Peter Cornish gets familiar with the exercise regimen that is working its way into the expat community in Ho Chi Minh City. Photos by Vinh Dao.
Most of us will have heard of Pilates without really knowing what it is. A type of yoga perhaps, with origins in the Himalayan foothills, or a rigorous, new-fangled exercise regime practiced by fitness fanatics, athletes and professional dancers.
Pilates in fact traces its origins to late nineteenth century German and a sickly young boy who gave his name to the exercise system. Joseph Pilates was born in Monchengladbach in 1883. As a young child, he suffered from a series of ailments which left him weak and sickly, struggling with daily life.
He dedicated much of his childhood to improving his physical strength and by his late teens had become both a body builder and a gymnast. In early adulthood, his physical prowess earned him a living as a professional boxer, circus performer and even as a self-defence instructor for London’s Scotland Yard.
At the outbreak of World War One, he was interned in the UK with other Germans and dedicated his time to improving their fitness through a series of exercise and training techniques he had developed. When the influenza pandemic swept Europe in 1918 and none of his trainees died, Pilates used this as evidence of the effectiveness of his training system and it began to gain favour among dancers and athletes.
In the mid-1920s, Pilates left Europe for America and set-up his first studio in New York, in the same building as the New York City Ballet. His fitness method quickly gained popularity with the city’s elite, and by the mid-1960s it was being practiced in dance and fitness classes across the country. Over the last couple of decades, it has entered the mainstream and has been growing in popularity ever since.
Joseph Pilates believed that bad posture and inefficient breathing lie at the root of poor health. He devised a full-body exercise system that combines a series of machines, pulleys, springs and exercises to work the entire body, left and right sides together in unison.
The focus of exercise work is on what Joseph Pilates referred to as the ‘powerhouse’ – a group of muscles that begins two inches below the navel, goes two inches above the navel, and then wraps around your front and back like a belt. It also includes your buttocks. Emphasising the body’s core – the abdomen, obliques, lower back and outer thigh – no matter what exercise you’re doing, you are focussing on this powerhouse area.
As a result, Pilates develops strength, endurance, flexibility, and coordination and balance at a much lower body impact rate than other exercise methods. It emphasises correct form rather than going for the burn, leading to a much lower chance of injury than other types of exercise. The result of this safe, non-impact approach, working the body as a whole, is what differs Pilates from most exercise techniques.
To find out more about this increasingly popular exercise method, we caught up with Oscar Soletto, owner of Pilates Saigon at the Lily Residence in Thao Dien. “Pilates offers invaluable benefits for everyone, including improvements in your physical and mental wellbeing” Oscar explained. Some of these benefits include better circulation and lung capacity, as well as increased balance and coordination through strengthening the abdomen and core muscles.
Oscar arrived in Saigon from Milan a little over a year ago. Practicing and teaching Pilates for over 20 years, he opened a small studio in Thao Dien, welcoming initially just a few clients each week. As word of his studio has spread, his clientele has grown and he now trains over 60 people each week, both privately and in small groups. At present, he employs 3 certified instructors and uses the equipment of Merrithew STOTT in his classes. He also offers training/certification programmes for people who would like to become Pilates trainers.
“I began with a vision of a studio innovative in function and exquisite in form, a studio that would break the conventions of design, programming and culture in the world of Pilates. I created an environment swanky, with a “best kept secret in town” feeling.” Oscar told me. It’s apparent that his classes are popular as most of his clients continue their training programme with him and there is a waiting list for new classes.
Oscar explained to us there are six ‘principles’ of Pilates: Concentration, Control, Centring, Fluidity, Precision and Breath. “Concentration is the most important principle in Pilates. You must be very mentally present as you do the exercises, aware of every aspect of your body’s movement, alignment, sensations and muscle flexes.” He said.
Every movement is to be done with control, rather than just throwing your body around. With control comes precision. Each movement should be precise as possible, with correct alignment and placement of your limbs. Ensuring the exact positioning of each body part is central to how the system of exercise was originally designed by Pilates.
Centring the body evenly will produce fluidity of movement as you change from one exercise to the next. “As you learn the routines, it should look something like a dance, where every movement flows into the next.” Oscar said.
“One of the main differences between Pilates and yoga is there’s a whole line of equipment that doesn’t exist for yoga, so it provides a different angle. With Pilates, you’re doing exercises with the assistance and resistance of springs and pulleys.” Oscar told me. The springs may assist you or they may make an exercise more difficult, depending on the exercise. Together they work to increase the strength of the ‘powerhouse’ muscles
The way you breathe is very important in Pilates exercises. You don’t want to hold your breath at all. Deep, steady breaths will help you maintain concentration and precision, ensuring your ‘powerhouse’ gets the work it needs.
As a beginner, the first exercise you do is “the hundreds” which consists of ten reps of ten breaths. You lie on the floor, lift your legs up to about a 45-degree angle, or wherever you can hold them, and keep your back flat. While holding your legs in the air, you engage the abdominals and lift your head and shoulders off the mat so you are in a scoop. Then you pump your arms by your side, almost as if you were slapping on water, pumping them up and down.
Because both your legs and head are up in the air it forces the blood to go to your heart, while pumping your arms back and forth forces the blood through your body. You get your circulation going and stimulate your organs, making it both an internal and an external workout.
Pilates gives you control of your own body and therefore, your life. With regular practice of this time-proven system, anyone can experience the benefits.