How Pilates Changed My Life

How Pilates Changed My Life … and Can Change YoursA Young Professional Finds Her Refuge Through Fitness

By Julie Wax

Pilates, an exercise technique involving the fusion of the mind and body (mind over matter), has been around since the early 20th century, developed by Joseph Pilates of Germany. It’s a method that conditions the entire body through proper alignment, concentration, control, breathing and flowing movement. Until recently, no one had really heard of it. Today it’s a new exercise phenomenon. There are now more than 11 million people who practice Pilates regularly and 14,000 who teach it all around the country, according to The New York Times.

Pilates is not easy at first, that’s for sure. It takes time, practice and a willingness to stay with it. At first your legs will shake uncontrollably and your abdominal muscles will hurt so badly you want to quit. But hang in there, because I’m proof that when you do, you’ll fall in love with it. I admit I’ve never been much of an exercise person. Pilates is what completely changed my attitude.

With both legs dangling lifeless in the air, my body pressing against an overused blue mat on the floor and my arms clutching my thighs as my abs screamed for help, I swore I would never be able to get through the six weeks of Pilates classes I had been so excited about the previous month.

“Beginner Pilates Classes: Sign Up Here,” the sign read. My husband and I had just joined the gym, and I was completely overzealous about all the great classes I would soon be able to take. Pilates was at the very top of my list. Ever since I would watch my former boss leave in her stilettos for her daily lunch-hour class, I longed to look both effortlessly chic and in shape, just like her. Now, as I gasped for breath and tried to focus on the center of my body — “my core,” as my instructor would say — it seemed I would rather be slumped in my usual after-work couch routine watching “American Idol” and eating potato chips.

My class met twice a week with only three other women and me — women much older than me who had kids. So you can imagine my disappointment when our instructor told us to do single leg circles — an exercise in which you extend each leg toward the ceiling one at a time and make circles in the air – and I was the only one who couldn’t finish the repetitions. Because it was a very small class, I was frequently pointed out. “Julie, because you aren’t able to sit up straight enough, why don’t you roll up your mat?” or “Pull your stomach in, Julie.” These were great tips, and they helped wonderfully, but why did I always have to be called out in front of everyone in class?

Weeks went by, and I stuck with it. It was getting easier. After a few weeks, I noticed my whole body didn’t tremble like it used to during the “stomach series,” and I was slowly becoming more flexible. I even lost a few pounds! I was by no means good at Pilates, but I could feel myself getting better, one week at a time. I was actually starting to like it. And I was beginning to feel better not just about my form, but about myself.

Besides the obvious signs, such as increased flexibility and stamina, tighter muscles and a leaner body, there have been other benefits that mean just as much to me. All of a sudden, I have better posture (mine has always been horrible), a better state of mind and, better yet, a fresh outlook on life. At the end of a long, stressful day, I can find solace and rejuvenation each time I finish a class. And not just because I have lost 10 to 15 pounds (although a definite benefit), but because I feel good about myself in a way I never have before.

Beth Napier, a certified Pilates instructor at Pure Pilates by the Sea, located off Highway 30-A in Santa Rosa Beach, has had the same experience. She immediately fell in love with the exercise after moving to town just four years ago and says it has been amazing for her mind and body. (She went down an entire jean size.)

Pure Pilates by the Sea owner Laurie Beck says Pilates can even heal those who have injuries. In fact, that’s how she became hooked. After overusing certain muscles in her back, Pilates taught her to “reeducate, realign and create a more balanced body,” she says. And what better place to do that than right across from the beach?

“Inspiration” is a word often used by both Beck and her husband, Bob Beck, a former college football player, youth football coach and author of “Winning in the Fifth Quarter: Apply the Secrets of Football to Your Life-Strategy Playbook.” Just as Laurie Beck believes Pilates has changed her own life, her husband believes Pilates and football have changed his.

“Pilates keeps me mentally and physically balanced,” Bob Beck says. “It is a mind-body experience. It’s a time to totally release stress from your mind and body. Once you have let go of the stress, you can be more creative and relaxed to succeed in the fifth quarter of life.”

Pilates focuses on the abdominal area, the buttocks, hips and lower back, strengthening the body and providing a firm support system for the spine.

“You feel better, look better, have more energy and a longer, leaner look, plus you have increased flexibility and balance,” Laurie Beck says. “Also, Pilates is wonderful for posture. The tendency is to compress the spine as you age, and Pilates is always encouraging the lengthening of the spine.”

Susanne Baber, owner of Pilates: Studio A in Destin, agrees.

“Great posture is achieved by having your weight centered,” she says. “To center your weight, you need to have your spine in a neutral position. (This) is achieved by activating the abdominals, lower back and pelvis in every movement. If you could do only one thing (to help your posture), it would be to always pull your navel to your spine, opening your chest up and out and moving as if you have a book on top of your head.”

Baber, a former dancer for 18 years and Certified Authentic Pilates Instructor through the New York Pilates Studio Teacher Certification Program, believes Pilates and dancing go hand in hand.

“Dancing helps keep the spine flexible, which is one of the benefits of Pilates,” she says. “It also works the muscles of the abdominal region and lower back and pelvis. This all leads to beautiful posture. Pilates does the same thing by strengthening the ‘powerhouse.’”

So you’ve made up your mind you want to try it; now how do you go about starting this new exercise program?

“My first recommendation would be to locate a qualified and seasoned teacher, someone who really understands the whole philosophy of Pilates,” Laurie Beck says. “A good Pilates teacher is instrumental in helping a new student make the mind-body-spirit connection that is the basis of Pilates. I always offer a demonstration and spend that time and the first couple of sessions educating the client. My second recommendation is to invest in private sessions. Ideally, 10 private sessions gives you a great jump-start.”

Once you’ve mastered the basics, it’s time to move on to larger group classes. But it’s important not to move too fast, too soon. Baber advises to “start slow and move at your own pace. Just because the person next to you can lift her head and lower her legs doesn’t mean you should. If available, try a reformer session or class. Unlike a mat class, where you use your own body weight for resistance, the reformer uses springs. On a reformer, you get a greater range of motion and a greater number of exercises.”

Whether going it alone with a trainer or joining a crowd of people, it’s the group classes that have kept me motivated the past year. You’re never alone, because there is always someone else there to share in your journey. It’s nice to spend time with other women (and even men) who enjoy the same things you do and who love to spend time perfecting their “roll-up” or “teaser.” It can be a great social activity.

As Beck points out, “(At Pure Pilates by the Sea), we laugh, we share and we work hard together.” It’s not just a new exercise phenomenon; it’s a new way of life.