The Skinny on Pilates

After enduring repeated injures from a dance career, Susanna Kim had resigned to thinking that she would never see many positive changes in her body.

But once she started taking regular Pilates classes for strength and flexibility, she not only recovered from her old injuries, but she said she also learned how to move her body in a safer and more empowered way.

Now a certified Pilates teacher at the David Barton Gym on Manhattan's Upper East Side, Kim witnesses the same changes in her clients, both male and female, ages 18 to 80, all with varying health and fitness conditions.

"As long as you are willing to give Pilates a chance, you will first feel and then physically see desirable changes," said Kim.

Pilates is a form of controlled core-abdominal strengthening and flexibility training named after its founder, Joseph Pilates. He developed this practice in the 1920's, originally as a means to rehabilitate injured World War I soldiers in England.

Years later in the United States, famous dancer/choreographers, such as Martha Graham and George Balanchine, incorporated Pilates techniques into their classes to help strengthen and lengthen their dancers muscles without creating bulkiness.

Today, Pilates popularity ranges from Hollywood stars, to professional athletes, to the average coach potato looking for a healthy, low- impact alternative to traditional weight training programs.

According to Kim, "When practicing Pilates correctly and consistently, you will notice increased tonnage in the abdominal area, less pain in your lower back and joints, and mentally more rejuvenated with each class."

And Joseph Pilates was once quoted as saying, "Within 10 sessions you feel different, within 20 sessions you look different and, by 30 sessions, you will have a whole new body."

Here are a few of the specific benefits that come from regular Pilates practice:

—Lean muscle. Pilates is designed to create a sleek, toned body, specifically targeting the "power house" or the muscles closest to the spine, the "core" or abdominal area, and the thighs and buttocks

—Body awareness. "Because you strengthen several muscle groups simultaneously in Pilates, you are essentially retraining your body to move in a more efficient, safe way," said Kim.

—Injury prevention. Pilates builds strength without excess bulk, which makes it a particularly good preventative practice, yet equally beneficial for those who have old or reoccurring injuries

—Reduced stress. Deep continuous breathing is used to execute

movement, oxidize the blood and release built up stress, leaving participants refreshed and centered by the end of class

— Improved posture. Pilates principals pay special attention to proper alignment, symmetrical training and strengthening the muscles around the spine so users can comfortably sit and stand taller

"The practice brings a mindfulness to one's breath and movement even in the simplest things, such as the way we stand, brush our teeth, walk down the street, sit in the car or even carry heavy grocery bags," said Kim.

Pilates is also recommended for woman's pre/post natal health, according to Kim. With all of the major changes that happen at the start and end of a pregnancy, practicing Pilates helps the body cope with the changes and aids in the natural delivery process, she said.

"Pilates helps new mothers rebuild crucial strength in the pelvic floor as it’s common for women to develop incontinence and to lose sensation in the abdominal area after the pregnancy," Kim said.

So how do you choose the class and teacher that is best for you?

Most studios offer two different types of classes — a mat class or a machine class — both of which consist of a series of repetitious, linear exercises and deep breathing.

The machine class is done on a resistance-based machine, called a “Reformer,” which is equipped with springs and ropes, which can be adjusted for ample support and assistance.

Mat classes tend to be a little more challenging because the practice involves just a mat the use of the participant’s body weight as resistance rather than the machine. However, a mat class is more mobile for those who travel or like to practice at home.

In both cases, Kim always recommends communicating any physical limitations or discomforts you may have to the teacher prior to class.

"Go with a knowledgeable teacher who takes the time to address your specific challenges and inspires you to reach your goals without risking injury," she said.