Walking tall

Around the globe there are a whole lot of fitness-freaks slowly coming to their senses. These are the people who maybe started aerobics in the ‘80s but have now had it with jumping around interminably on carpets stinking of sweat; or they’re the joggers of the ‘90s who are tired of being injured or just sick of mindlessly pounding the pavement.

They’re discovering Pilates, an exercise system developed by German-born Jospeh Pilates earlier this century. While in a British internment camp during World War I, Pilates, who was proficient in gymnastics, boxing and body-building, became a nurse. He rigged up a machine to help patients rehabilitate while still lying on their backs, and also trained other interns in physical fitness. This was the beginning of something big.

He moved to New York City in 1926 where, with wife Clara, he opened up an exercise studio. By the ‘40s, Pilates was well known and respected in the dance community. In 1956, Dance magazine wrote that “At some time or other, virtually every dancer in New York… has meekly submitted to the spirited instruction of Joe Pilates.” By the ‘60s, Pilates was teaching ballerinas at the New York City ballet, and the Pilates method was slowly becoming popular outside New York as well.

But what is this system? Its basic aim is to create a balance in the body. While many forms of exercise promote a tightening of certain muscles and an overstretching others, Pilates works to correct this imbalance, with weak muscles being strengthened and bulky muscles being elongated. The system promotes efficient movement of the body, while improving postural alignment, breathing, and mind/body control. The idea is that a few well-designed movements, properly executed in a sensible sequence, are worth hours of doing sloppy exercises without thought.

It may have taken some time, but Pilates has finally reached Thailand. Deborah Jackson, the Sukhothai’s Health Club manager, has recently started teaching classes in floorwork Pilates at the Sukhothai (there are also Pilates machines – not yet in Thailand – which look a bit fearsome and require further qualifications to instruct). With a background in fitness instruction, Deborah has always been interested in improving people’s postures as a start towards getting them fit, so it’s only natural that she’s come to be interested in Pilates – as in fact much of the industry has.

“Over the last ten years, we in the fitness world have been taught always to support our back, and always make sure it’s well protected,” Deborah says. “Then the question arose as to why there were suddenly more people with more back problems and injuries. That’s where Pilates has come in. It’s more corrective. It’s basically strengthening, encouraging you to use those muscles and let your body support itself. Pilates is reintroducing the use of what we call fixator muscles, muscles that fix and support the body in a postural position.”

Deborah describes Pilates as a mixture of ancient martial art forms, Tai Chi and yoga, with ‘fitness’ moves thrown in as well. “It’s almost like – if you can remember going back to school and the teacher used to get you to lie flat on the floor and do sit ups and touch your toes a hundred times. Very basically, it’s going back to that,” she says.

I must look a bit unimpressed at that, for the next thing I know we’re heading down to the gym and Deborah’s showing me a few of the 34 basic floor moves. “I’ve had ten or 15 years of jumping around doing aerobics and high-energy stuff, and this is a good alternative for me,” she says. “The strength is still there. I can understand the benefits, I can feel the benefits. It’s so strong – it’s probably just as hard as running ten miles on a tread-mill, but in a relaxed and soothing way.” I’m sure I’m perspiring after trying just one move.

Although it’s early days yet for Thailand, things could be looking up: Deborah is planning on bringing Michael King, a Pilates instructors’ instructor, to Thailand within the next few months to run an instruction course in floorwork for those in the fitness industry.

“A lot of people residing in Thailand are not aware of Pilates yet,” she says. “In the States and even in Europe, it’s huge. It’s just taken the whole place by storm. The results of Pilates are fantastic – I don’t think anyone who has gone and done Pilates can’t feel the difference in their body posture.”

Alas, there’s bad news for those of us who want to toss away our runners for good. While Pilates is excellent for lots of reasons, it won’t maintain your cardiovascular fitness – you’re going to have to do something else regularly to get your heart rate up. But Pilates will substantially help your body’s ability to deal with aerobics on sweaty carpets or pavement-pounding. With the body awareness it creates, it might even make you enjoy it.

There are three fifty-minute Pilates classes a week at the Sukhothai. Health Club membership is required. Deborah Jackson can be contacted by phoning the Sukhothai on 287 0222.

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