Gentle workout, developed by prisoner, balances body

Multi-coloured halls, bright walls and carpet, contraptions with springs, pulleys and mats — all these add to the sense that you’ve entered an indoor playground. But the Pilates Centre of Montreal generally attracts adults, many of them older, and they’ve come to strengthen or heal their most precious possessions — their bodies — with a method of exercise first developed in prison.

Hana, 56, who has had 16 sessions at the Centre on Queen Mary, loves Pilates (ail vowels pronounced) and bas bought gift sessions for family members. She heard about Pilates from an acquaintance who did it as part of a rehabilitative process. “I didn’t have a specific injury,” says Hana. “I started to go to the gym and my back ached and I decided I want-ed to do it the right way.”

She found that Pilates helped her to focus. She is now able to work-out autonomously, with occasional guid-ed refresher sessions and bas suffered no further back problems.

Ann McMillan, who founded the centre in 1992, discovered Pilates while pursuing a dance career in New York. She fell in love with the techniques and incorporated them into ber studies: “I did my teacher train-ing and I did my Masters. I studied I studied the effects of Pilates on dancers’ posPilatesture, and we proved scientifically that it can improve posture.” McMillan describes Pilates as, “a gentle, lowPilatesimpact, global work out that stretchPilateses every part of your body, lengthens your spine, strengthens your abdomPilatesinals and your back muscles. Ifs a re-organizing, a re-balancing of the whole musculature of your body. Sometimes I describe it by saying it’s as if you mixed nautilus and yoga.”

The technique, involving “a unique system of pulleys, springs and gliding carnage” as well as other paraphernalia like balls and foam rollers, was developed in the 1920’s by a German named Joseph Pilates. Accord-ing to McMillan, Pilates was highly athletic and had become a registered nurse before being incarcerated with other German civilians while abroad during World War 1. While imprisoned, he developed exercises to keep himself fit. Not surprisingly, the Pilates workout does flot require a lot of space. Later in the war, while work-ing in a hospital, Pilates attached springs and pulleys to the beds of recuperating soldiers to help them exercise and rehabilitate. “That,” says McMillan, “was the origin of the apparatus.”

Joseph Pilates moved to New York and opened a studio in 1926 where he worked with the dance (Martha Graham and Balanchine) and performing arts communities. His techniques, says McMillan,”stayed in New York, a well-kept secret for a long time.”

But the secret’s out now. Pilates is an increasingly popular work-out method for people of all ages. McMillan says that the programs can be adapted to anyone’s needs – from dancers and professional athletes to those suffering from arthritis, osteoporosis or recovering from injuries. “You can do Pilates for general conditioning or you can do it for rehabilitation purposes. If someone comes in and says I have a very bad back, the first thing we’ll ask is — did you sec your doctor and are you cleared for exercise ?” McMillan and her team wait to receive that okay before developing a program and will ideally collaborate with your doctor, osteopath or physiotherapist to create an individual exercise program. When work-ing for rehabilitative purposes, she says, individual sessions are a must. McMillan admits these are an investment at $55 each, but she assures, “We help you move towards becoming autonomous. You start private, then you can go into semi-private, then somebody becoming good enough can work autonomously on the apparatus. So it costs less and less the better you get at it.” The group or autonomous session prices are equivalent to those for most dance classes or physical training sessions.

Those seeking conditioning also receive special attention. “We do a posture, flexibility and abdominal strength evaluation at the start,” McMillan says and “then we can design a program for you. The system allows for a range of motion and flexibility. You can get assistance from the machine springs or you can to set up the machine so that it gives you resistance.”

McMillan has an MA in exercise science and insists that all her staff members have “a university degree in either exercise science or physiology or an equivalent.”

The Pilates Centre, at 5065 Queen Mary Rd, is open every day but Sun-day from 7:30 am. A drop in class on Saturday from 10 to 11 am costs $13.