Manhattan über-Gals Get Pilates Bodies

Exercise trends travel like chain letters, from models to celebrities to Condé Nast editors to people in cubicles in midtown office buildings.

In the 80’s, we packed a gym bag and paid for the previous night’s cheesecake by sweating in step classes. But we couldn’t catch up, and by the early 90’s a wafer-thin, prepubescent Kate Moss stared us down from New York City buses, posing the question, Were we willing to bring ourselves to the brink of emaciation and death to please men? Suddenly, the population of step-classed, overexercised women were out of the garden; no amount of exercise could compete with a woman-child. In fact, the only way to achieve the waif look was, literally, to almost die. Enter “heroin chic.” Since maintaining a career and a nasty drug habit was pretty much impossible, most women sort of gave up. Many returned to yoga. They invited their boyfriends. But the chanting was silly, the classes felt like a 12-step program and the boyfriend either stopped coming or ended up sleeping with the teacher.

But now, in the late 90’s, an answer has arrived. It’s called Pilates [Puh-LAH-tees], and it’s the perfect exercise for women of our time: It has spiritual overtones, it makes you drop a clothing size, it promises a better orgasm, and men will never really get it. Because it focuses on the part of the body men never even think about: “the trouble area”-butt, thighs, hips-or, more specifically, the muscles deep inside. Mention this to women, and they know immediately what area you’re talking about.

The 90’s body, the Pilates body, lean and slim-hipped, is an androgynous body, but more importantly, it is an internal body, sheltered from the cynical mockings of this see-all, tell-all culture; it is a body that exists for its owner. Only you know you’re doing it. If you do Pilates, you end up looking a bit like a boy; as such, the exercise is a sexual equalizer. Madonna and Julia Roberts, each of whom led the Zeitgeist in the 80’s and 90’s, are Pilates fanatics: They’re so famous, they want to disappear. Pilates stands for being elusive and chic. Inside , in every sense of the word.

But guys will have to deal with it, and famous people are talking about it: New mother Madonna has told friends she is “obsessed” with Pilates, that she was “tired of beating up my body.” Glenn Close, Ms. Roberts and Sigourney Weaver do Pilates in Manhattan. As do Uma Thurman, Jodie Foster, BeBe Neuwirth and-one of the few men to do it-Bill Murray. Here’s how it works: You enter an airy loft in, say, SoHo, you submit to the tender ministrations of a trainer who guides you through an hour of subtle movements, some done on big, boxy, low-to-the-ground beds rigged with fuzzy straps and poles. The technique is to keep the body’s central stomach muscles controlled while the rest of the body executes a number of range-of-motion and resistance exercises, with old-fashioned names like Mermaid Kneeling and Flying Eagle. Then you hand over between $45 to $100 and leave feeling taller, more graceful. After a few weeks, though you’ve lost no weight, you notice you’ve dropped a size because your hips and stomach are narrower, your butt is smaller. And maybe you’re an inch taller. You look, well, boyish. You have a Pilates body: lean and stretched out. All without sweating, grunting or chanting. Or as Brooke Siler, co-owner of a Pilates studio called Re:Ab on Bleecker Street, said, “You don’t question a miracle, it just kind of happens.”

This “miracle” comes from an unlikely source: a German World War I nurse named Joseph Pilates who was a chubby, cigar-smoking womanizer. Ron Fletcher, who trained with him in the 1940’s, said Mr. Pilates had “a big, huge middle and wore these little, tiny, shiny blue swimming trunks. It was not a pretty body.” Mr. Pilates brought his idea to Manhattan in 1926, where he and his wife Clara Pilates opened a studio on Eighth Avenue. For a time, Henri Bendel even set up a studio in its Fifth Avenue store. Mr. Fletcher, now 76, said he was put off when he arrived to study with Mr. and Mrs. Pilates. “I saw Clara in her white nurse’s outfit and Joe in his little blue bathing suit, and I looked at all this equipment that looked like medieval torture and I almost walked out. I told him my problem and Joe said, ‘I fix that.'”

