Pilates: Going to the Core

The key concepts of Pilates are breath, control, centering, precision of movement, lengthening of the spine and moving from one's center
Owner Millie O'Brien, center, leads a class at her studio, Verve Pilates, in Medford. Photo by Jamie Lusch

Tendons severed and bones smashed in a head-on car crash, Susan Huntley couldn't walk for months. Gingerly hobbling with five screws in her right foot and with help from a cane, she sought an acupuncturist for the pain.

"He said, 'Strengthen your core ... that's the link between your upper body and your lower body,' " recalls the 52-year-old Eagle Point resident.

History of pilates

Joseph Pilates was a performer and a boxer living in England at the outbreak of World War I in 1914. He was placed under forced internment along with other German nationals in Lancaster, England. There, he taught fellow camp members the concepts and exercises developed over 20 years of self-study and apprenticeship in yoga, Zen and ancient Greek and Roman physical regimens.

It was at this time that Pilates began devising the system known today as "mat work," exercises done on the floor, which he called "contrology." A few years later, he was transferred to another camp, where he became a nurse and caretaker to internees struck with wartime disease and physical injury. Here, he began devising equipment to rehabilitate the patients, taking springs from the beds and rigging them to create resistance and movement for the bedridden.

In a way, Pilates equipment today is not much different than that of yesteryear. Spring tension, straps to hold feet or hands and supports for the back, neck and shoulders are as important now as they were then. Because the equipment challenges and supports the body as it learns to move more efficiently, the pieces are a complement to the "mat work" exercises.

While Pilates was the outspoken force behind his method, his wife, Clara, a trained nurse, quietly incorporated his concepts and exercises in ways that benefited more seriously ill or injured clients. Her style and techniques spawned a lineage of teachers who perpetuate the Pilates method today. It is perhaps because of Clara Pilates that her husband's method is recognized as a positive form of exercise that can be tailored to any level of fitness or health.

— Source: Pilates Method Alliance,


Ask a health or fitness professional how to work the "core," and "Pilates" is a likely answer. Although the exercise regimen is nearly 100 years old, it's enjoyed a resurgence in popularity over the past decade as instructors put their modern-day twist on a method that injured dancers have long used as a means of rehabilitation.

And the fact that continued practice firms and flattens abdominal muscles hasn't hurt, either.

"It's certainly got a lot of attention for that!" chuckles Celina Dominguez, founder of Ashland's Inward Bound Wellness.

Many practitioners, however, come to Pilates on the recommendation of a physical therapist. Former dancer and Pilates instructor Emily Dean uses Pilates equipment in her work as a physical therapist for the Jackson County Physical Therapy clinic in Ashland. Although women are more receptive to the exercise than men, any type of back problem can be alleviated with Pilates, she says.

"It's really easy on your joints."

Pilates helps practitioners move more efficiently, improving posture and muscle control within a matter of months, Dean says. The core concepts of Pilates — breath, control, centering, precision of movement, lengthening one's spine and moving from one's center — can be applied to any exercise to make it more effective, she adds. While it doesn't lead to weight-loss without an aerobic component, instructors say, Pilates is an ideal starting point for people who yearn to become more physically active.

Almost a year after her accident, Huntley was still so unsteady on her feet that stepping off a curb filled her with the same dread as stepping off a cliff. Climbing stairs felt like climbing a mountain. But within a couple weeks of starting Pilates classes at Medford's Verve Pilates & Movement Studio, her pain was diminished. A renewed sense of well-being followed.

"It's really given me confidence," Huntley says. "It's given me balance, graceful movement."

The same summer she began Pilates, Huntley was strong enough to bicycle around Crater Lake. She paddled a tahiti down the Rogue River without fearing she would slip on a rock as she launched the inflatable canoe or waded back to shore. The following winter, Huntley skied Mount Ashland with her daughter, a favorite activity she thought she'd never enjoy again. Yet she knows — and respects — her limitations.

"No more running," she says.

A backlash against more punishing exercises is one factor behind Pilates' popularity, says Debbie Richter, owner of Southern Oregon Pilates in Medford.

"We got tired of all the running and the pounding and all the things that were hard on us."

Richter, who opened her studio about a year ago, says many of her clients are in their retirement years, and many have back pain, if not more serious conditions.

"They're using Pilates to work with Parkinson's patients," she says.

Younger people, she says, attend Pilates sessions to improve their performance in other sports, most of which work one side of the body more than the other. Trying to compensate can lead to injuries, which often are remedied with Pilates.

"They get a good workout, but they don't feel beat up," Richter says of her students.

Like most local Pilates studios, Richter's divides classes between those that use specialized Pilates equipment and others that require only a mat on the floor. Typically priced between $20 and $30, equipment classes accommodate only four to six students. Usually in the $10-to-$12 range, a studio's mat classes host eight to 10 participants. Pilates instruction in larger fitness clubs often is confined to mat work.

While Dominguez says mat work constitutes only about 30 percent of the total Pilates regimen, instructor Peter Wolf says he believes it's the most significant work. When the 30-year-old son of a physical therapist tore ligaments in his knee, he found that he could take a mat anywhere and practice Pilates to maintain strength and rehabilitate the injury. The breath control required for Pilates hearkened back to his training in martial arts, says Wolf, who also teaches tai chi.

A form of mind-body movement, Pilates borrows aspects of yoga, says Dominguez, who added classes in the ancient Indian discipline to Inward Bound's Pilates line-up, as well as massage and ayurvedic nutrition counseling. Dominguez estimates that about 80 percent of Inward Bound clients take advantage of more than one service. But the vast majority are showing up for Pilates classes before anything else, she says.

Barb Jacobs still practices yoga and lifts weights, but the 65-year-old says she'd give up every other form of exercise except Pilates if pressed to make a choice.

"It's just different from anything I'd done before," says the Medford resident, adding that watching Pilates on TV sparked her interest.

Jacobs' first class with Verve owner Millie O'Brien was a one-on-one session, which Jacobs likens to having a personal trainer. Two years after the first class, Jacobs' waist and arms are more defined, and her view of exercise is more firmly oriented toward longevity.

"I think this has kept me young and kept me healthy," Jacobs says. "I'll do it until I'm 80 or beyond."

Huntley agrees. After regaining mobility, she now can compress and extend her body into "angles," moving in ways she never conceived before trying Pilates, as well as enjoying a more sculpted figure. When she's not in Pilates class, Huntley does core work at home, using an inflatable fitness ball and elastic bands for resistance exercises.

"This is something I see doing into old age," Huntley says. "You can learn something every week."

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