Budapest: Hungry for Pilates

This piece was written for Pilates Style following my visit to the studio in 2005. However, due to a change in editorial staff, the article was never published. Facts contained within are current as of 2005.

Little more than a decade after the fall of Communism, an enterprising trio of pioneers has broken new ground with Hungary’s first Pilates studio. After completing the Stott certification program in 2003, professional ballet dancers Zsuzsanna Bokor and Krisztián Mélykúti opened the Balance Pilates Studio in downtown Budapest, and were soon joined by Vladka Mala, a Czech-born contemporary dancer who is also certified by Stott.


Zsuzsanna’s husband, Gabor, remains equally involved with the studio. An orthopedic surgeon specializing in back problems and sports injuries, he has brought to the group a high level of technical expertise, as well as a number of patient referrals. To meet the growing demand, Balance Pilates Studio has launched an instructor training program licensed by Stott Pilates. The hope is not only to foster extra teachers for their own practice, but to encourage the growth of additional studios throughout Hungary. Instead of regarding this as potential competition, their vision is what Gabor describes as “critical mass,” the point where Pilates awareness is so broad that everyone in the field benefits from its established reputation.

So far, the studio’s main challenge has been an economical one. Although private sessions are inexpensive by American standards (they cost about US$25), many Hungarians cannot afford this luxury. In order to accommodate more equipment for semi-private sessions, the group recently relocated to a larger space. Even as the business expands, Zsuzsanna, Krisztián, and Vladka strive to create a comfortable atmosphere where clients feel like family. It is in this environment, the trio believes, that their students are most likely to succeed…and to then spread the word about Pilates. For more information, visit www.pilates.hu.

Milan: Pilates in Vogue

This piece was written for Pilates Style following my visit to the studio in 2005. However, due to a change in editorial staff, the article was never published. Facts contained within are current as of 2005.

In Italy the Pilates realm belongs to just one woman: Anna Maria Cova. Since leaving her career as a professional ballet dancer, Cova has built an empire of over seventy Pilates studios, an intensive teacher training program, and a complete line of equipment.

Cova opened her first studio in Milan in 1989 after three years of training with Romana Kryzanowska in New York. Worried that the method might eventually lose its integrity, she established exclusive rights to the Pilates trademark throughout Italy. When the U.S. courts abolished the Pilates trademark in the year 2000, however, Cova decided to follow that spirit of generosity and allow other Italian studios to operate using the name Pilates. In order to distinguish her own style of training, she then launched the brand “CovaTech,” which encompasses her teaching method as well as her personally-designed reformers, cadillacs, and other apparatus.

In addition to her extensive network of studios in Italy, Cova is branching out into Europe with studios in Switzerland, Spain, Germany, and Croatia. Her instructors go through a 400-hour certification that emphasizes injury protocol and rehabilitation. Though her teaching adheres to the classical style taught by the Pilates “elders,” Cova has added a few of her own innovations, such as “Meridian Stretching” (a technique based on the meridians of Shiatsu) and a mat program called “Mat4Me.”

Despite the demands of running an international business, Cova continues to teach daily at her rainbow-colored studio in downtown Milan. There is nothing, she says, that gives her greater satisfaction than being able to help her clients achieve their goals – the way she has achieved her own. For more information, visit www.covatechpilates.com.

Core Strength on the Ball

Core strength is vital to everything we do, from sitting at the computer to carrying a load of heavy groceries, from playing competitive sports to playing with our kids. It helps improve our posture, protects the spine from injury, and gives us a strong center from which to move.

Our core muscles are the numerous stabilizing muscles that connect the bones of the rib cage, spine, and pelvis: primarily the abdominal and back muscles, and to some degree the iliopsoas and gluteals. These muscle groups work in opposing pairs. For example, the abdominals flex the spine, while the back muscles perform extension. Similarly, the various muscles of the iliopsoas and gluteal groups work in opposition to control the movement of the pelvis, which consequently affects the curvature of the spine.

While methods such as Pilates can be an excellent way of strengthening the core, exercising on an unstable surface has proven yet even more effective. The stability ball is arguably the most versatile of props, with exercises performed in multiple positions and working every part of the body. Its benefit lies in the fact that our core muscles are crucial to maintaining balance—and even more significantly, that these muscles will automatically be called into play anytime we are balancing on the ball.

This phenomenon is accomplished through what is often dubbed the “sixth sense.” Better known as the kinesthetic sense, or proprioception—our perception of the body’s position and movement—this sensory system is directly involved in our reflexes and muscle memory. Sensory organs of the visual and vestibular (inner ear) systems, as well as pressure and joint receptors throughout the entire body, provide information to the cerebellum (hind brain). The brain then instantly processes this information and sends a message to the muscles to respond—a sort of reflex response.

For example, merely sitting on the ball forces the core muscles to remain in a constant state of contraction—a state of equilibrium but also of constant flux. As we are balancing, our weight is continuously shifting. When there is a slight imbalance in our body, such as leaning to one side, the body will attempt to correct the imbalance by making subtle adjustments in the opposite direction. The weaker muscles are thereby strengthened, and our posture will gradually improve. An ideal state of balance is achieved when the body has found perfect alignment.

Clearly, the goal is to avoid falling off the ball; therefore, through frequent practice, our body instinctively learns which muscles to activate. By stabilizing ourselves on an unstable surface, new neural pathways are formed and ingrained into our muscle memory so deeply that the core muscles respond involuntarily to any shift in balance.

It is precisely because these reflex responses bypass the conscious brain that I believe the stability ball transcends many other methods of training. Whereas a technique like Pilates demands deep awareness and concentration in order to activate the proper core muscles, the primary focus on the ball is simply to perform the movement without falling off. It is unnecessary to visualize the specific muscles we intend to use, since the feedback is immediate and automatic: if we fail to work the right muscles, we will lose our balance. Bringing a sense of mindfulness to our workouts can certainly enhance the benefits; nevertheless, the advantage, ultimately, is that stability ball training requires relatively little mental effort, increasing our core strength quickly and effectively—and perhaps providing a bit of fun along the way as well.

Get on the Ball at Home or Work

Too busy to hit the gym? Grab an exercise ball and squeeze in workout time in the comfort of your own home. Use the ball as a chair while at your computer desk, watching TV, or talking on the phone. Your core muscles will benefit by automatically engaging, even while just sitting still. It’s practically impossible to slouch and relax your entire body, because you would roll off! As long as you maintain good posture, your abs and back muscles will be working together to create a strong core. These five exercises are all done in a sitting position and are easy to fit into a busy day.

1. For mobility in the hips and waist, try doing pelvic circles. Without moving anything above your waist, draw circles with your hips: to the front, to the right, to the back, to the left. Then reverse the direction.

 

 

2. To work your inner thighs, straddle the ball with your feet placed in back. Squeeze the ball with your knees. This is also a nice stretch for the hip flexors. (From this same position, you can reach both arms overhead and tilt sideways for an intense stretch that also strengthens the muscles of your waist.)

 

3. To work your quadriceps, bounce up and down on the ball, pausing in mid-air as if doing a squat. (For best results, keep your knees aligned over your heels, dig your heels into the floor, and try not to lean forward.)

 

 

4. For balance training, sit up tall and extend one leg in front of you so that you are balancing on one foot. Repeat, alternating legs. (Extending your arms to the side will aid balance. To add difficulty, cross your arms in front of your chest.

 

 

5. To stretch your glutes (and test your balance), cross one foot over the other knee. Lean forward as far as your flexibility allows. Repeat on the other side.