The Saturday morning Piloga class began in a way that would please most traditional yogis _ with meditative breathing. But as the cross-legged students exhaled deeply, the experience morphed into pilates.
"Drop your abs towards your spine," instructed Randi Whitman, owner of Chicago's Frog Temple Pilates studio. "Pull your rib cage away from your pelvis."
For the next hour, the Piloga students flowed between the distinct disciplines of pilates and yoga, two of the fastest growing "soft" exercises in the fitness industry.
For Whitman, blending the two mind-body practices has become more than a treasured creative outlet. Yoga and pilates _ a routine of exercises using mats or equipment that strengthens the muscles surrounding and supporting the body's core _ are necessary complements.
But to Chicago's Juanita Lopez, one of the first pilates teachers in the Midwest, the mere concept of "Piloga," which can also be called Yogalates or Yogilates, is a dreadful adaptation of the real thing.
"You can't mix and match," she declared. "One can benefit the other, and they're both classic systems, but if you mix, you don't get the benefit of either one."
More than ever, Americans are trying to get centered through pilates, a body conditioning system developed by Joseph Pilates and his wife, Clara, in the early 20th Century. But the explosive growth of pilates in the last several years _ participation has increased 176 percent between 2000 and 2002 _ and its popularity in health clubs have raised major concerns among pilates purists.
Some fear that the updated, modern adaptations are watering down what Joseph Pilates, a native of Germany, crafted while interned in a London camp during World War I. Meanwhile, as demand has increased, so has the need for new teachers.
Training programs have sprung up everywhere. But while some groups call themselves "official" pilates training centers, there is no national certifying body and no easy way to find out whether the instructor is qualified.
The unbridled expansion began in 2000, when the courts ruled that pilates was a generic term, like yoga, meaning anyone can call what they teach "pilates." And they do.
What was once a lengthy apprenticeship taught by Joseph Pilates or someone certified by him is now accessible through weekend-long training courses and special $89.99 home Internet certifications, aimed at fitness professionals who teach in health clubs.
The fitness industry didn't even track pilates before 2000, when 1.7 million Americans tried it at least once, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. In 2002, the figure more than doubled, when 4.7 million people participated.
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Not surprisingly, pilates-related injuries rose as more people tried it. But what concerns pilates teachers such as Julie DeWerd, a physical therapist at the Pilates Studio of the Midwest, is that people will drop into a health club class with an inexperienced teacher and never reap the benefits of the "real thing."
Pilates mat classes are ideally fewer than eight people for maximum individual attention. Whitman's Saturday class at the downtown East Bank Club, for example, is jammed with about 80 bodies.
"With pilates, I had to physically do it myself before I could teach it," said DeWerd, who uses pilates techniques to treat everything from sports injuries to lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. "Most people who teach in health clubs have no idea what the exercise is or how it should feel. They're teaching a sequence of exercise they learned on a Saturday. Then people take a mat class, don't like it or get injured and never do it again. But they never did it in the first place."
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Yoga, a 5,000-year-old discipline, also is booming thanks to health clubs while experiencing similar growing pains.
But yoga _ now so Westernized there is a version for pets _ has dozens of branches and is much harder to codify.
Pilates, which is relatively new and can be traced to a single man, still has a chance to pull the different factions together and preserve its integrity, according to the Pilates Method Alliance (PMA), which is developing national teacher training qualifications.
It is not an easy process. The non-profit PMA needs $300,000 to complete the 18-month certification for legal standards, a process it hopes to begin in June. To raise money for the national exam, local studios will hold fundraisers on May 15.
"It's maddening for those of us who have been teaching awhile and very scary for the public because they don't know what they're getting," said Kevin Bowen, who founded the PMA out of concern for pilates' future.
"We wanted to have a say about what was being lost with the proliferation of quickie training programs. It's happening nationwide," Bowen said.
Pilates became known as a dancer's technique after Martha Graham sent her students to Joseph Pilates' New York studio. These days golfers, skaters, runners, skiers and professional football teams use pilates for the strength, balance and flexibility, not to mention long, lean muscles.
Instructors say that pregnant women are flocking to it. And doctors are referring patients to pilates centers for additional treatment.
But if it weren't for health clubs _ which have brought the world such things as chair pilates, step pilates, aqua pilates and yoga pilates _ classic pilates might never have made it into the mainstream.
"A health club is a good way to get pilates out there and introduce it to people," said Laurel Silverman, 30, who teaches at both Frog Temple and Lakeshore Athletic Club Lincoln Park. "As long as people enjoy it, that's what matters. Everyone is looking for something different."
Most teachers admit that the discipline has had to evolve to survive. Joseph Pilates, a strict teacher who was known for standing on his students' abdomens, originally published a manual with 34 exercises. Today there are more than 500.
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Teachers such as Whitman at Frog Temple and Cindy Reid at Flow Inc. Pilates and Yoga in Chicago, who registered the term "Piloga" together, have found that combining yoga and pilates enhances the best of both systems. It also saves time for those who like both practices and exposes students to new techniques.
"I don't think it replaces pure pilates instruction," said Reid, a pilates teacher who has practiced yoga for 15 years. "I'm simply augmenting it with specific yoga stretches."
Yoga poses that open the hips, for example, stretch the external rotators and hip muscles.
"Hip stretching is not built into the pilates repertoire but is definitely something today's bodies are lacking," Reid said. "I'm not inventing something new. For me, it's a way of bridging the gap, bringing pilates into yoga study and vice versa."
While Whitman interspersed yoga and pilates during her Piloga class, Reid had her own style. She began with yoga poses, transitioned to pilates and finished off with the classic relaxation or corpse pose, a staple of all yoga classes.
"The combination is effective," said student Stacia Buechler, 26, a Chicago attorney, who first started taking Reid's class at the YMCA in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood. "Often in yoga, it's harder to do the poses right because there's not enough time spent strengthening the ab and back muscles. This is the perfect combination of flexibility and strength."