Danny Glover does it. So do Sharon Stone, Patrick Swayze, Julia Roberts, Sigourney Weaver, Tracy Ullman, Gregory Peck, Susan Sarandon and the Material Mom, Madonna. It’s the Pilates method of body conditioning, and until recently it was a well-kept secret among dancers and celebrities. Today, however, Pilates has become the method of choice for people with physical disabilities who want to regain function and a sense of well being. This unique form of physical conditioning has grown from its super-secret status in the early 1970s to its current level of popularity. There are over 500 centers in the U. S. alone where you can become familiar with the philosophy behind to Pilates method, and at each you are likely to find people with dis­abilities. The Pilates Method of Body Conditioning (Bainbridge Books, 1995), known among followers as The Green Book, is their bible and was written by Sean P. Gallagher and Romana Kryzanowska, who keep alive the original intent of Joseph Pilates.

Pilates was born in Germany in 1880 and endured a childhood full of physical difficulties from asthma to rheumatic fever. Because he was so intent on achieving optimum health and fitness, by the time he was only 14, he had improved his body to the point where he was healthy-looking enough to pose for anatomical charts. He moved to England before WWI where he worked as a circus performer and a boxer, but with the outbreak of war, he was interned with other Germans at a camp for enemy aliens. Using the bare materials at hand (bedsprings, ropes, chairs) he managed to keep himself—and the other men in the camp—at peak physical condition. n 1926 he came to America, founded a studio in Manhattan and continued to revolutionize fitness techniques well into the 1960s. Martha Graham and George Balanchine recognized his skill at increasing strength without adding I bulk and sent many of their dancers to him. By working on small muscles, flexibility and strength, the P method gives clients the body they’ve always wanted without the risk of injury.

What makes this method unique, however, is the remarkable results that people with physical disabilities are experiencing. Deirdra Simon of Atlanta was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in 1994. For the past three years, she’s seen practicing Pilates, which has helped her stay mobile and reduced her muscle spasms. She feels that Pilates has lengthened her muscles and given her more energy to keep her activity level high. Megan Egan, a director of the Pilates Studio and Physical Therapy Center of Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania, was diagnosed with MS in the spring of 1989. She too discovered Pilates three years ago and reports that her neurologist has been amazed at her new balance and muscle strength.

One of the most unusual stories of how Pilates has changed a person’s life is Catherine Williams, 83, who lives in Titusville, Florida. Just before her 80th birthday she had her usual flu shot, but something went terribly wrong. Catherine experienced a creeping paralysis that began with her toes and inched upward until she was given cortisone shots to stop the progress. The paralysis stopped at her chest, but she was unable to move her toes, feet or legs. Her daughter, a Pilates instructor, put her on a regular routine of Pilates sessions, and Catherine is now able to use a walker. Twenty-two-year-old Javier Cabrera is perhaps the most remarkable Pilates student encountered recently. At birth he had one normal arm and one arm with a hand attached near his elbow. The lack of a forearm made it impossible for him to lift weights, do pushups or engage in other activities that could help him develop upper body strength. Thanks to the unusual system of pulleys and springs, the Pilates equipment has allowed Javier to develop his physique. He just completed his first runway show as a model for avant-garde fashion designer Alexander McQueen.

Marina Napier is a 52-year­old former registered nurse who is now becoming a certified Pilates instructor because of what the method has done for her. Before she started doing Pilates, her fibromyalgia was so severe that she had to take pain medication and use a cane to walk. Now she has regained full range of motion. She says, “It has improved my flexibility about 100 percent. I can feel a difference if I am unable to exercise for even a couple of days. Pilates will be a life-long routine for me, but is well worth the effort to get my life back.”
Devotees, including this writer, a wheelchair user with MS, insist that Pilates is not merely beneficial to professional athletes or celebrities but for the elderly, pre- and post-natal women and those of us with disabilities. To find an instructor in your area, call (800) 474 5283