The Xercizer isn't exactly a Medieval rack, but its appearance is highly suspect: a sort of sliding rectangular platform about a foot off the floor, supported by four legs like a cot, with a spring-loaded metal framework underneath. There are straps for pulling, a baseboard for kicking, and two posts that keep your body from flying off it during use. Your head, I learned, goes between the posts.
Confused? That's OK, so was I in my recent introduction to the rigorous, and increasingly popular, physical regimen called Pilates (pronounced puh-lah-teez). But you're not likely to encounter an Xercizer without a handy trained professional nearby to put you through its paces -- more than 100 exercise options are possible. Also oxymoronically called an exercise bed, the device has nothing to do with repose, though you do get to lie down -- on your back or stomach -- most of the time. That was the only easy thing about my first session, an hourlong series of exercises that worked every inch of me and demanded the rapt body awareness of, say, a tightrope walker. I expected a few sore muscles the next day, but some of the places that hurt, I swear, had not even existed before.
The three Xercizers at Core Studio in Burlington, which currently accommodate some 60 individual Pilates sessions a week, comprise only part of the facility's athletic arsenal. When owners Kathy Jaffe and Sherri Paquette opened the airy Battery Street facility last May, they brought more than 20 years of personal training experience, and continue to offer that service at their by-appointment-only studio. But the majority of their time is devoted to Pilates training -- a niche that distinguishes Core as much as does the calm, non-gym environment. No pounding rock music here, no grunting weight lifters. Two-thirds of the clients are women, ages 17 to 77. But don't get the idea that Pilates is for sissies. Jaffe insists it's more challenging -- and effective -- than any workout she's ever done.
She and Paquette both have been certified to teach something called IM=X. That's shorthand for "integrative movement equals exercise," a Pilates technique devised and named by New York-based exercise physiologist Else McNergney. In addition to private and semi-private sessions (five for $165-$240), Core offers Pilates mat classes with eight participants per session ($15 each). The uber-training -- the "sore and sweaty version of Pilates" -- combines both (five sessions for $290).
Jaffe is quick to note that IM=X is but one of many schools of Pilates -- other styles may be offered at different health clubs. But the objective is always "to create strength throughout the trunk. There's a sense of being in contact with every muscle, creating more of a support system for the spine," she adds. "It's a proactive approach to wellbeing, and it's a practice that requires patience and commitment." And clearly, its cost isn't for everyone.
Though Pilates has only come to Vermont in recent years -- and is likely to soon proliferate as yoga studios have done -- it is not exactly new. I first encountered the exercise at a health spa in Mexico some 10 years ago (all brutal ab work). Dancers have used the methods for years -- McNergney herself is a former dancer. In fact, some of the movements on the Xercizer are similar to those practiced in ballet, albeit on your back. In my initial session at Core Studio, though, it felt more like doing yoga with a machine.
The equipment, as well as the exercises and focused breathing patterns, were originally developed by the method's namesake, Joseph Pilates, during World War I. A German performer and boxer, he was self-taught in yoga, Zen and ancient Greek and Roman physical regimens. Living in England when the war broke out, he was forcibly interned in a camp for German nationals. There he began to teach fellow prisoners the exercises he had been devising.
A few years later, he began experimenting with the equipment, rigging springs from beds to create resistance. The modern Xercizer really isn't a far cry from Pilates' original gizmo. He and his wife Clara, a nurse, evolved the exercises for years, working with clients on a number of health issues. Others picked up the techniques and began to teach them worldwide.
In addition to greater core strength and flexibility, the sanguine results of Pilates practice are said to be increased lung capacity and circulation, and improved coordination, posture, balance, bone density and joint health.
"It keeps you feeling younger," attests Robyn Leffler, who's been coming to Core Studio nearly since its inception. "You can do things you did when you were young." A 39-year-old with the lean, toned body of a woman half her age, she adds, "Once you learn it you never forget."
After a break from working out over the holidays, Leffler is back in the Studio the day of my introduction. True to her word, she works the Xercizer with familiarity, moving arms and legs smoothly in unison with deep breathing.
Paquette describes Pilates as a mind-body workout, and that's not mere new-age-speak. It's important to breathe with awareness, at the right speed -- in through the nose, forced out through pursed lips -- and in sync with arm or leg movements, and it's harder than it sounds. Though Jaffe kindly tells me I'm doing really well for a first-timer, I sometimes get confused, inhaling when I should be exhaling, while coaxing my body into coordinated, rhythmic movements and remembering not to pooch up my stomach or bunch up my shoulders, and always, always to keep a long spine. Whew! This takes concentration. The exercises seem to engage every single cell of my body. Unlike with the good old treadmill or stationary bike, there's no spacing out or reading magazines during Pilates.
As much as I enjoy knocking off a Newsweek or Rolling Stone at the gym, during my Pilates session I find I like the intense, be-here-now focus. I like the one-on-one attention and encouragement from Jaffe. I like that my lower back -- a vulnerable spot for me -- is always protected, whether lying down or sitting up. And I really like the way I feel afterwards: thoroughly worked but energized; taller, more buoyant.
"In the industry they say that after 10 sessions you feel the difference; after 20 you see the difference; and after 30 other people see the difference," says Jaffe. I don't think it would even take that long, but whatever; I'm ready to feel like a spring chicken.