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Lithe Spirit

The new stress in fitness is the stress-free stretch. The Pilates Method got it right more than 60 years ago.

With good reason, fitness guru Joseph Pilates used to declare, "I'm 50 years ahead of my time." The German-born Pilates was a frail, sickly child, but by the time he died in New York in 1967 at the age of 87, he had pioneered a ground-breaking fitness philosophy -- one which advocated that the only route to complete physical fitness lay in exercising the mind as well as the body. Pilates was right: given everything we now know about the mind/matter connection, his method seems an especially modern response to our fitness concerns.

Attracted by the tranquility and contemplative nature of such Eastern disciplines as Yoga, Pilates sought to blend thoughtful passivity with the fluid nature and strengthening principles found in some less static, though more careless brands of Western exercise. Borrowing the best of both worlds, he carefully concocted and refined his regimen on the cornerstones of concentration, control, precision, and natural flowing movement. The result -- an apparent cross between exercise and physiotherapy -- is a series of long, smooth, almost dance-like motions, which when properly performed promise a stronger back, a flatter stomach and boundless energy.

A tall order for sure, but at the very foundation of the method lies an unwavering faith in the principle of centering. Pilates maintained that a strong and flexible centre (the section of the torso, front and back, which lies between the hipbones and the bottom of the rib cage) yields improved posture, a more graceful carriage, and - best of all - less risk of back injury. for someone already nursing an injury, the Pilates Method may be a useful therapeutic tool.

"Besides, almost everyone needs to improve their posture, " insists Jo-Anne Piccinin, a physiotherapist who divides her time between the Canadian Back Institute in Toronto and the National Ballet of Canada. "What the Pilates Method offers is general muscle toning in really good, safe, postural patterns."

Fair warning though; if it's the Arnold Schwarzenegger look you're after, you're out of luck. Every pilates routine carefully alternates stretching and strengthening exercises and results in long, lean muscles. Always sensitive to the dangers of forcing the body into unnatural positions and punishing it with repeated uncoordinated motions, Joseph Pilates decreed that this exercises be marked by only three to five repetitions and carefully monitored by an instructor. In fact, no matter how accomplished a pupil becomes, a personal trainer remains crucial to the pilates ideal of control and precision.

The tension is adjustable, and as with all pilates movements, the exerciser does all the work. "You are in control of the machine rather than the other way around," Stott explains. "With Nautilus, you only experience two ranges of movement; with pilates, your muscles are always in motion. You use practically your whole body, moving in all directions, and because it's completely fluid, nothing ever jerks." The clincher? "Most of it feels so good, people become hooked very quickly," she says.

Like Karen Kain. A pilates advocate for more than six years, Canada's ballet superstar first stumbled on the method while visiting her pal, actress Jane Seymour, in Los Angeles. "I thought it was amazing," recalls Kain. "You feel the shaping and toning benefits so quickly." As a contrast to the physical strain of her structured daily ballet training, Kain appreciates the quiet concentration of her thrice-weekly workouts with Moira Merrithew. An added bonus for Kain lies in Merrithew's erstwhile dance career. "Moira's been a dancer," explains Kain, "so she knows what I need to work on. The exercises are fairly complicated in terms of coordination, so it's very important that someone is watching to see that they are done properly. When I leave Moira's, I feel more alert, more alive, more toned."

"The STOTT PILATES method is a very safe way of working out," claims Merrithew. "It actually helps to educate people about their bodies and how they work," Our thing is clear; there's no madness to this method. Whether you have inches to shed, strength to build, or just can't face the bump and grind of another aerobic class, Joseph Pilates has all the right moves.