“How similar was it to yoga?” my girlfriend asked when I told her I had just tried Pilates for the first time. It’s not an uncommon response. Pilates is arguably the most misunderstood approach to fitness. There is certainly some common ground with yoga: an emphasis on stretching and body control; a methodical, low-intensity approach; a foreign-sounding name. And like, yoga, Pilates is more of a practice intended to make us better in other areas of our health and fitness, rather than an aim in and of itself.
“Pilates is not what people do. Even for Joe Pilates, it wasn’t what he did. He was a boxer,” explains Laura Nave of Rare Form Pilates. At her intimate studio on South Main Street she teaches the practice named for the man who created it: German boxer, bodybuilder, and expat Joseph Pilates. She uses it as he intended: to help her clients achieve goals in other areas of fitness like running, strength training, dancing, etc. In fact, the popularity of Pilates can be traced back to the professional dancers who adopted it as a training method in ‘30s and ‘40s, becoming some of Pilates’ (both the person and practice) first devotees. So there’s no competitive Pilates circuit? I asked her. “Definitely not,” she replied.
While the similarities to yoga are noteworthy, Pilates is undeniably something else entirely. “Think of it as strength training without the stress and impact on your joints,” Laura continued. And indeed, this is another practice with which Pilates has some distinct similarities. Both use resistance to develop and tone the muscles, put an emphasis on engaging the core as much as possible, employ compound movements and iterations to work the muscles in different ways, and, of course, involve equipment that could be mistaken for torture devices (more on that momentarily).
Laura had me start with some basic foam rolling – one of those things I know I should be doing, but never seem to get around to. She assured me that this practice of myofascial release would help stretch and relax the connective tissue surrounding the muscles, relieving some of the aches and tightness associated with frequent running. Roughly one minute into rocking my quad back and forth across the cylinder, I was convinced I should invest in a foam roller at home.
After that, it was on to the machines. The first one, which looked like the unholy love child of a leg press machine and a doctor’s examining table, was ominously named “The Reformer.” Despite sounding like something out of the Spanish Inquisition, The Reformer is actually a versatile tool for working the legs and core.
Moving at a gentle yet consistent pace, Laura cycled me through a series of lower body and core exercises, mostly variations on simple movements like leg presses, crunches, and even one similar to running. We seldom did any exercise for more than 20 reps or so, and the level of resistance was just enough to make me work, but nothing that would rise to the level of “feel the burn.” In Pilates, there are no weights, only springs or body weight, and the level of resistance is not the point – it’s just a means to an end. The real endgame is body control. This is evident in the history of the practice: before it became known as Pilates, the man who invented it dubbed it “Contrology.”
This is where Pilates shows some distinct similarities to another, more surprising activity: physical therapy. “In many ways, Joe Pilates is the father of modern physical therapy,” Laura said. The aim is not just to build strength and control, but to do so while minimizing the adverse affects of so many other exercises. Laura explained that unlike other forms of strength training, Pilates does not progress through increased resistance or reps, but by adding movement. By increasing the complexity or range (or both) of a particular exercise, Pilates forces us to work harder on control. Each time I found my muscles shaking or twitching while digging deep into a movement, Laura was there with encouragement. “That’s the work right there. That’s your muscles telling you that they’re working.”
After about an hour we had worked through what we jokingly called “the Whitman’s Sampler of Pilates.” I had none of the usual signs of an intense workout: no panting, very little sweating, and no fatigue. Instead I felt loose and relaxed, but with a distinct sense that I had worked. It may be hard to understand what Pilates is, but the benefits are glaringly obvious.
Rare Form Pilates
305 South Main Street