Improving mind, body & spirit by Cheryl Rose
All over the Golden Triangle, people are concentrating on their breath - in through the nose, out through the mouth, attempting to shut out the many distractions of the day. "Remember, this is your time," Pilates instructor Josie Yearwood tells her class at the Wilton P. Hebert Health and Wellness Center, as participants sit on mats, eyes closed, concentrating on breathing while soft music plays in the background. "This is where you are right now."
The members of the class represent an exploding interest in the low-impact exercise benefits of Pilates and yoga. Both forms of exercise are in hot demand at fitness centers today.
Peyton Jones, group fitness supervisor at the Wilton P. Hebert Health and Wellness Center, said the Center began offering Pilates and yoga classes about six years ago. They now offer nine yoga classes, 10 Pilates classes and three hybrid classes weekly with seven instructors. Open for four years now, Beaumont Power Yoga offers more than 20 classes a week of yoga and Pilates with five different instructors.
Both yoga and Pilates emphasize breath control and mental concentration. Both increase flexibility, decrease stress, improve balance, and tone the muscles. For some people, the benefits can include lowered blood pressure, increased range of motion, balance, muscular strength and even weight loss.
Ana Christensen, a Lamar University associate professor of biology and practioner of both yoga and Pilates over the years, said that she believes both disciplines have personal benefits.
"Both are good for flexibility and increasing muscle strength without having to do weights. Both are easier on my joints and I can still get a good workout, " she said. "I used to do a lot of step aerobics, but I had to give it up because iw was hard on my knee and hip joints. I don't have as much of a problem since I have been doing the Pilates. I feel much better after a class."
Though attracting a lot of recent interest, yoga has been practiced for thousands of years in India. The practice of yoga has spiritual and religious roots. A purpose of studying yoga was to prepare and strengthen the body for long stretches of meditation, sitting completely still, undistracted by the needs of the body. Even in modern yoga classes, there is often a holistic approach to the exercise, attempting to create balance in mind-body-spirit development.
American interest first developed in the 1960s. In the last decade, interest in mind-body exercise has led to a fusing or mainstreaming of yoga routines and postures in the exercise community. "Yoga" is a general term covering a variety of different styles that emphasize specific goals. For example, there is Vinyasa, Ashtanga, Iyengar, Kundalini and Bikram yoga. The most common practice of yoga in fitness centers is Hatha yoga. The two basic components of Hatha yoga are proper breathing and postures, exercises that stretch the body.
Port Neches resident Gail Pickens-Barger is an E-RYT (Experienced Registered Yoga Teacher), a certification that requires 1,000 hours of teacher training. (Correction, after you have received your 200 Teacher Training, you have to teach 1,000 hours of classes to be classified as an "Experienced" teacher.)
"It (yoga) can help you lose weight, help you reduce your stress, increase your flexibility - which is important to a lot of people - and it kind of sneaks in and helps you build your strength as well," she said.
Pickens-Barger teaches yoga classes at both the Port Arthur YMCA and Wesley United Methodist Church in Nederland. She said that her students often have health issues, such as arthritis or fibromyalgia that have caused them to look to yoga as an alternative health strategy.
"Some people are coming because their doctors have recommended it or because they've read about it in the media, " she said. "There are a lot of people who come to yoga for back pain or limited range of motion. Yoga has moved over to the range of the therapeutic, rather than strengthening the core like Pilates."
Pilates is much more modern invention, and purely secular in purpose. "Pilates" is an abbreviated form of the "Pilates Method," taking its name from its creator, Joseph Pilates. Pilates was born in Germany in 1880. He was a sickly child, and worked hard to overcome his early frailty. He pursued many sports, including diving, gymnastics and skiing. He developed a system of exercises emphasizing focused breathing, core abdominal strength and stretching.
In 1912, Pilates was working in England as a self-defense instructor for Scotland Yard detectives when the First World War began. As a German citizen in England in wartime, Pilates was sent to an internment camp. During his time in the camp, Pilates refined his exercise methods and routines, training his fellow internees.
Pilates immigrated to the United States in 1923. he met his wife, Clara, on the voyage to America. Together they opened a fitness studio right beside the New York City Ballet. Over the years, his exercise regime became popular with dancers and other celebrities. Some of Pilates' students became teachers in turn, and propagated the exercise method with studios around the country. Joseph Pilates died at age 97 in 1967. An estimated 12 million people worldwide practice Pilates today.
