Balancing on my tailbone while bending my knees and grabbing my ankles, I am instructed to press my navel back into my spine and initiate a rocking-chair motion. I'm concentrating so much that Brooke Siler, my instructor, must remind me to breathe -- inhale as I roll back, exhale on the return. I give it my best, but somehow gravity locks me into an upside-down crab position, while Siler rolls forward and springs to her feet. "You'll be able to do that," she offers exuberantly. Looking at Siler's lithe body -- and at the many framed photographs of the lean, muscular bodies of her supermodel clients -- I want to believe.
I am attempting my first Pilates floor routine at the re:AB studio. Like a lot of people, I have been suspicious of this exercise fad from the moment it started popping up in fashion magazines. The testimonials of body-changing miracles, the pictures of stick-straight supermodels who swear by "the hundreds," the zealots who claim to have dropped several dress sizes or, more weirdly, to have grown an extra inch or two after only a handful of sessions -- it all seemed either too good to be true or too hyped-up to believe.
Siler, who recently published a how-to bible on Pilates (The Pilates Body; Broadway Books, $18) is an expert, and her enthusiasm is catching. We move on to the notorious "hundreds": Lying on our backs, legs pointing up to the ceiling and arms to the side, we pump our arms up and down slightly. The movements are intentionally quite small. "Pretend you're slapping water," she suggests. The goal is to strengthen the abdominal muscles, what Pilates instructors call the powerhouse. Siler explains: "When you sit and stand, you tend to sink all your weight into the gut area. If you concentrate here and build these muscles, they no longer sit on top of each other. It improves your posture." (And, one hopes, does away with love handles too.) After 45 minutes with Siler, I am sweating and my stomach muscles are quivering.
Pilates may be the workout du jour among the professionally beautiful, with the likes of Uma Thurman and Courteney Cox Arquette attributing their lanky looks to the practice (even Monica Lewinsky has jumped on the bandwagon, incorporating it into her slim-down regimen), but Alycea Ungaro, owner of Tribeca Bodyworks, has tired of all the hype. "Do we have to talk about the celebrities?" she pleads. The former dancer turned Pilates instructor and physical therapist has certainly drilled plenty of Hollywood heavyweights at her six-year-old establishment, but she'd rather talk about more practical matters. Such as how her pregnant clients are able to continue their Pilates routines almost until the day of delivery.
Like many dancers, including Martha Graham and George Balanchine, who were into Pilates long before it became a fad, Ungaro began doing Pilates as rehab for dance-related injuries. In fact, Joseph Pilates originally conceived of the exercises as a way to help injured soldiers recuperate during World War I. "As a dancer, you need to be streamlined, and lots of times you overdevelop certain muscles. Pilates conditions you evenly with these very controlled movements," Ungaro says. She detects my own unevenness immediately. "Do you have slight scoliosis?" she asks after a brief massage of my shoulders. It's true -- after years of schlepping bulky bags, I have a crooked alignment.
My first challenge here is the Reformer -- a bed outfitted with springs and pulleys that wouldn't look out of place in a medieval dungeon. (Joseph Pilates fashioned his original makeshift equipment by adding springs to hospital beds.) Lying face up, I rest my heels on the raised steel bar and keep my arms to the side. Pushing my feet into the bar, I straighten my legs and move the padded carriage back. Ungaro orders me to pull in my abdominals and use my stomach muscles to move the machine instead of focusing on my legs. The resistance is light, so doing this won't build bulk. I concentrate on the Pilates mantra of "scooping the belly button toward the back of the spine" -- which is very different from just sucking in your gut. Instead, you're pressing your abdominal muscles toward the mat and anchoring your spine, which prevents you from straining your lower back. The repetitions are quick, and by the time I figure out what all my body parts should be doing, the circuit is complete. Although my pulse is not racing, Ungaro reassures me that as I progress, the pace will intensify, giving me more of a cardio workout.
If you're looking for an alternative to aerobics, Pilates is not a fat-burning phenomenon, although Kelly Kane, the owner of the Kane School of Core Integration, warns, "Pilates can be taught like it's Jack LaLane if there is not a lot of attention being paid." Kane offers a fairly cerebral regimen -- as the anatomy charts lining the walls attest -- intended to, in her words, repattern some of my muscles and realign me. She insists that rethinking the way one views the body is key to getting results, that by performing each move with the torso acting as the core source of strength, one can build a stronger spine and better posture.
Kane positions me on the Cadillac, a gurneylike apparatus that is the mother of all machines, offering a little bit of everything, including a trapeze bar for more seasoned students. She guides me through a series of slow-motion sit-ups. It sounds innocuous enough until your feet are dangling above you in stirrups designed to isolate your abdominals. The idea is to slowly move up, one vertebra at a time, using the stomach muscles only rather than the shoulders or legs. Because it's impossible to cheat, ten reps on the Cadillac easily equal 100 old-fashioned sit-ups.
While the atmosphere at Kane's studio was slow, serene, and despite all my exertions, actually quite calming, the Power Pilates studio is bustling with the energy of half a dozen women frantically squeezing a workout into their lunch hour. One woman hangs upside down on the Cadillac, while another stretches her back over a large rubber ball. Even though the students are at various levels, they all share looks of intense concentration.
Pilates himself once claimed that "in 10 sessions you'll feel the difference, in 20 you'll see the difference, and in 30 you'll have a different body." As I'm a novice my body hasn't gotten any less familiar, but when instructor Melanie Rosamond begins to guide me through the motions, I realize I am getting better at this. On the Reformer, pulling the springs with my arms, I can sense my abdominal region doing most of the work. In earlier sessions my shoulders would tense up to help pull in the springs; now they naturally sink down for better posture. And rather than my stomach's caving in, the muscles tucked under my waistline have toned up: I can actually sit taller, and my trunk is more elongated. So far, I haven't gotten any taller, but thanks to a stronger, straighter posture, I am standing at my actual height for the first time in years, and when I step off the Reformer at the end of the set, I walk chin up amid the well-toned abs in tiny tank tops that surround me.
re:AB (33 Bleecker Street; 212-420-9111. Mat classes, $20 per session; private, $75 per session). Tribeca Bodyworks (177 Duane Street; 212-625-0777. Mat, $20; private, $60). The Kane School of Core Integration (7 East 17th Street; 212-463-8308. Mat, $35; private, $75). Power Pilates (138 Fifth Avenue, at 19th Street, 212-337-9952; Mat, $15; private, $65).