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Inside an exercise studio, Madhur Singh lies on a mat with her navel winking at the ceiling. She thinks she's on a beach. As her legs extend 45 degrees from the floor, her instructor, Vesna Jacob Pericevic, creates illusions. "Imagine you're on a tiny island surrounded by water. To stay afloat you must push the water. Push, push, push..." And Madhur uses her arms to powerfully pump away the 'water', while holding this difficult pose with such perfect control that only her belly button blinks open and close with each breath.
Over the next hour, Madhur, a 40-plus Delhi-based stockbroker, performs tortuous torso exercises. She squeezes a Magic Ring between her knees and does leg raises with an elastic band tied on her feet, before finally arching her back over a Swiss Ball, as the studio lights dance on her new lean and sinewy stomach. Straightening up to show off her wonderbody, Madhur says: "Years of gymming did nothing for my post-caesarean paunch. Now that's a thing of the past."
Dumping dumbbells, trashing treadmills and abandoning aerobics, the urban elite are swinging open gym doors and demanding Pilates—a yoga and callisthenics combo taken up by divas like Madonna, Angelina Jolie and Catherine Zeta Jones. An import from Beverly Hills exercise boutiques, Pil-ah-teez with a slight nasal intonation, is now the uber-drill of our wonderbody wannabes. Says Mickey Mehta, Mumbai-based holistic health guru and creator of many Ms Indias: "We introduced this at our Gym 360 last year just to please all these socialites who come prancing in and begging for 'Pilates, Pilates, Pilates'."
With research studies emphasising a fitness shift from aerobics to strength training, Pilates aka the Method (created by a trained therapist, Joseph Pilates, during WW I) which rehabilitates and works the deeper muscles of the body neglected by most other systems, has regained popularity, along with yoga. Essentially a strength and flexibility routine done on a mat or specialised Pilates machines, the Method sculpts the body into a lean muscled profile with a series of precise, controlled movements done under the supervision of an instructor. Each low-impact exercise strengthens the abdomen-lower back-and-buttocks into the Pilates Powerhouse. Reputed for being a healing system that does not put much pressure on the heart, Pilates can be taken up by anybody, even those who have suffered from injuries.
Gradually, at niche studios in Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai, the constant thump and pump of aerobic classes and weights is being replaced by Mat Pilates, a quiet barefoot routine performed with soft Tibetan chants or instrumental muzak in the background. Sports major Reebok now offers an exclusive programme called Core Pilates. This includes a patented form of Mat Pilates with a trademarked core board (an unstable surface which moves in several planes) to create more challenging workouts. Independent centres like bfy in Mumbai, a health and fitness educational and training organisation, are also regularly inviting international instructors like Michael King to train people in the Method.
Globally, studios offer machines developed by Joseph Pilates but due to a lack of widespread awareness in India, high equipment costs and not enough fully certified pros, gym-owners here are uncertain about setting up dedicated Pilates centres. Yet clearly sensing some opportunity, sports-equipment manufacturer Cardio Fitness has just introduced Reformer machines in India.
Right now, Body Art in Mumbai is India's sole Pilates equipment hub that has Reformers and Wunda chairs that allow users to perform this routine's signature stretching and strengthening exercises. Says Body Art's Nawaz Modi Singhania: "We've always wanted to be ahead of the market. Like Muscle Ballet and Choreographed Trampoline, the equipment-based Pilates Hub is another of our exclusives." Today, this hub where the annual charge for the use of signature Pilates equipment is 21,700, is packed to capacity with 60 members and a zero dropout rate.
Vesna Pericevic is setting up Delhi's first Pilates equipment studio. Elaborating on the appropriateness of the Method for Indians she says: "Developed for the core area of the abdomen, Pilates is perfect for Indians, especially since studies reveal that abdominal obesity is higher among Asians than Caucasians." That's why her studio (which she hopes to turn into a countrywide-chain) will showcase Vesna Pilates, an 'Indianised' programme that focuses on our unique body composition, fat storage and eating habits, by paying extra attention to the abdominal exercises.
Pilates has also sparked off trends in the dance world. Says Mahesh Mahbubani, well-known choreographer and director of the Centre for Movement and Dance based in Mumbai: "People already know what Pilates is when they come in. I use it to free stiff inflexible muscles and joints. This way you can change body images and slowly the body becomes a guide to help the mind." For those who like modern-traditional combos, Kiran Sawhney who runs the rejuvenation boutique FitnesSolution in Delhi is now offering a version called yogi-lates.
Yet like any fitness routine, Pilates' offers no shortcuts. Says Brinda Desai of Mumbai's Gold's Gym: "It's a slow moving class, suited only for those who have patience." It's not for those looking for a cardio-lashing, or for seekers of waist-sized biceps. Most importantly, since results are totally dependent on your instructor, you've got to ask searching questions about qualification. A fully certified Pilates instructor would have spent at least 200 hours of studying, observation and practice before getting a diploma or degree from Singapore, Europe or USA. But with Floor Pilates, where certification is easier, the newest body obsession among fitness faddists is certainly centring around the belly button.
By Pramila N. Phatarphekar with Payal Kapadia