“That contraption looks ominous” was my initial observation as I walked into the Pilates studio for my first session and noticed with fear and dread the various reformer machines scattered about the room. I had tried a Pilates mat class about a decade ago and I had vague recollections of exercise balls, sit-ups, crunches, oblique work, and more sit-ups. However, I had vivid memories of sprinting to the bathroom to throw up immediately after class from torturing my abs for 60 minutes.
So why was I trying this again? I had a friend who was earning her certification in Pilates and had to teach 200 hours without pay as part of that process. Pilates lessons for free? “Why not?” I thought. Plus, I’m more open-minded these days about trying new workout methods and I certainly envy the toned bodies of die-hard Pilates fanatics.
I was still a bit skeptical, however. I did not have room in my life for any more fitness obsessions, with Bikram Yoga and long-distance running at the top of my list.
So what specifically is Pilates, and how can it help singers? Is too much core work detrimental for singers working on appoggio breathing? I asked BASI-educated instructor and Community Outreach Coordinator of Contrology Pilates in Las Vegas, Amy M. Helt Helt, about the advantages of practicing Pilates. “With regular practice, flexibility, coordination, and posture are improved,” she says. “Pilates helps you develop strength and create long, lean muscle. Strengthening and stretching muscles helps prevent and, in some cases heal from, injuries.”
Several of Helt’s clients are recovering from injuries and illnesses, which brought me to my next question: Can anyone do Pilates? “Absolutely!” Helt says. “I teach a wide variety of clients, and there are certain situations that require modifications. It’s critical to understand your client’s needs so you can create a program tailored to helping them reach their goals. Some also consider Pilates to be a mind/body program. With prior physician consent, people suffering from or recovering from illnesses can utilize a Pilates program to reduce stress, regain strength, and remain active with low-impact exercises that still provide a workout. A consistent Pilates practice not only strengthens our body during stressful times, but our mind and spirit as well.”
One element I particularly enjoy about Pilates is the breath, as each exercise has a flow to it based upon breathing. You are supposed to exhale and inhale at specific points of each exercise. At first it can be a bit confusing and frustrating to coordinate, but once I figured out the intricacies, it made each exercise easier. As a singer, I found the repetitive in and out of the breathing to be comforting.
One major difference, however, is that singing typically advocates diaphragmatic, expansive breathing. For Pilates, you use intercostal breathing, meaning that your abs and ribcage stay constricted and tight for both inhalation and exhalation. After dealing with a similar conundrum in Bikram Yoga, I did not find this to be problematic. I just breathe differently for singing, yoga, and Pilates.
Helt describes the use of breath as a way to assist with movement, which helps develop awareness and control over our bodies. This has several implications for singing and breathing, mostly by building a singer’s awareness of his or her abdominal muscles, posture, and breath. This could potentially give a singer the ability to consciously activate certain muscles while singing in order to more efficiently breathe.
And, so, the verdict? Not bad. I have been practicing for only a few months, but I can definitely tell a difference in my body. I feel stronger and more toned, and my newly developed abs are proving to be beneficial for my singing. My core is absolutely stronger and, in fact, Pilates has also strengthened my Bikram Yoga practice.
Overall, I have found that my work in Pilates has complemented my singing, teaching, and Bikram Yoga practice. It both strengthens my body while also relaxing my mind, and I have enjoyed the physical challenge of tackling new exercises. Considering that part of Bikram Yoga is practicing poses in a room that is 104 degrees with 40 percent humidity, I am definitely taking pleasure in not breaking a sweat in the Pilates studio. While maybe not a new obsession for me, Pilates has unquestionably been a welcome workout alternative.
The full article Reformer Pilates and Singing appeared in the December issue of Classical Singer magazine.