Pilates: Give it a go!

Imagine an exercise program that actually elongates your spine, makes you appear taller, leaner and longer and graces you with a strut that exudes confidence and sex appeal.

Imagine an exercise program that actually leaves you feeling invigorated after your workouts, instead of drained and depleted. Imagine a workout that improves not only your physical self, but also your mental focus, mental acuity and the quality of your life.

Imagine actually looking forward to exercising? Well, imagine no more.

Achieving a healthy, sexy, long, streamlined physique won't require you to quit your day job and kill yourself with endless hours of exercise or getting drastic cosmetic surgery.

The method of Pilates was once the best-kept secret of the dance community and the rich and famous. Pilates is all the rage these days, and it seems you can't flip through a magazine or turn on a TV without hearing someone crediting the Pilates method of body conditioning and exercise with their well-toned, long, lean and sleek physique.

Which celebrities do Pilates? Here are a few names you might be familiar with: Madonna, Halle Berry, Charlize Theron, Sting, the San Francisco 49ers, Danny Glover, Kim Catrall, and the list goes on.

Pilates increases metabolism, promotes respiratory and circulatory function, and improves bone density and muscle tone. Like yoga and martial arts, it can help you to "get centred" and bring a sense of calm and clarity. Unlike many other forms of exercise, Pilates has the added bonus of balancing and correcting muscular asymmetries, correcting posture, poise, and even restoring health and wellness by giving you the ability to breathe more fully and deeply.

Pilates will streamline your silhouette, but its main focus is to restore balance and wellness to all aspects of the self - physically, mentally and spiritually.

Joseph Pilates based his program on six principles: breath, concentration, control, precision, rhythm/flow and centring the body. Balance and coordination are greatly improved, along with ease of movement, strength and increased flexibility. Pilates exercises are designed to develop and work your muscular flexibility and your strength simultaneously, instead of independently.

The exercises help you awaken the athlete within you. With all that said, what makes Pilates so pertinent to the way you live your life? Pilates is all about breathing, living and moving more fully. Our lifestyles have become increasingly sedentary, yet our bodies were designed for movement and action.

We refer to sitting still for long periods of time as "discipline," but it can be a kind of tyranny. If you sit at work or even on an airplane for an extended period of time, you may feel stiff and tired.

Getting up for a stretch or lengthening your spine or just getting up for a drink of water feels great, doesn't it? That's because you're satisfying your body's natural instinct to move - and it is this moving around that pumps more oxygen to your brain and your entire body. The results of this immobile lifestyle are oxygen deprivation and improper or disproportionate muscle development.

Most of us walk around in a perpetually oxygen-deprived state. In addition, being seated for long periods of time, combined with actions that require similar movements (such as writing, typing, driving and eating), builds the muscles in the front of your upper body, making them strong and tight.

These repetitive actions also stretch out the muscles in your upper back, making them long and weak. This leads to a slumping upper body, which only serves to further impair your breathing mechanism by hindering oxygen flow and closing down your chest, lungs and diaphragm.

Pilates teaches a consistent, concentrated way of combining deep, rhythmic breathing coordinated with movement. These exercises are so anatomically sound they extend into how you use your body every day. Whether you're getting into or out of an automobile, sitting at your computer desk, carrying a gym bag or a baby, or climbing stairs, the proper and appropriate muscles will engage and function at optimal capacity.

This will, in turn, hold your spine in proper alignment at all times and you will find that your everyday activities will reinforce Pilates and vice versa.

As with any exercise program one embarks on, the results will rely solely on the participant's willingness to remain consistent, committed, motivated, and focused.

Moving from your core

The key to Pilates revolves around using the core of your body - what Joseph Pilates called the Powerhouse. Your body's center of gravity - its core - is located approximately two inches below and above your navel. Pilates felt that all movements of the body should emanate from this starting point. When the muscles of the Powerhouse are strong, your body can perform increasingly more complex and strenuous movements with balance, control and ease. This is because you're working from where your body is most stable, the centre of your being, rather than working from your body's periphery, as you do when a movement originates from your limbs.

Begin with this simple breathing exercise: Pilates breathing.

Sit tall and long in a chair or comfortable sitting area where your spine can remain tall and long and your feet can rest firmly on the ground. Before the breathing begins, sit long out of your tailbone, keeping the chest open, the head, neck and shoulders relaxed and your spine long and tall. The crown of your head should be facing the ceiling and in opposition of your tailbone. Think long and tall.

Place one hand firmly two inches below the belly button, and then place the other hand right on top of the other. Press your hands into your belly firmly and pull your navel to your spine. Use your hand pressure to remind yourself to breathe into your ribcage instead of your belly.

As you inhale for five seconds through your nose, you will feel the sides of your rib cage expanding, much like an accordion (as you are pressing into your belly with both hands). As you begin to exhale the air out your mouth for five seconds, remember to do this through pursed lips, by making a shhhhh-ing sound.

Continue this diaphragmatic (rib cage) breathing for 10 full cycles of both inhaling and exhaling.

Consider this basic breathing exercise the building block for a sleek and streamlined physique.

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