Pilates, it’s good for you!

“Good morning, Yasemin!” Anthony, our building doorman called out as I rushed down the stairs of my apartment building in order to get to my Pilates class on time. I was surprised. I was wearing sneakers and thought I had hardly made any noise, and because of the way his desk is placed, there was no way he saw me. “How did you know it was me?” I asked.

“Oh, I can tell some people from their footsteps” he said. “You are very light on your feet.”

Me? Light on my feet? Really? The same me who hung on for dear life on the railing while descending the stairs at the Brown Line stop at Chicago and Franklin? The same me who hoped that I wouldn’t fall and split my head open? Wow!

I thought back on that woman. Yes, she was younger, but also severely out of shape, scared, intimidated. Wondering if changing her life by moving from a sleepy suburb of a small city to the beating heart of a big one was the right thing to do. It seemed everyone on the street was younger, more agile, and definitely more athletic.

After realizing city life demanded that I get in shape and on the recommendation of my cousin, I had decided to try Pilates, again. This time, instead of dusting off the old DVD, I signed up for classes. I figured if I paid for a class, I’d stick with it longer. It was the best thing I ever did for myself.

Tree on the Barrel

When you walk into my Pilates studio, first thing you would notice are three huge windows that bathe the room in light. It is a warm, welcoming space, sparsely yet tastefully decorated with Bamboo, inspiring pictures of Marilyn Monroe doing Pilates – hello can a girl ask for a better role model? – and a very important reminder: Inhale, exhale. Each of these words, written in beautiful script, occupy their own frame. Good thing! It is easy to forget to breathe while trying to twist your body into shapes that you would, never in a million years, think would be possible. When I was a beginner, I would tell my teacher Cassie that I couldn’t breathe. “It’s OK”, she’d say, “I’ll tell you when you turn purple”. I know she was only half joking. Thanks to her patience and my determination, I actually learned to breathe while my legs are way above my head.

Pilates is a system of exercises invented by Joseph Pilates, in England, in the early 1900s. Joseph became a caretaker of prisoners with physical disabilities at an internment camp where he was sent during the war because of his German origin. Thinking back on his Martial Arts and Yoga training for movement and using springs from beds to create resistance, he devised equipment to help his bedridden patients. Today, studios around the world use equipment based on his designs.

One of these pieces of equipment is the Reformer. This equipment resembles a torture device, the kind one could find in the dungeons of the Tower of London where they punished prisoners by spaghettifying their bodies. On one end are the dreaded springs and on the other are leather straps. A small bed sways back and forth on rails, as one pulls on the straps either by hands or by feet, forcing your body into contortions . When I first started Pilates, I was genuinely afraid of this instrument. But, it has kept its promise and has re-formed my body. In addition, it has helped eliminate my fear of balancing on my upper back and neck while other parts of my body work to negotiate between the springs and straps.

There is a Baby Chair in the studio. This is not like a high chair or a rocking chair, or any type of chair normally associated with babies. I believe it is so named because it is so low to the ground, since it has no legs. Besides, there is nothing babyish about it when you kneel on one knee and pull on tight springs that are fixed on the back, as if you are trying to pull off the left side of a sweater, two sizes too small, with your left hand tied behind your back. But now, I do have the shoulders and the biceps to show for mastering this unnatural motion.

The Wunda chair has the surface area of a large handkerchief. On it, the brave perform exercises like crunches, as well as balancing work. Legend has it Mr. Pilates wished every household would have one of these chairs since they can double for a regular chair as well. Pull one up to your counter and it’s a dining chair. Tip it over on its back and it’s a workout wonder. You wouldn’t think one could get a 30 minute, full body workout on such a small surface. You’d be wrong! It not only develops muscle, but also confidence.

Monkey

Then there is the Electric Chair! Oh, the Electric Chair is a torturous contraption that requires you to defy gravity by placing one foot on a high step and pump a pedal on springs with your other foot all the while not holding on to the tantalizing handlebars. But, thanks to this marvelous invention, I can now feel the muscles in my seat.

There are other, smaller appliances but the masterpiece is appropriately called the Cadillac. This device is the most deceptive of them all. At first, it resembles a four-post bed with a soft leather covered mattress, the kind you might see in a commercial for a hotel on a Caribbean beach. It sits against the window, inviting the innocent while hiding its secret aim of turning you into a trapeze artist. No complaints here though. I was happily fooled into trying pull-ups by its grandeur, as well exercises with names like Teaser and Monkey that fold your body like Origami paper.

Pilates is hard, if you do it right. You will feel sore the day after each session. You will also feel muscles that you didn’t know you had. You will develop perfect posture. You will develop an awareness of your body and how it moves. You will develop self confidence.

I am now two years older than that severely out of shape woman who was afraid of the Brown Line stairs, but I feel twenty years younger. I haven’t really lost a lot of weight but I did lose two jeans sizes. I am no longer scared of stairs, nor falling and busting my head open. The people on the street are still much younger but I usually pass them by as I walk.