Mind-bending work-out: Pilates combines yoga, Alexander technique and weight-lifting. Naomi Coleman relishes the prospect of exercise without breaking sweat

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The Independent Culture
Five minutes late and the others are already in position. One person is sliding along a moving bed with legs suspended in stirrups, while someone else is shooting up and down in what appears to be an astronaut's chair. So this is Pilates.

Joseph Pilates was born a frail child in 1890 in Germany. He left his homeland at an early age and, during a short spell in Britain with a new life ahead of him, decided to conquer his weakness. Thus Pilates was born.

The technique is a gentle concoction of yoga, Alexander technique and weight-lifting. The aim of the exercises is to focus on the lower abdomen and by achieving this, the spine, chest and shoulders are gradually strengthened. 'It is the mind itself which shapes the body,' Joseph Pilates believed.

Still relatively new in this country, it is more commonly practised in the US, where Pilates eventually emigrated. You could try the aerobic version or perhaps take the Hollywood approach or, for a milder variation, there's meditational Pilates. Whichever you choose, Joseph Pilates always had a sympathetic thought for the body and to make life easier, he tailor-made a range of equipment to complement the exercises.

The studio is full of odd, toy-like things; something resembles a wheel, another a balancing board, and there are brightly coloured balls and cushions scattered all over the room. As a refreshing change from a room full of panting people, teachers of Pilates generally prefer small classes to ensure the exercises are carried out correctly.

'Drop the navel into the spine and gently tilt the pelvis, slowly unwinding each vertebra one by one,' says Anoushka Boone softly, who began teaching Pilates two-and-a-half years ago. Enveloped by the sound of watery, piped music and concentrating exceedingly hard on the area where Anoushka's finger is gently pressed into my stomach, the breathing begins to calm my racing mind.

Anoushka takes me through more mat exercises, before leading me to one of the large dubious-looking pieces of equipment. Lying down, legs straight and toes neatly parallel, I am instructed to concentrate on using my lower abdominal muscles to push the machine away, resisting the springs attached beneath it. 'Most people have no problem using their upper abdominal muscles,' says Anoushka. 'It's the lower abdomen that is the hardest to work.'

The other two pupils each balance on wooden boards throwing tennis balls at each other. This is an exercise for control as much as fun, since most Pilates exercises are aimed at centering the body. Weights of not more than 2lbs attached to the ankles and wrists are used to act as a guide to locating the muscles which need to be developed.

Many people find the method to be particularly good for back complaints which is how Anoushka first came across it. And don't go thinking that it's only for women. At this studio, almost as many men practise Pilates and the age groups range from 17 to 81.

Pilates classes at: No 1 Synergy, 11 Cadogan Gardens, London SW3 2RJ (071- 730 0720); Pilates of the Square, Danceworks, 16 Balderton St, London W1 (071-495 0374); Gordon Thomson's Body Control Studios, 17 Queensbury Mews West, London SW7 (071-581 7041); The Body Conditioning Studio, 3a Ladbroke Rd, London W11 (071-727 9963)

(Photograph omitted)