The Pilates technique caught fire in Los Angeles in the 1970’s, when Mr. Fletcher opened a studio on Rodeo Drive for the likes of Barbra Streisand, Dyan Cannon and Ali McGraw. But, in New York at least, Pilates has lain dormant, used mostly by some dancers, athletes and injured rehab patients-until now. There are 20 certified Pilates’ studios in New York City and a growing number of certified instructors teaching out of their homes. Every studio has at least six pieces of apparatus, with names like the Reformer (a seven-foot-long bedlike carriage in which you lie down) and the Cadillac, which haven’t changed since the 1940’s. Ken Endelman, whose Sacramento, Calif.-based Current Concepts sells the Pilates machines, said that when he opened in 1976, there were five studios in the world. Now there are at least 500.

Supermodel Michele Hicks is Ms. Siler’s partner in Re:Ab. “Pilates is having a trend in New York now,” Ms. Hicks said. “People had this mega-gym craze, going to gyms but not getting body-specific training. They spend six hours a week on the Stairmaster, and they have big butts and thighs and they’re like, ‘Why?’ I think this is a more feminist workout. To be a feminine woman now, you can still be a strong woman, but you don’t have to appear strong. You don’t need to be overdeveloped. I still look soft. My legs and arms are cut, but if you looked at me relaxed, you wouldn’t see a built-up person.”

If you begin with a healthy body, instructors will guarantee you-Pilates’ promise-that in 10 sessions your body will feel different, in 20 it will look different, and in 30 it will be a brand-new body. “You will have an improved version of yourself quickly,” said Ms. Siler. “Results are 80 percent faster than anything else. It’s like your chiro and your physical therapist and personal trainer all rolled into one.”

Details sex columnist Sarah Miller said she does Pilates twice a week. “Guys are like, ‘That’s so stupid’ because it seems like a pussy thing and men aren’t exactly dying to have a cute midriff. It’s very 90’s. You’re trying to make yourself feel better and look better, but you don’t want to look aggressively muscled. It’s incredibly expensive, but it’s not conspicuous, it’s a quality-of-life issue, and you spend the money even though you might be able to get the same effect doing situps. After like two months, I was like, Wow. One day, I did feel a little like a supermodel. My shoulders felt so flat and broad and I felt like my legs were sort of swinging from my hips and I felt perfectly light and proportioned, like my chest was sticking out one way and my butt was sticking out another.”

Ms. Hicks and Ms. Siler opened Re:Ab last June and say they are 85 percent fully booked-without any advertising. Their clients include supermodels Shalom Harlow, Amber Valletta and Stella Tennant, as well as loads of fashion-industry people, such as Tina Chai, an associate fashion editor at Vogue . “I didn’t want to get big or muscular,” Ms. Chai said. “I just wanted to be toned, and I guess also knowing all the models and seeing that they have the kind of body I want to have, as opposed to having a muscular body, I thought I’d give it a try.”

“I always call it the thinking woman’s workout, because you have to be smart to do it right,” said Alycea Baylis Ungaro, who owns TriBeCa Bodyworks, where Ms. Thurman, Ms. Foster and Madonna get stretched. “It looks easy, but if it is, you’re not doing it right. You should be thinking in every exercise, Which muscle am I using? Which am I not using?”

Freelance photographer Anna Palma said Pilates works, especially “if it’s not your passion in life to work out.” She said her body is longer, leaner. “It’s really quick, 15 reps and then you’re on to the next. It’s also good for your head; it’s almost like therapy. You have to think about a couple of things at once, and so your head is filled up with focusing on your body, as opposed to when you’re doing aerobics and you’re thinking about a thousand things.”

Meg D’Incecco, a segment producer at ABC’s Good Morning America , takes a version of Pilates at Equinox gym called Method Mat Class. “It’s awesome,” she said. “My back tends to flip when I get nervous or stressed, and Pilates makes it go away. I think that people take it partly out of interest in variety. You take aerobics and you’re drenched in sweat; you take kick-boxing, you’re on the floor. This is more internal, it’s kind of technical. You’re keeping a discipline, but being kinder.”

Ms. Harlow referred her chiropractor Charles Franchino, who was having buttock spasms that put parts of his body to sleep, to Re:Ab last summer. Now, he said, “I rarely miss a week. My back feels better. Pilates is on the upswing, yoga’s on the downswing. People run from one thing to the next.”

