PILATES STUDENTS FIND KEY
TO FITNESS AND GRACE AT ANY AGE

by Julia Glenn Carter
Reprinted from the Community Review December 6, 2001

Although having thrived in the highly structured, stressful environment of a systems analyst for 17 years, Melissa Wirsig knew at the core of her being that she had to make a change. Taking time off to discover what pulled at her heart, the only point of clarity at the end of a three-month leave of absence was that she could not return to the grind. Bold decisions, however, have an uncanny ability to open doors of opportunity. Within weeks of leaving the security or her job, Melissa had been introduced to Feldenkrais, an exercise method based on the relearning of movement patterns. Surprisingly, she was having more fun than she'd had in years. Though not exactly a fitness buff, she knew intuitively the direction her life should take.

Four years later, at age 45, Melissa is the epitome of strength and grace. Certified in both Feldenkrais and Pilates (pronounced puh-LAH-teez), she offers group and private movement classes at About Movement Studio in the Masonic Temple building on the corner of Clairemont and East Ponce de Leon Avenues. Her students, like Finders Keepers shop owner Bonnie Kallenberg, enthusiastically sing her praises. "I love it," said Kallenberg. "I've been going for three [seven week] sessions, and I can't stand to miss a class.

Though Melissa's first and deepest love of movement is still Feldenkrais -- she is a highly skilled practitioner of Pilates. Long an integral part of training for most dancers, Pilates is gaining wider recognition with the general public. "People from all walks of life are discovering and choosing this technique as part of their fitness program" said Melissa. "Many athletes now incorporate this method into their training. Hospitals and physical therapy centers worldwide are using it to rehabilitate injured athletes and dancers. Before opening this studio, I worked with a chiropractor, applying Pilates techniques to help build core strength, usually an issue when people have low back pain."

The Pilates method is the invention of Joseph H. Pilates, a German who immigrated to New York in the 1920s, where his work caught the attention of dance legends Ruth St. Denis, Martha Graham, George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins and others, who in turn passed the method on to their students. Plagued by asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever as a child, Pilates studied both Eastern and Western forms of exercise -- to include Yoga and Zen, as well as ancient Grecian and Roman regimen -- with hope of overcoming his ailments. Over a lifetime, he developed exercise methods that strengthened and stretched muscles, and that opened up joints for better movement and tension release. Drawing on his engineering skills and knowledge of anatomy, Pilates developed apparatus to help focus concentration on the body core -- the deep abdominal and spinal muscles, and muscles that stabilize the shoulder blades and pelvic floor. "Many traditional exercise programs don't pay attention to the core of the body," said Melissa. "The muscles of the core stabilize the rest of the body. Think of your core as a strong column that supports you. Having a solid core creates a good foundation for all movement. This is particularly important when you add a heavy load such as weights to a workout."

One of the most appealing aspects of this exercise method is its playfulness. Private sessions at About Movement Studio utilize gymnastic-looking apparatus that provides support for the body and allows for increasing levels of challenge. Group lessons focus on floor exercises performed on mats and may incorporate props, such as balls, to work on issues of balance as well as strength. With a minimum of two, hour-long classes a week, Melissa said students can begin to feel substantial changes in the body, particularly in their posture, within a few weeks and to recognize visible changes within a few months. Some of Melissa's most gratifying instructional experiences have been with older students, where posture improvement and pain relief can be significant, though all students benefit greatly with a twice-a-week exercise schedule.