Journey to the Center
My first exposure to Pilates was a 1998 photograph in Vogue of a slim woman with flowing dark hair hanging suspended in midair from what looked like a medieval torture table. It illustrated an article describing a system of exercises to tone the core muscles of the abdomen, back, thighs, and rear. The system's German creator--a frail, sickly child turned boxer, diver, and gymnast named Joseph Pilates--promised that "in 10 sessions you will feel the difference, in 20 you will see the difference, and in 30 you will have a new body."
Sounded good to me. Bored to tears with my usual routine of step classes and weightlifting, I found a nearby studio and soon was attending one private session a week plus as many mat classes as my budget would allow. The effects were as Joseph promised: My figure streamlined, my posture improved, and I felt truly lighter and leaner.
But the biggest revelation was the inner transformation I underwent. Not only did I have a new body, I also had a new attitude. I began to re-evaluate my personal life. I subsequently gave my grumpy, self-pitying boyfriend the boot; turned down a prestigious job in a toxic work environment; and vowed to spend time only with people who didn't fill me with misanthropic ire. For the first time in my life, I began to base my decisions on how they would impact my emotional wellness.
I'm convinced that my newfound confidence came chiefly from practicing Pilates, specifically from strengthening the core muscles of the abdominal area--the "powerhouse," as Joseph called it. He believed that a strong center translated into a strong mental attitude.
Brooke Siler, author of The Pilates Body and owner of re:AB studio in New York City, agrees. "The confidence I gained from becoming aligned with my own body was huge," says Siler, who has watched hundreds of clients undergo the same kind of conversion. "Taught correctly, it is a very empowering technique."
Pilates targets the deepest layers of the abdominal muscles--the internal obliques and the hard-to-reach transverse abdominis that wraps like a corset around the abdomen, waist, and spine. (Traditional crunches mainly work the larger, superficial "six-pack" muscle known as the rectus abdominis.) This technique not only slims your waist, but also trains your body to initiate all movement from your core, thereby reducing stress and tension on the neck, shoulders, lower back, knees, and other areas susceptible to pain and injury.
Emotions can be stirred up when these deep layers of the core are accessed, says Kelly Kane, a Pilates instructor and owner of the Kane School of Core Integration in New York City. "The stronger the core, or the more vitality you have in your center, the more grounded you can become in your relationship with yourself."
A Deeper Connection
YOUR physical core holds a lot of power, including three of the seven energy centers, known as chakras, that are delineated in Buddhist and Hindu thought: the root chakra at the base of the spine, associated with grounding and stability; the sacral chakra in the lower abdomen, linked to balance and emotional connection; and the solar plexus chakra below the sternum, correlated with personal strength, assertiveness, and control.