatever the equipment, Pilates calls for slow deliberate motion with attention to detail and breathing.

"We focus on body awareness and ease of movement," says Sakai, adding she may also employ kinesiology, Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais Method or Rekei. "I'm not only thinking of muscle, but muscle tissue, nerve tissue, spirit, energy and taking in more breath."

That trainer and trainee alike must focus so acutely can be at odds with the amount of proverbial pain some want to pay for fitness gain, says certified Pilates trainer Aki Arai, 39: "Sometimes people think that if they just attend a (health) club and do the exercises they'll get stronger. With Pilates you have to think about every movement you make and be aware of your body." This, she adds, calls for exercising the will as much as the body.

Arai is also a Movements Afoot and Kane School alumna who offers group Pilates sessions at Yoga Studio Tokyo. While machines are used for advanced workouts, she says the on-the-matt Pilates she teaches, such as the sit-up like "breathing 100s" exercise, "reeducates the body with muscular training and functional movements." The exercise starts by lying on the back with knees to the chest, feet pointed and hands on the thighs. While exhaling, legs and feet are extended as the head and shoulders are lifted. The arms are raised parallel to the body and pumped slightly with measured breathing for 100 counts. The process is repeated and aims to enhance core strength, stability and flexibility.

Pilates exercise
Pilates exercise

At Chuo, Fukuoka-based Pilates Japan, which also offers instructor certification, private and group sessions are taught in stages, says Andrew Crowne, 41, president and principle instructor. The former ballet student who studied at Stott Pilates Studio in Toronto, Canada says it's a bit like learning a language.

"You start with the key elements of grammar, then later add vocabulary," Crowne explains. Pilates Japan starts newcomers off with basic techniques, laying the groundwork for such principles as relaxation, core stabilization and breathing. "Mostly low-repetition movements while lying down," he says. Later, floor rollers are introduced, followed by motions that call for more curving of the spine. Then come more advanced workouts with modified variation movements.

"About half of what I teach is manual-therapy rehabilitation work," says Crowne, who also credits Pilates for his recovery from an injury. "The motto of the studio is that a body in balance will heal itself. If your posture and internal organs are out of balance they will get more out of balance. Pilates tries to correct posture through exercise. Digestion, mental and sexual functions also start to improve."

In addition to its healing potential, Crowne and Sakai note there are as many kinds of Pilates as there are instructors. But Sakai, who says she learned not to settle for the first trainer she found when starting Pilates 12 years ago, offers words of caution: "Many studios offer Pilates classes that are taught by aerobics instructors with no formal Pilates training. A lot of gyms are only thinking about (getting more) business."

For info about Pilates Movement Space in Tokyo and Osaka visit: http://www2.raidway.ne.jp/~pilates. A schedule of Pilates mat training at the Yoga Studio Tokyo is at: http://www.yogastudiotokyo.com, Contact Pilates Japan in Fukuoka via: http://www.pilatesjapan.com.



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