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continued...

"After the first session I knew it was exactly what I needed," says Epes, 55. "It allowed me to exercise and not be afraid I was going to hurt my back."

The once-underweight Epes gained muscle mass and a new lease on life. "I have more stamina," he says. "It has allowed me to do more things without having more pain."

The discipline is far from new, born from the mind of German-born Joseph H. Pilates nearly a century ago. A sickly child plagued with asthma and rickets, he obsessed about the perfect body, something to combine the physique of the ancient Greeks with the meditative strength of the East. The result was a system of exercises he called contrology, requiring intense concentration and centered mainly on a strong abdomen and deep stretching. It worked for him. Pilates became a boxer, diver, skier, gymnast, yoga devotee, and incredible physical testament to his method.

Pilates taught his method to wounded English soldiers during World War I, using springs he removed from their hospital beds to support and assist them as he developed techniques to increase their range of motion.

When Pilates immigrated to the U.S. in 1926, dance titans George Balanchine and Martha Graham, on the lookout for safe exercises and rehabilitation fitness for their dancers, embraced Pilates, saving it from obscurity until the rest of the world could catch on.

Along with the celebrity appeal, the trend toward a mindful approach to fitness has helped elevate Pilates to the forefront of health clubs and rehabilitation communities alike.

"People aren't getting what they were looking for in their traditional health club workouts," says Aliesa George, Pilates instructor and studio owner in Wichita, Kan. "They don't see their bodies changing doing step aerobics or running on the treadmill, so they're looking for other activities."

Performed in a variety of combinations and levels of difficulty, exercises to build what Pilates called the "powerhouse" engage the mind and body in a fluid and precise rhythm. It's a thinking exercise.

"More people want to tune in," says George. "They're looking for a mental connection. Pilates is something you can't do while you're thinking about something else."

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