Way back in 1995, when Vesna Jacob was a 19-year-old national level athlete in her native country Bosnia, she sustained a knee injury that threatened to not just destroy her career but also affect day-to-day activities like walking. "After a couple of surgeries, I was told that I would always walk with a limp, and that I would never be able to wear high heels or go dancing," says Jacob, who has been living in Delhi for the last six years. Three years later, after trying a variety of exercise forms, she chanced upon Pilates. In just seven days, her body, which had been "stiff and imbalanced" post-injury, took a turn for the better.
The graceful yet controlled movements of the exercise form helped her strengthen the "core" muscles that govern balance, and gradually shed the weight she had put on since her injury. "Ten years later, I'm more flexible than when I was 18," says Jacob, who runs her own Pilates studio. "I can sit cross-legged on the ground and have a six-pack after a Caesarean section. It is all because of Pilates."
Key to good posture
Pilates focuses on improving posture and reducing injury by strengthening key muscles in the abdomen, lower back and pelvic floor, which together constitute the 'core'. The precise movements don't just work on large, 'global' muscles like the biceps but also tone and condition smaller 'local' muscles along the spine that govern balance, structure and gait.
"The first lesson in Pilates is to put your mind in your spine," says Madhuri Ruia, Pilates instructor and proprietor of Half, a functional fitness studio in Colaba. "No Pilates movement will happen till your spine is in a neutral position, or its natural S-shape." Like everything else in Pilates, keeping your spine in neutral position demands applying your mind to the muscles concerned. Throughout an hour-long class, Ruia repeatedly calls your attention to your spine and urges you to be conscious of your posture even while performing other movements.
Over a period of time, sitting upright becomes par for the course.
Saudamini Sawant (43) says Pilates has helped her overcome a niggling back problem that she developed while studying architecture. "I developed this [back] problem because of wrong posture," she says. "I used to slouch a lot earlier. But I have realised that I sit more upright now."
Work out your core
Mat Pilates, which is based on the principle of using your own body weight to propel movements, is also an excellent workout for the abs. Most Pilates movements are powered by the Transverse Abdominis -- also called the belt muscle -- the highly developed muscle in the core that is responsible for balance and stability.
Take the 100 (see graphic) for instance. It is challenging because you can't simply push your legs or raise your shoulders -- the entire movement needs to be powered by your core. With time, this focus on the core conditions the abs.
Annette Cremin (39), a Mumbai resident who had her second child three months ago, says Pilates is an effective way to tone up post-pregnancy. "After pregnancy, your abdominal muscles don't get back into shape for six months," she says. "Traditionally, people tend to do push-ups or go to the gym. But you should probably focus on strengthening your core. Pilates is a gentler way of getting fit and healing."
What makes Pilates perfect for busy city-dwellers with little time for exercise is its emphasis on quality over quantity. Since each movement is tightly controlled, you don't need several repetitions in order to work out your muscles thoroughly. "It stretches you out with control," says Yasmin Karachiwala, a personal trainer and Pilates instructor who has trained the likes of Kareena Kapoor and cricketer Ajit Agarkar. "You go into the stretch maintaining a certain posture, which is of utmost importance."
In sharp focus
What's more, since each exercise demands your unwavering attention, your focus is bound to improve. "I call Pilates 'meditation through movement'", says Jacob. "When you do a movement, your entire focus has to be on it. Your breathing also has to be in sync."
Practitioners say that this combination of physical rigour, mental focus and core strength makes Pilates especially useful for sportspersons. "They find a huge difference because Pilates works very deeply," says Karachiwala. "Your game becomes stronger because your core is that much stronger. It also definitely reduces the risk of injuries."