That in-a-nutshell assessment comes from Brie Adina Neff, a native of Philadelphia, one of the world's youngest Level 3 Pilates instructors and owner/operator of Equilibrium Pilates, an award-winning Pilates instruction studio on Headhouse Square in Old City. Only two-dozen Pilates instructors worldwide are Level 3s.
"There are a lot of things out there that claim to be Pilates, but aren't true Pilates because they don't teach the distinct system of more than 500 exercises with colorful names, such as the 'Elephant,' which is done on a machine called the Reformer; and 'Rolling Like a Ball,' the 'Corkscrew' and the 'Neck Roll,' which are done on the mat. All of the exercises were developed and taught by Joseph Pilates more than 80 years ago," explained Neff, a star athlete in high school and a dance major at Temple University, who first heard about Pilates 15 years ago.
"Real Pilates is a workout, a system of stretching and strength through the power of the mind," she added.
People who take what appears to be the genuine article, she said, with an improperly trained Pilates instructor run several risks that include not getting the "fabulous toning, lengthening and strengthening benefits for which Pilates is known." Indeed, when it's practiced incorrectly, "the system can be quite dangerous because of the body positions involved and demands of the workout."
But when done right, noted Neff, Pilates targets every muscle group — focusing on muscles in the midsection — and provides a complete workout, with all muscles in the body strengthened and stretched.
This being the case, she said, a certified instructor would never give someone an exercise without reason, and would never combine Pilates with other forms of exercise, which can happen outside the system's strict guidelines.
To find a legitimate instructor, she advised, ask for proper credentials — specifically, in the form of a signed and current certificate.
One authenticated by Romana Kryzanowska is best. Now 83 and recognized as the world authority on Pilates, she is still teaching. Kryzanowska was among Joseph and Clara Pilates' trusted New York inner circle when he first introduced the exercises in 1926 in the United States.
Neff also said to check that the instructor has completed at least one valid continuing-education class within a year's time.
"Aside from taking such a class, an initial proper Pilates teaching certification takes at least one year to get. Within that time, we [instructors] learn not only what the exercises are and how to do them, but also how to teach them — as well as who to teach them to — and when to teach them. We are trained also to work with various injuries, health conditions and limitations — and even pregnancy, which can be a lot more complicated than you might think."
Exercises are done, she continued, on seven major pieces of resistance-training equipment designed by Pilates himself, including the Reformer: "Each exercise has a very specific purpose and poses a different challenge, given an individual's body type and strength level."
Pilates can also improve a person's sex life, she claimed, since the regime makes someone feel and look better, and because the exercises focus on strengthening the abdominal muscles, lower back, buttocks, hips and upper thighs.
Pilates is recommended for all body types, fitness levels and ages — from 14 on up.
"While we can't change someone's bones," said Neff, "we can change that person's muscles, thinking of the body as a holistic unit."
Saved by the Sport
That was what Joseph Pilates, who was a sickly young child but became superbly fit as a teenager, realized in time. "He dedicated his life to strength, fitness and health, taking the best of several exercise disciplines, changing them continually as he invented original exercises, until he had defined his own system of exercises," explained Neff.
During his lifetime, Pilates was a nurse/physiotherapist, boxer, gymnast, skier, diver and circus performer.
Neff confided that she discovered Pilates training by accident. The fortunate happenstance turned out to be a godsend in a number of ways.
According to Neff: "I was having a sticky transition from ballet (she started taking lessons at age 7) to modern dance, when I saw a flier up on the wall at Temple to come to a Pilates session, so I wandered into the class, having heard that it would help my abdominal muscles.
"In the beginning, I wasn't bad at it, but wasn't really good at it either. The teacher, in fact, wasn't properly certified, so I aggravated a severe neck injury — a herniated disk — that had cut short my dance career by practicing Pilates incorrectly," she said.
Still, that first exposure to Pilates set Neff on a course that would see her learn the discipline properly and eventually become a leading instructor. Today, because of the exercises, she said, the terrible neck spasms she suffered are gone.
"Following my injury, I knew I had to make a living, so I had begun to teach ballet and yoga in local gyms in Philly.
But," she said, "I had so many people asking me to teach them Pilates that I figured I should get certified." Equilibrium Pilates opened in April 2002.
Neff's certification process began when she sought out master teacher Kryzanowska and her daughter, Sari Mejia Santo. With them, Neff began extensive private instruction, culminating with her selection in 2004 as a Level 3 representative and teacher trainer for Romana's Pilates, considered the purest and most prestigious Pilates training program. Neff said that she maintains close contact with Kryzanowska and Santo, and trains with them weekly.
"It's very important to me personally and professionally to do that. Learning everything from them, I'm one of about six people worldwide who does a super-advanced exercise called the 'Scorpion' on the Reformer, and," she claimed, "the only person in the world who does the exercise on the mat." You have to see it to believe it.