Firming up the old-fashioned way Health: The Pilates tTC Method is an old exercise routine that has become trendy again. Elizabeth Ahearn plans to open a Pilates studio at Goucher this summer.

March 04, 1997|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,SUN STAFF

The Reformer. The Electric Chair. The Barrel.

This isn't equipment found behind prison walls. It's the equipment used for the Pilates Method of Body Conditioning, which has become all the rage in New York and Los Angeles.

The Pilates Method is one of those "born again" exercise routines that has been around for decades and is suddenly enjoying a resurgence. Pilates or Pilates-based exercises have been featured in magazines like Fitness and Essence. Now, there are even infomercials touting it.

Credit its growing popularity to celebrities like Vanessa Williams, Jodie Foster, Courtney Cox, Demi Moore and Jane Seymour, who are fans. Now, if it's good enough for them, it's good enough for us. We decide to take a class.

Finding a certified Pilates instructor in Maryland is a no-brainer, because there's only one, Elizabeth Ahearn, who is a busy woman these days. She teaches dance at Goucher College and is preparing to open a certified Pilates studio there this summer.

Because of her contractual arrangements with the college, Ahearn is allowed to take only six private students, although that will change when the studio is in place. A good thing, because Ahearn has a waiting list of about 60 people willing to pay $40 for a one-hour private lesson.

It will be called the Goucher Pilates Center, and Ahearn will oversee students who are working on certification to become instructors, in addition to offering private lessons.

So here we are in Ahearn's basement, where the Reformer, Electric Chair and Barrel await. The Reformer resembles a very narrow hospital bed with long, leather straps. The Electric Chair looks similar to its name. So does the Barrel.

Ahearn, a former New York resident, has instructed Tim Burton, Marla Maples Trump and others whose good looks are a plus in their line of work. She has the lean, toned body of a dancer with enviably low body fat. Some bodybuilders have wrists thicker than her waistline.

Ahearn wants to take a minute to talk about the history of Pilates, which sounds like a very good idea. For one thing, it delays the moment of truth, exposure in all our spandex-clad glory.

"The Pilates Method balances, tones, shapes and strengthens the body," says Ahearn.

The exercises focus on using the abdominal muscles for up and down movements. For instance, stomach muscles propel the motion on forward and backward rolls. In another movement, the hands are hooked in the Reformer's straps and the legs are pointed up and out. You slide back and forth on the Reformer concentrating, once again, on using the abdominals. There are a lot of stretching moves designed to promote a lean look.

The emphasis is not on a hard aerobic workout, but it can get the heart pumping once you get the moves down right and move quickly from one to the other.

"You do five to 10 repetitions of every exercise, but no more than 10," Ahearn says.

Pilates instructors also teach you the correct breathing and urge you to concentrate on form for best results.

People have compared it to a combination of yoga and tai chi, Ahearn says.

Since Pilates has become so popular, there have been disputes over who "owns" the Pilates name. There is now a "Pilates-based" program run out of the Physicalmind Institute in Santa Fe, N.M.

Pilates gets its name from the man who invented it.

"Joseph Pilates was born in Germany in 1880. Pilates was sickly as a child with asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever," Ahearn explains. He became interested in merging different exercise routines used in Western society and those used in Eastern society.

He used his engineering skills to come up with exercise apparatus that specifically dovetailed with his philosophy; improving alignment, stretching and strengthening muscles without putting a lot of stress on the lungs and the heart.

And so the Reformer and the Electric Chair were born, along with a few other pieces. There are also moves to be done on a mat on the floor.

Dancers, including choreographers George Balanchine and Martha Graham, were totally smitten with the Pilates Method, Ahearn says. Pilates also used his equipment to help in the rehabilitation of athletes, dancers and others.

"It wasn't necessarily designed for dancers," says Ahearn, whose clients range from a musician to a flight attendant. She advises them to add some type of aerobic exercise, like walking, to their schedules for the best results.

"I think doing this two times a week is great. But I have clients who take it once a week," she says.

Barbara Palmer, a flight attendant, began taking Pilates lessons with Ahearn in September after reading about it in various places.

Palmer, who always found aerobics boring, has become a true Pilates convert. "This has exceeded my expectations. I have noticed a huge change in the way I feel. I have much more energy. And it has toned my body. My clothes are starting to fall off," says Palmer, who takes a once-a-week class with Ahearn.

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