Pamela Cheema, a journalist and civic activist based in Mumbai, crossed off an important item from her bucket list in July this year. The 70-year-old travelled to Kashmir, Ladakh, Kargil and the Nubra Valley. While a few people in her group of travellers had trouble breathing in the high altitude at Ladakh’s Pangong Lake, where they camped one night, Cheema says she fared better. The reason – the one-hour-long Pilates training sessions she has been taking thrice a week, every week, for the past two years.
“Doing all these Pilates exercises, I found it easier to take the rigours of the journey that would have been difficult otherwise,” narrates Cheema, who trains under Mumbai-based instructor Shivani Patel. “You must be physically very fit for Ladakh, for crossing these passes at an altitude of almost 17,000 or 18,000 feet. The area is known for acute mountain sickness and very low levels of oxygen.”
Pilates, a series of mind-body stretching and strengthening exercises which focuses on controlled movement, posture and breathing, was developed by Joseph Pilates, a German physical trainer, in the early 20th century.
Benefits of Pilates
With Pilates, Cheema admits she feels fitter than others in her age group. From something as ordinary as bending down to pick up something from the floor to camping at high altitudes, chores and movement have become easier for her.
“Pilates has given me so much energy and I feel that I’m capable of doing many things that other people in my age group are not,” she says. “My energy levels have increased.”
Pilates instructor Swathi K from Apollo Life, Hyderabad, says that Cheema feels the ease in movement because apart from strengthening the posture, Pilates also focuses on the core. “If you’re strong at the core, your whole body is strong. You feel enhanced energy in all daily activities. It is a movement meditation,” says Swathi.
It is also a form of physiotherapy, says Swathi. “Medicinally, you can classify Pilates under physiotherapy,” she elaborates. “As a workout plan, Pilates is very effective. Anyone between the ages of ten to 100 can take up Pilates. People who have medical conditions for which they must enroll in physiotherapy as well as people who simply want to maintain their fitness can take it up. People with small ailments such as back and body pains and tightness in their body also can also take up Pilates.”
Pilates works differently for different people. Cheema, an editor by profession, spends most of her time hunched in front of a laptop. Bad posture and being immobile for long periods were taking a toll on her body. “I used to have lower back pain. With Pilates, my lower back pain has disappeared. So, it has been immensely beneficial for me,” she says.
For instructor Patel, 40, Pilates was life changing. It helped her overcome a debilitating injury and played a huge role in bringing her weight under control. Patel, who was working as a corporate communications manager in a multinational company, weighed over 130 kilograms. “I was body shamed a lot and used to cry in the changing room,” says Patel. “I felt devastated about the state my body was in.”
Her sister gifted her a book about fitness which inspired her to start working out. She decided to become a part-time fitness coach, while simultaneously plotting her journey.
“I was so fat that people would not even come to me (for training),” says Patel.
However, her journey in fitness was curtailed by an accident that left her bedridden with limited mobility. From working out every day, which included weightlifting, running and cycling, Patel found herself unable to even move.
“That’s when I decided to read about Pilates. Then I underwent training and started practising Pilates,” she says. “Pilates helped me strengthen my core at a time when I couldn’t do anything. I was bedridden for eight months and did not have any mobility. I could still do Pilates lying down, though.”
Today, Patel is a certified Pilates trainer and fitness coach. “From then till now, I have lost about 66 kilos, taken more than 40 certifications in fitness and have become a coach,” she says.
“Pilates focuses a lot on breathing and mind-body coordination,” adds Patel. “It works on your posture. So, people who have back pains and people who need rehab, especially people who have undergone an injury can take it up. In my case, I had an injury and an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament reconstruction) surgery when I met with the accident. I did my rehab with Pilates and that’s how I eventually went on to become an instructor. It obviously takes time; you need a lot of mind-body connection, but it is a wholesome programme.”
Studies have found that Pilates improves the body’s posture and balance. It also has a positive impact on fitness, balance and physical function in people suffering from Parkinson’s Disease (a neurodegenerative disorder that progressively causes loss of muscle control). The study, found that Pilates was more effective than other, usually recommended training programmes in improving lower limb function.
Mat and reformer Pilates
There are two ways in which Pilates is practised – mat repertoire (where the exercises are practised on a mat) and reformer Pilates (where one must practise on Pilates equipment that works on the principle of resistance and gravity).
“I’m a huge fan of mat Pilates and have been teaching it for the past ten years,” says Patel. “There is a huge difference between the two. I feel that people who can take up mat Pilates – people without any health issues – should go for it. But these days, there is a fad – everyone wants to do reformer Pilates on the equipment. When I took reformer Pilates training, I realised that you need a lot of body control because the equipment is only based on your control and how you use your legs and arms. For this, you need a lot of focus. Even at the place where I learned, my teacher used to do mat repertoire first and then take people on the machine. Body control is important for the latter.”
How does Pilates work?
While there are differences in the intensity and focus involved in reformer and mat routines, the core (pun intended) principles remain the same, physiologically speaking.
“There are Pilates rings and bands and exercise balls that focus on strength training,” says Patel. “The core gets strengthened during Pilates because there is a lot of focus on breathing. All the core muscles are located around your diaphragm. From your ribs to your navel and your back and glute – all these things are part of the body’s core. It is a common misconception that core strength training focuses only on your abs.”
And with Pilates, even peripheral muscles in the body can be strengthened with core-centric exercises.
“Pilates works on the principle of core strength. From the core, you’re working towards strengthening other parts of your body. To strengthen your arms, you’re utilising your core strength,” Patel says.
Pilates’ impact on fitness can be magnified if it is made part of a good mix of physical activities. Cheema says that one can combine other physical activities such as rigorous walking or cycling with Pilates.
Cheema stresses the importance of training under a trainer and underlines the significance of rest. “My trainer has told me that one day in the week, I should take a break. So, I generally don’t exercise or walk on Sundays,” she says, adding that she would recommend Pilates to anybody and everybody. “There are no downsides to it.”