June 02, 2000

"If your spine is inflexibly stiff at 30, you are old. If it is completely flexible at 60, you are young."

"The Pilates method of body conditioning is designed to give you suppleness, natural grace and skill that will be unmistakably reflected in the way you walk, play and the way you work."

"Good posture can be successfully acquired only when the entire mechanism of the body is under perfect control."

- Joseph H. Pilates

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By MEG H. PARTINGTON / Staff Writer

A method of body conditioning developed for immobilized patients in World War I is helping some of today's most active bodies stay limber.

The series of intricate stretches and movements known as Pilates (pul-LAH-teez) was created by Joseph H. Pilates, who was born in Germany in 1880. A frail child, he developed into an accomplished skier, diver, gymnast and boxer.

cont. from lifestyle

As a nurse during World War I, he designed exercise apparatus for immobilized patients by attaching springs to hospital beds. The system was the foundation for the exercise apparatus he brought to the first Pilates Studio in New York City in 1926 and for the more than 500 movements he developed.

Diane M. Popper, a certified Pilates instructor who lives in Smithsburg, describes the Pilates method as "a minimum of motion for a maximum of flow. Every part of the body is worked."

Whether situated in one of numerous gadgets or on a mat, students learn to focus on strengthening and increasing the flexibility of the "powerhouse," which includes the rib section, abdominals, waist, thighs, hips, lower back and buttocks.

The equipment

In addition to the mat, one of the most common pieces of equipment is the Reformer, which features straps for hands and feet, springs, a horizontally moving carriage and removable bars. There also is the Cadillac, which Popper says looks like it belongs in a gymnasium.

"Some people think it looks like torture apparatus," she says.

The Wunda Chair, which Popper says resembles something a seal would use in the circus, "is the most challenging piece of equipment. There's nothing like the chair ... to humble you."

Pilates apparatus also includes barrels and something called the tower - "It looks like a guillotine," Popper says.

While intimidating to look at, the gadgets have a health-boosting purpose - to improve flexibility and strength without adding bulk.

"It can be varied so much and adapted to each individual body," says Moira Stott, program director of STOTT Pilates Studios and International Certification Center in Toronto, Canada. Her program applies modern exercise science to Pilates' concepts.

Stott's husband, Lindsay Merrithew, designed equipment for STOTT Equipment Sales Inc. based on the Pilates method.

The key principles of the Pilates method are centering, concentration, control, precision, breath and flow.

The movements done on the machines and mats reflect Eastern and Western influences. The focus and controlled breathing and movements reflect the Eastern emphasis, while the Western emphasis on resistance is also present.

It may sound a bit like yoga, but there are definite differences.

"It's not like yoga - the tempo is much faster," says Popper, wearing a black T-shirt that sports one of many quotes from Pilates: "Civilization impairs physical fitness."

"Yoga is completely another area ... (but) they are very complementary," says Popper, who was a member of Dayton Chamber Dance Ensemble in Dayton, Ohio.

Students speak

Skaters Katie Williams and Suzie Martin wanted to try Pilates after hearing Popper talk about it during Winterfest at Hagerstown Ice & Sports Complex.

"It would make us stronger and help our posture and flexibility," 14-year-old Katie learned.

"It's so different than anything I've ever done before," adds the Hagerstown resident.

"It's a lot of positions," says Suzie, 13, of Waynesboro, Pa.

For Deborah Marx, Pilates is a welcome addition to her rigid fitness regimen.

"It really complements my endurance activities," says Marx, 34, who runs, swims, bikes and lifts weights.

Working once a week under the tutelage of Popper, the mother of three hopes to improve her flexibility and abdominal strength.

Katie, Suzie and Marx study under the guidance of Popper at Potomac Rehabilitation Services, P.A. on Howell Road in Hagerstown. She hopes to open a full-fledged studio in that space by fall.

"It helps with my injured rehab folks," in addition to uninjured athletes, says Beverly Kornides, a physical therapist and owner of Potomac Rehabilitation Services. "Movement is so very important."

Prices in the Baltimore, Washington, D.C., area range from $65 to $150 per one-hour session, Popper says. She intends to charge about $45 per session at the Hagerstown studio.

There has been a boom in interest in Pilates in the last five years, but "the last two years, it's just been wild," says Stott, who recently has trained people from South Africa, New Zealand and Zimbabwe.

Fitness trainers hear about it and the media has caught on thanks to participation by such big names as Sharon Stone, Minnie Driver, Madonna and Julia Roberts, as well as members of the San Francisco 49ers and the Cincinnati Bengals.

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