I first heard the word “Pilates” spoken 10 years ago when I was working as an Associate Director on an Arthur Kopit play called Road to Nirvana starring Sigourney Weaver. Sigourney is a beautiful, enchanting woman, and during rehearsal breaks at Circle Rep, we would sometimes talk about the pleasures in our lives. One day Sigourney told me about Pilates. She said it had saved her back, lengthened her height an inch and made her spine younger. She told me that, during the filming of the Alien sequel, director James Cameron (he’d later direct the smash hit, Titanic) made each of the main characters carry a 70 pound gun for blasting the aliens because he wanted to “see their bodies strain” under the weight of “real guns” for authenticity: “You don’t have to act it if you’re feeling it in your back.”
If you’ve seen Aliens, you’ll certainly remember those mammoth guns and they not only look heavy, they were heavy! Carrying a 70 lb. gun around for four months really put Sigourney’s back out of alignment and it had caused her pain for several years until she found Pilates. Using Pilates religiously, Sigourney Weaver told me she was able to dissipate her back pain and increase her overall mobility. That conversation with Sigourney stuck in my gut all these years mainly because of the truth and passion that poured from her eyes as she described the effects of her daily Pilates routine.
Lithe for Longevity
As we age, we search for ways to keep our bodies healthy and strong. The best body type for longevity is not the body type of a bodybuilder. The bodybuilder creates short muscles that don’t have much range of motion or provide much flexibility. If you look at elderly folks, the healthiest of them are lithe with long muscles. I have yet to see a 90 year old with the massive muscles of a bodybuilder and the reason for that is simple: The heart cannot pump for 90 years and sustain that much muscle mass.
The key to living longer becomes finding a way to lose body fat, retain lithe muscle mass and a flexible spine. One way to achieve that goal is to workout in the Pilates method. As I reflect upon my life, I am often taken back to that Pilates conversation with Sigourney Weaver when I think of getting into solid shape. I’ve been exercising heavily for the past couple of years. My upper body is strong. My legs are hearty. My middle, to my ultimate disgust, is thinly squishy in places. I wondered if Pilates would elongate my body, refine my shape even more and give me a new sense of wholeness?
I set out to find more information on Pilates via the Internet.
Joseph H. Pilates
I did some research and discovered Joseph H. Pilates invented a system of exercise based on the philosophy “You’re only as healthy as your spine.” Pilates was born in 1880 in Germany. He was not a healthy child but grew into a body that could sustain gymnastics and a life in the circus. During World War I, Pilates was interned and he invented a series of exercises that could be done on a mat in order to sustain a body and keep it alive through stress, malnutrition and fear. That exercise innovation is now generally known as “Pilates” and that method of matwork serves as the foundation of his program.
In this initial review series on Stott Pilates, you’ll discover the core of Joseph H. Pilates’ philosophy in an updated and exciting suite of videotapes and equipment created and coined by Moira Stott.
As I was surfing the Stott Conditioning site, I wondered to myself if it would be possible to learn the Pilates system of working out without a personal trainer placing hands on my body to correct my spine, abdomen and breathing? Some Pilates experts would say it is not possible.
However, I believe a Virtual Pilates session can indeed work if you have an excellent instructor on videotape giving you precise movements and details on how to self-correct what you’re doing based on an extensive catalogue of common student mistakes. Moira Stott is just such an instructor with the appropriate hours of student interaction under her svelte belt. You’ll learn that yourself as I revel in the initial video reviews of Moira Stott’s Matwork, Fitness Circle and Flex-Band workouts.
Using the videotapes, I have a “Pilates Rotation” schedule of exercise set up: One day I do Matwork, the next day I do the Fitness Circle and the next day I do the Flex-Band workout. Then I start the cycle over again. I like using different videotapes each day because it keeps me nimble of mind and pure of body: My spirit is forever challenged and entertained.
Question & Answer
Before I take you to the individual reviews, please participate in a Question & Answer session I held with Moira Stott in order to better understand her Pilates philosophy and methodology:
BOLES: Have you modified the basic Joseph H. Pilates exercises to fit the modern body and your system and philosophy of teaching? If yes, why and how? If not, why not?
STOTT: Yes, I have modified the original exercises of J.H. Pilates, breaking them down so individuals can progress from easier to harder exercises, as well as adapting the method to modern thought and research in the field of biomechanics. When Pilates pioneered this exercise method the approach to spinal rehabilitation was to work in a pelvic tuck to strengthen the abdominals. This does strengthen the abdominals but only within a shortened range and while it takes pressure of the facet joints (the bony joints of your spine) it can put pressure on the intervertebral discs.
In the 1960s and 70s the popular thinking in spinal rehabilitation, primarily known as the Mackenzie technique, was to extend the spine and thus relieve pressure on the discs, however this can put pressure on the facet joints. Current research and thinking in spinal care emphasizes the importance of being able to stabilize the spine in a neutral position. Today we know that when we are in a neutral position, with the natural curves of the spine present but not exaggerated, this is the best spinal position for shock absorption and weight bearing. I have emphasized this in the Stott Conditioning approach, strengthening the girdle of deep muscles around the spine and pelvis to stabilize in a neutral position.
As well, I have changed many of the original breathing patterns of the exercises to be in keeping with the knowledge that the spine slightly flexes when we exhale and slightly extends when we inhale; also that the deep abdominals muscles are involved in expiration so it is usually easier to connect with these muscles when we exhale.
I have added in many preparations or essential level exercises that prepare the body for some of the more difficult exercises, building up core stability and strength, body awareness and coordination gradually.
Our incorporation of modifications and modern exercise science into the technique to make it safer, preventative and more effective is why we say that the STOTT approach is “the contemporary approach to the original works of J.H. Pilates.”
BOLES: Is Pilates considered aerobics? What are the benefits of a Pilates workout over a Tae-Bo workout or a light weight training regimen? Can Pilates serve as your only form of exercise for weight loss and heart conditioning or must you round out that program with something else to achieve best health?
STOTT: No, Pilates-based exercise is not aerobic exercise to a great extent, although once familiar with your workout and moving fluidly through the exercises you can build up a sweat. Stott Conditioning tends to focus instead on alignment, posture, coordination and rebalancing the muscles around the joints rather than overworking the already strong muscles. Since it is hard to focus on form when moving quickly or trying to coordinate many body parts at once, we start slowly building core stability and isolating muscle groups, with attention to the details of bony alignment and muscular connections. We gradually build the strength, pace and coordination challenge from there. I can’t really compare Stott Conditioning to Tae-Bo or working with light weights, but I can tell you that there is a great emphasis on quality versus quantity. Stott Conditioning repatterns the body to move efficiently and the equipment-based exercises are performed against the resistance of springs on a sliding carriage which keeps the focus on stability, control and smooth muscular contraction rather than just power.
We recommend our clients complement their Pilates-style training with a cardiovascular program to work on heart conditioning and weight loss if that is one of their goals. A foundation in Stott Conditioning will help individuals perform the activity of their choice, running, biking, walking etc., with greater core stability and less stress on their joints.
BOLES: How well does Pilates burn calories compared to other methods of exercise?
STOTT: Pilates-style exercise can be done at many different tempos as in a stretch and strength class, but is not designed as an aerobic work out. Once someone has mastered their program and we are working on muscular endurance the pace can be picked up which will burn more calories. Clients should still complement their work out with a cardiovascular program.
You can find more information online at Stott Conditioning.