Healthy Manhattan: Classic Pilates Takes Some New Twists

Written by Emily Johnson on . Posted in Healthy Manhattan, Posts.

"Pilates?" says Rob Powers, a 27-yearold public schoolteacher, as he furrows his brow in confusion. "Isn’t that… for moms?" Maybe that’s the stereotype among the younger set, but these days, it’s far from the truth. Because of a surge in popularity in the 1990s, many people have perceived Pilates as just another fad in the endless cycle of fitness trends. But Pilates is hardly new on the scene, and it’s no more likely to fall by the wayside now than at any time since its creation nearly a century ago. In New York, it retains an enthusiastic base of practitioners, with an array of offerings that range from classical Pilates to any number of spinoff and fusion styles.

"It seems to me in the last six years the demographics have widened considerably," says Mika Street, the owner of Uptown Pilates on West 72nd Street. "It used to be all dancers, then it became sort of house moms. But now it’s at least 30 percent men."

Street, who has worked with bridesto-be and models like America’s Next Top Model winner Yoanna House, offers classes in classical Pilates, the original system that was developed by a boxer and circus performer named Joseph Pilates. The regime focuses on building strength and flexibility while also conditioning the mind.

Traditional Pilates is practiced on mats on the floor but also incorporates props like chairs, weights and rings. "I think it was developed by someone who really knew what he was doing," Street says with a laugh. "We don’t operate on the new stuff, but there certainly are a lot of new things out there."

Street was referring to the flourishing industry of Pilates derivatives. Even though she doesn’t think it needs improving, there are plenty of people out there trying.

There’s the wildly popular "Yogilates," which blends Pilates with yoga—a natural pairing, considering that both practices emphasize strength, flexibility, intentional breathing and mindfulness. There’s "Cardiolates," which was developed here in Manhattan at Pilates on Fifth, which adds a cardiovascular element to the program. There’s Pilates geared specifically toward people recovering from spinal cord injuries and even something called "Extreme Pilates."

Ann Toran, the founder of Pilates Reforming New York, doesn’t subscribe to the belief that Pilates should remain a closed system. One of Joseph Pilates’ former students once told her that he would have wanted it to keep evolving.

"She said Joe, if he were alive today, his work would not have stopped," Toran says. "It would have continued to grow. We feel that there’s so much more."

The key to Toran’s Pilates sessions is a piece of equipment called the Reformer, which looks a bit like a bed with a foot bar attached. As it slides back and forth, springs create resistance, giving you a workout she calls "addictive." Her students range in age from about 18 to late seventies. The older ones, she said, tell her it helps their bone density enormously.

There is a great deal of literature that touts the health benefits of Pilates. Some practitioners say it helps ease symptoms of conditions like scoliosis and cystic fibrosis.

"I’m always getting forwards from people about the benefits for Parkinson’s or M.S. or opera singers," Street says.

Opera singers may seem like a stretch, but anecdotal cases abound of singers increasing their lung capacity. And professional athletes like golfer Tiger Woods, pitcher Curt Schilling and football player Ruben Brown all say it helped them improve their games.

As warm weather arrives in New York, start looking for outdoor Pilates classes. Shape Up NYC, a Parks Department program, offers free sessions all over the city. You could tone up while overlooking Chelsea on the High Line. And chances are, you won’t be surrounded by just moms.