Like any trend, this one comes with some infighting and several would-be heirs to Joseph Pilates’ throne. Romana Kryzanowska, who worked with Joseph Pilates and has been teaching his technique for more than 50 years, claims that she and her daughter, Sari Pace, are the only “master” instructors in the world. They jealously guard the name Pilates and are allied with Sean Gallagher, director of the Pilates Studio, a training center on Broadway between 73rd and 74th streets. Mr. Gallagher bought the rights to the name Pilates for $18,000 in 1992, and he has threatened to sue just about anyone else who uses the Pilates moniker. “I’ve trained hundreds of teachers, opened training centers around the country and have done a lot of P.R. to get the name out there,” said Mr. Gallagher. “The name now has value, and that’s what we’re protecting. Every time you have something good, everybody tries to jump on the bandwagon.”

But several others, including Mr. Endelman of Classic Concepts, think Mr. Gallagher and the studio are just greedy. After he received notice he was being sued by Mr. Gallagher, Mr. Endelman, who wants to keep his 1-800-PILATES phone number, responded with a class-action suit in February 1997, asserting that “Pilates” is a generic term. Several Pilates instructors, who learned the Pilates techniques outside the studio’s walls and taught freely under the Pilates name until Mr. Gallagher came along in 1992, have joined the suit.

One who opposes Mr. Gallagher is Joan Breibart, president of the New Mexico-based Physical Mind Institute (which was called the Pilates Institute before Mr. Gallagher sued). Ms. Breibart said legal battles are the antithesis of the Pilates philosophy. “It has completely consumed most people for four years so that you can barely build public awareness about what we think is the best exercise in the world.”

“If you look at how many Pilates studios there are and ask them what they would call themselves if they could, they would say Pilates,” said Mr. Endelman. “But they can’t because they’re afraid of getting sued.”

Sari Pace retorted, “People think they know more than Joseph Pilates. He was a genius of the body. That’s why we’re splitting our guts trying to keep it pure.”

To be accredited by the studio as a Pilates teacher, wannabe instructors must put in 600 hours of classes and pass a series of exams. They pay $3,200 in tuition. To date, 261 teachers have been certified by the studio and 200 are in training. But, claimed Mr. Endelman, “The people who have the most experience have no need to get certified. To them, it’s like going back to kindergarten.”

Ground zero for Pilates in Manhattan may be Drago’s Gymnasium on West 57th Street. Ms. Kryzanowska and Ms. Pace walk around the room as about 10 “apprentices” practice on the paying clients. The gym, packed with mats and machines like the Cadillac, is decorated with photos of Mr. Pilates in his bikini, demonstrating his 500 positions.

Ms. Siler said Pilates works muscles so deep people have testified to better orgasms. “It’s because they’re not surface muscles,” she said. “When you go to the gym and work your abdominals and your six-pack, a lot of that is surface muscles. Women who do Pilates when they’re pregnant say their labor is easier because it works such a deep muscle. Everything is relaxed, but you’re focused on one thing. We use the example of holding in your pee. You don’t tense your shoulder muscles when you’re holding in your pee, you just tense that muscle.”

Elizabeth Larkam, former director of a Pilates-based rehabilitation program at St. Francis Memorial Hospital in San Francisco, said people experience the “very fulfilling, sensual quality of the movement because the focus is on the core of the torso, and the core musculature of the deep abdominal muscles are located in the area of second chakra. I find in my own experience, and I observe in others, that there is a very fulfilling, sensual feeling because it involves the whole body. It doesn’t get fractionated into a whole bunch of body parts. There’s a sense of integration due to the fact that the movements are related to the central core of trunk muscle.”

Better orgasms? Great, but this is New York and, as Ms. Ungaro of TriBeCa Bodyworks put it, “It’s about lifting your baby, it’s lifting up boxes without herniating a disk.… Pilates appeals to women because it targets all those areas that we all think about.… These are movements that are valuable to real life. You will be stronger, you will look different, you will have a new way of coordinating your movements. You’ll walk out right away thinking, How should I be standing? How should I be hailing a cab?”

Manhattan über-Gals Get Pilates Bodies