BY RUSSELL TOMS
Polartis, Palates, and Polatis – I asked three male friends and got three different spellings, none of them correct. What is Pilates then (correct spelling), I asked? It’s something that middle-aged ladies do and go for coffee afterwards; it’s a type of Yoga; it’s an aerobic exercise regime for women. Maybe there is some truth in all of these definitions? A friend of mine in her 60’s raves about it and she looks pretty good on it. So what’s it all about - time to find out more.
Where better to go than to a team of chartered physiotherapists at Spire Clare Park Hospital? I’ve enrolled in an eight-week course in a group of 10, (9 ladies plus myself on a Wednesday for an hour. Here we go!
At my initial one-to-one induction, Ann Ingate, my instructor, suggests that I might like to join her introductory class so that she can ensure that I gain a good understanding of Pilates. Unfortunately, due to other commitments, I cannot make the introductory classes. I eventually manage to persuade Ann to let me join an advanced class, but not before she stressed that she would not normally allow a novice to do this and that if I suffered from back problems it was an absolute no-no.
As far as exercise is concerned, I played semi-professional football in my early 20’s, when I trained hard twice a week and I now play golf very occasionally, but like most guys in their mid-40’s, the middle-aged spread has started to creep up. I’m working hard, so getting little exercise apart from the odd swim. In addition, I’m eating and drinking a little too much. I am not as supple or mobile as I used to be, I don’t sleep very well, so this will be enlightening and hopefully of some value to me.
Ann briefly explains the principles behind Pilates. It is a mind body conditioning exercise programme that targets the deep postural muscles of the abdomen and spine to improve overall central core stability and posture. The mind and body are brought together to achieve these aims through the following eight sound principles: Concentration, centering, breathing, isolation, routine, precision, control and flowing movement.
I’m a couple of minutes late for my first class but am warmly greeted by Ann and my class mates – a cross section of ladies of different ages and figures. Ann directs me to a rubber mat with two small pillows, a flat ball and a giant rubber band with a handle on the end (called a theraband). Classical, calming music is softly playing in the background.
Ann quickly gets into her stride and after a warm-up, we embark on a number of moves. Jill, who is Ann’s assistant in the class, helps me get into the right starting position. I’m struggling a little bit. The exercises are much harder than I thought. I’m concentrating on watching Ann and trying to make sure that I do the exercises properly and keeping my core stability. This is very important – it is the neutral position that you return your core muscles to after each exercise. I’m drawing circles with my toes of my right leg which is in the air while keeping my left leg completely motionless. I’m finding the breathing odd – it seems to be the opposite of what seems logical for me to do. The lady next to me smiles and says ‘you’ll feel this tomorrow’!
After what seems like about 30 minutes (but it’s actually an hour), Jill turns the music off and we start to pack up. I feel really quite ‘loose’ if that’s the right word; about six inches taller, straighter and I can’t stand still. I feel great, like going for a round of golf maybe or a swim. Sadly, it’s back to work for the rest of the day but I’m already looking forward to next week and getting into Pilates a little deeper....
Before I tell you about my second class, let me tell you about where Pilates came from or who invented it. Surprise, Surprise, it was invented by a chap called Joseph H. Pilates who was born in Mönchengladbach in Germany in 1880.
A sickly child who suffered from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever, he dedicated his life to improving his physical strength. Joe began studying body-building, yoga and gymnastics and by the age of 14 was fit enough to pose for anatomical charts. He came to believe that the "modern" life-style, bad posture and inefficient breathing lay at the roots of poor health. He devised a series of exercises and training techniques and engineered all the equipment, specifications and tuning required so that he could teach his methods properly.
In 1912 Pilates moved to England, earning a living as a boxer, circus-performer and self-defence trainer. During World War I, the British authorities interned him with other German citizens in a camp on the Isle of Man, where he trained other inmates in fitness and exercises. Here the beginnings of the Pilates method originated.
In the mid 1920’s Pilates migrated to the USA. On the ship, he met his future wife, Clara. The couple founded a studio in New York City and directly taught their students well into the 1960s. He died at the age of 87 in 1967. He would undoubtedly have been very proud in the knowledge that forty years after his death, his exercise method would be hailed as “the fastest growing exercise technique in the world” with devout followers such as Madonna and Courtney Cox in addition to the medical world, who are now realising the benefit for the prevention and rehabilitation of back injuries.
I asked a friend of mine, Mark Thomas who is a leading orthopaedic surgeon in the area what his take on Pilates was. He told me “I find that Pilates has been extremely helpful to my patients. Following spinal problems, or surgery on the spine, patients need to build up their core strength and stability which they do with the physiotherapists, and then Pilates is an excellent way of maintaining this to give them ongoing protection of their original problem.”
At my second class I feel slightly more confident as I know what to expect. We warm up and then move into a series of exercise that make me smile because they all have names – the corkscrew, the mermaid, the clam, the dumb waiter. We’re on our feet, on our backs, on our right side, on our left side and I really have to concentrate to make sure that I follow Ann’s instructions. Jill’s great again as she tells me what I am doing wrong. For example, there’s an exercise with your feet in the air that is good for the hamstrings. Jill tells me to move my right leg six inches to the left and bingo; I can feel the stretch, amazing!!
At the end of the session, again, I feel loose, straighter and six inches taller. I am starting to understand though why this is an exercise approach that is regarded as more ‘mindful’ and ‘intelligent’ than most. other methods of keeping fit and active.
After four classes, I really started to feel some benefit – my muscles seemed more toned, particularly in the stomach and chest area and I think that I have genuinely started to let go of some tension.
My friends, both male and female have all been asking me about Pilates. My hairdresser wondered if you could do Pilates while you are pregnant. Ann tells me that as long as you feel well, the bump is not in the way and you can move around freely, then there is no reason why you cannot continue to practice Pilates.
I’ve also been finding out about celebrities who are all big Pilates followers and have benefited first hand. The actor, Sir Ian Holm; actresses Miranda Richardson and Helena Bonham Carter; comedienne Ruby Wax and ballerina Darcey Bussell are just a few of the many who have drawn on the positive experiences that Pilates offers.
I can hardly believe that it is my last class and we have a new accessory - in addition to the mat, theraband, pillows and ball, there’s a foam roller about three feet in length.
I’ve been reading a Pilates book that says how important mental focus or concentration of the mind is. Apparently, quality not quantity is one of the founding principles of Pilates; care and deliberation rather than rapid repetitions. After the first couple of classes, I instinctively knew when I was doing the exercises properly because I could feel the benefit.
About half way through the class, the time has come to use the foam roller. We position it along our spine with our knees bent and feet on the floor. We’re not far off the ground and the chances of tipping off are slim so you can relax into the stretch. We’re doing toe taps and knee lifts (this is where you bring your legs to table-top position, as if you were balancing a plate and hands to the side. You alternate, returning each foot to the floor and returning to table top, while maintaining stabilization in your torso, pelvis and lower back). I can really feel the deep muscles of the back and abdomen working and I have to say this really is a mind and body experience. The exercises with the roller last about five minutes. I was really enjoying them and wished they’d gone on for longer.
In no time at all, we’re packing up and yet again, I’m feeling taller, looser and relaxed and ready to enrol on another series of eight sessions – I really am hooked!!