On a bed-like machine with a moving carriage, straps and springs, Robin Harrison balances on her shoulders with her bare feet in straps above her head. From this impressive position, she bends her knees toward her ears and deeply exhales as she articulates her spine back onto the carriage.
Harrison is doing Pilates (puh-LAH-teez), the system of strengthening and stretching exercises designed to develop the body's core (abdominals, low back, hips, and gluteals) and the hottest trend in the mind-body fitness craze sweeping the nation. The Little Rock, Ark., pharmaceutical sales rep is coached through an hour-long series of positions on a mat and several different machines resembling medieval torture equipment with names such as the Reformer, the Cadillac, and the Barrel. When she's through, she feels stretched and strengthened.
"Around my whole midsection I feel so much leaner," she says. "It's not just me -- I've gotten compliments from other people noticing I look thinner. I've lost inches and my clothes fit differently."
Harrison, 35, was drawn to Pilates six months ago with its promise of more lengthened muscles, increased flexibility (she's a runner with short, tight hamstrings) and a sleeker shape. In a few months, she has whittled her stomach, trimmed her hips, and stretched her hamstrings, all without wearing out her running shoes.
Once known only to dancers and celebrities, Pilates has become more mainstream, with studios popping up like Starbucks across the country. Many health clubs have jumped on the bandwagon as well, including Pilates mat classes in their schedules. Enthusiasts everywhere sing its praises to all within earshot -- bragging about how they consciously sit and stand straighter. Back and neck pain have disappeared for some, inches have for others.
"I could really tell the difference after about two months," says Harrison. "Since I was stronger in my abs, I had a lot less back pain."
Little Rock lawyer Wooten Epes has been plagued with chronic low back pain since a series of car accidents left him with a fusion of two vertebrae in his lumbar spine. He began doing Pilates with a private instructor a year ago and has been able to build muscle mass in the supporting muscles of his back, legs, and gluteals.
"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."
There's an intrinsic relevance to it, says Little Rock internist Hoyte Pyle, MD. Instead of working major muscle groups in isolation, says Pyle, "Pilates works the whole body in synergy," which is how we should be moving on a daily basis.
Instead, we spend most of the day sitting, often slouched over a computer, says Ellie Herman, author of Pilates for Dummies and a Pilates trainer with studios in San Francisco and Oakland, Calif.
"There's so much sitting, everyone has back and neck problems," says Herman, who originally started doing Pilates to rehabilitate from a dance injury. "They're starting to realize they need to do something to help strengthen their posture."
For many, particularly baby boomers who are becoming more aware of increasingly aging bodies, stooping shoulders, and greater propensity for injury, Pilates serves as an insurance policy of sorts.
The core muscles of the back and pelvis anchor the body and keep the spine properly aligned in movement, whether it's picking up a baby or darting for that tennis ball, says Boise, Idaho, physical therapist Sara Carpenter. "Neglecting the core sets you up for injury. Strengthening it takes pressure off the compensating knees, back, and shoulders."
Unfortunately, most of the exercise we do doesn't involve movement of the spine, says George. "We work our arms and our legs, holding our bodies still. As for the stomach, we either skip it altogether, or we do a few crunches at the end of a workout."
As a result, she says, people forget how to move their bodies and articulate through the spine. Pilates gives that back.
Another advantage, says Carpenter, is that people with chronic injuries or painful physical conditions such as arthritis can rehabilitate using the apparatus without risking injury. But she does warn against just anybody running out to take a mat class.
"The downside is, some of the moves in a mat class are very difficult, even for a fit person. You need to respect your body and know what your limitations are," says Carpenter.
It's also important to be an educated consumer.
The increasing demand for Pilates classes, particularly in gyms, has created problems, according to longtime Pilates instructors. With no regulating body overseeing training, there are vastly different levels of education among teachers.
Kevin Bowen, president of the Pilates Method Alliance, a nonprofit professional advocacy group, warns those interested in learning the method to seek out an instructor who has been through a qualified, comprehensive teacher training program.
"There are currently no national education standards," says Bowen, "so training programs run the gamut from six hours to 900, and anyone can say they're a Pilates teacher and the public is none the wiser."
The group is working to change that and create a national certification.
Done correctly, say proponents, there's no end to the benefits long after leaving the studio.
"Pilates helps people become more conscious of their posture, how they move, sit, and stand," says George. "They can learn a lot of things with a good Pilates instructor that can affect the rest of their life."