For many years, only professional athletes and dancers had access to Pilates instruction. Yearwood credits fitness celebrity Mari Winsor and her series of DVDs with helping ignite broader public interest in the established method.
"People are attracted by the idea of having a long, lean, strong, flexible body without bulk. Ideally, you are already in good shape an you just need more core strength or flexibility," Yearwood said. "If someone's only goal was to lose weight, I wouldn't put them in a Pilates class. If they were trying to gain strength and flexibility, I would definitely have them do it."
There are several different schools of thought on how Pilates should be taught, Yearwood said. There isn't one, standardized way to teach or learn Pilates. Yearwood's classes feature soft music, soft voices and instructor participation in the exercises. She often ends her classes with a guided meditation. However, not all teachers would use this style. "If you were in a gym in New York, there would be no music, they might talk to you like a drill instructor."
Jones, also a certified Pilates instructor, said for best results, consistency is important. Participants should strive to do Pilates at least four times a week.
"The results do not come quickly, unlike some TV infomercials would have you believe", she said. "Joseph Pilates said you will feel better after 10 sessions and look better after 20. I really saw great results after six months of consistent work. It was the only method that worked to get my body back in pre-baby shape."
Yoga and Pilates work really well together," said Yearwood, who is certified to teach both disciplines. "Yoga strengthens all the major muscle groups like arms, legs, back. Pilates is strictly core work, so when you put them together, they balance each other very well." Jones agreed.
"Yoga is going to stretch your mind and body in new, interesting ways. Keeping the body flexible is extremely important as we age and it prevents injury at any age," she said. "Pilates is great for core work and cross training. I love weights and cardio, too, and I personally believe we all need a balance. I will never give up my Pilates sessions though. Pilates is a lifelong exercise regime and it keeps my body fit. My body feels the difference when a week goes by with Pilates."
Christensen, who tries to do yoga or Pilates three to four times a week, said the exercises help her to focus.
"Both are good stress relievers and a time to focus on me, not everything else I have to do," she said. "It is good 'me' time, nothing else matters except what you are doing right then."
Anyone seeking to begin yoga or Pilates should look for a qualified instructor.
"If the instructor has 200 hours of training, that seems to be the new standard for qualification as a yoga instructor," Pickens-Barger said.
Jones said there is no registered trademark for the Pilates name.
"Anyone can hand a shingle stating he or she is teaching Pilates," she said. "There is no governing body."
She advised investigating an instructor's credentials. Preferably, an instructor should have completed a 400 to 800 hour teacher training program. Jones said that DVDs can be useful for workouts at home, but cautions that an experienced teacher particularly for a beginner, is important.
"Home videos and personal workouts are terrific if you have spent considerable time in a class with a qualified instructor," she said. "I started learning what I thought was Pilates at home with a video. When I started going to actual classes with an instructor it was a totally different experience. It is too easy to power through and use the wrong muscles when you are at home. The video cannot correct your form or tell you how to breathe during the workout,"
Finding and affording a class in either yoga or Pilates should not be a daunting task. Many area gyms and fitness centers provide a variety of class times included in their membership. There are also personal trainers who specialize in the disciplines, or who can fuse yoga and Pilates moves into an overall exercise regimen. At least one fitness center, Beaumont Power Yoga , works on a package system, allowing you to purchase by the class or by the month, with special prices and offers for beginners. There are also instructors offering free or donation classes in area churches and other settings.
Pickens-Barger offers such a class at her church.
"I always wanted to teach at a church," she said. "Half the money that is donated toes to building playground equipment at the church and the other half goes to my professional fess and insurance. Sometimes I'll ask them to bring food donations instead to support various missions."
In both disciplines, area instructors are teaching to various levels of experience. Pickens-Barger said that she can manage by offering several modifications for all the stretches and poses to accommodate varying levels of abilities in a class.
"We try to keep it between the 'easy' and the 'ouch'", she said. "It's about what fits best for your body at that moment in time and it can change."
Are you ready to try some mind-body exercise? Sit up straight and take a deeper breath than you normally do. Hold it for a second or two, and then let your breathe out with a sigh. Now do it again, with your eyes closed. Take a deeper breath than before. Hold it for a moment or tow and just...let....it....go.