Pilates: It’s Not What You Think

The core condition regimen can help with chronic pain and improve physical ailments.


Photo by Lance Yamamoto

To some, Pilates is glorified stretching. For others, it’s an exercise program for injured ballerinas or women with long, lithe bodies. That’s what Lloyd Kendall thought when he first tried Pilates at the urging of his wife, Patricia. The former bodybuilder and gym rat admits that he wasn’t really interested in Pilates and only went because his wife asked him to. “I told her I would try it for six months. I didn’t think it was for me, because you don’t work up a sweat.”

That was 15 years ago. Kendall is still doing Pilates on a regular basis with his original instructor at The Working Body, a Pilates and training studio on Grand Avenue near Lake Merritt. “There’s so many layers to Pilates — it’s like peeling an onion. I’m still learning things about my body and core even after all of these years,” Kendall explained.

The longtime weightlifter used to weigh 220 pounds and have a bulky upper body fit for a super hero. Now 72 years old, he has trimmed down to 155 pounds and has focused his training on boxing, with some biking and running thrown in for good measure. And he still does Pilates with his first instructor from 15 years ago — Jörg Chabowski, a co-founder of The Working Body.

Chabowski is a firm believer that “Pilates is beneficial for everyone.” Clients of The Working Body include elite athletes (like boxer Andre Ward, who has been with the studio from its start in 2000), twenty- and thirtysomethings looking for more toned muscles, aging baby boomers of varying physical fitness levels, and everyone in between. A quick scan of the studio’s high-ceilinged main space, and you will count an equal number of men and women of varying ages and walks of life.

For those unfamiliar with its origins, Pilates was developed by Joseph Pilates, a German-born self-defense instructor who worked for Scotland Yard before being interned as an “enemy alien” in a camp after the outbreak of World War I. He developed his “exercise method” rigging springs to hospital beds that enabled bed-ridden patients to exercise using resistance. His exercise method gained popularity with the dance community both in Germany and the United States, where Pilates emigrated to in the 1920s. His original American studio shared an address with the New York City Ballet.

German-born Chabowski, a former modern dancer (and nurse), was introduced to Pilates after an injury. His experience rehabbing with Pilates set him on a new path as a certified Pilates trainer who also specializes in the Gyrotonic method and strength and conditioning. He likens the role of a Pilates trainer to that of a personal tailor. Both take an individual’s unique body into account and “tailor” exercises to that body. “It’s helpful to have a trainer’s eyes on you,” he explained, since a trainer can spot postural or alignment issues right away, such as a tendency to favor one side over another. He recommends both individual training and group classes to get the full benefit of what the Working Body has to offer.

Political activist Angela Davis (yes, that Angela Davis) started Pilates at The Working Body with trainer Lila Heller over 12 years ago after she broke her knee running. Her orthopedic surgeon told her that she should expect to walk with a limp for the rest of her life and would also need a knee replacement down the line. Neither of his predictions have come to pass. The active 74-year-old continues to work with Heller and doesn’t even notice her knee injury anymore, unless she takes an extended break from Pilates while traveling. Then, the aches and pains creep back. She also takes Chabowski’s Pilates tower class on a regular basis and practices at home. Pilates has become part of her lifestyle and will continue to be so. “I’ve always wanted to look up that orthopedic surgeon so that he can recommend Pilates to his other patients.”

For those who cannot afford one-on-one training (which averages around $90 to $100 per session), The Working Body offers classes and memberships. Sarah Hellman takes Pilates classes to help alleviate her lower-back pain, which was exacerbated by extended periods of sitting while at work and driving. The mental health therapist was aware that her core muscles were underutilized and that her back muscles were overdeveloped from her days as a swimmer. “Pilates is one of the best ways to strengthen underused and weaker muscles. It’s not just a workout but an awareness practice to try to achieve more symmetry in my body,” she said.

To Hellman, The Working Body is a “one-stop shop,” where she can take a variety of group classes (chi gong, yoga, TRX, Pilates, Gyrotonics) from instructors with a high level of expertise. There are no huge classes at The Working Body, by design. The numbers are limited, so that participants can be assured to have focused attention by the instructor, many of whom are also trainers.

For Kate Hannah, Pilates is a family affair. “On any given day at The Working Body, I expect to run into my brother or sister-in-law or both.” Six years ago, her sister-in-law (who credits Pilates for mitigating her chronic-back pain) urged Hannah to accompany her on a weeklong Pilates and Yoga retreat led by trainer Lila Heller. Her brother began physical therapy at The Working Body after sustaining a knee injury.

Hannah purchased a platinum membership so she can take as many classes as she’d like while on a sabbatical from her technology job. She also does one-on-one training. She credits Pilates with getting her through several years of stiffness and pain from “frozen shoulder,” aka adhesive capsulitis of the shoulder. Currently, the 40-something Sacramento native is focusing on core strength, flexibility, and posture.

Chabowski credits long-term client (and trainer) retention as one of The Working Body’s keys to success. Lloyd Kendall is still going strong after 15 years and can be seen at The Working Body almost every day of the week. He has no plans to stop. As he gets older, Pilates increasingly helps with balance and mobility. “I don’t play golf like others my age, so this is what I do.”

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