Physical fitness is the first requisite of happiness. ~Joseph Pilates
Good posture has been one of my New Year's Resolutions for years. (I still haven't accomplished it so it's on my list again this year). Bad posture can cause many ills from poor digestion to back and joint pain. When I first put posture on the list, I thought immediately of the Pilates Method. This exercise focuses on strengthening your core (muscles in your abdomen and back), which is necessary for good posture. Developed by Joseph Pilates in the 1920s, it is supposed to make you stronger, leaner and longer. It was initially taken up by ballet dancers, who are the graceful epitome of long, lean good posture.
The Pilates Method is taught through equipment or mat classes. It focuses on muscle control, which is harder than it sounds. Equipment classes are generally more effective since they increase resistance. They are usually taught privately or in small groups so they are more expensive. Mat classes follow a sequence of Pilates exercises, and require a mat. When I started taking Pilates, I didn't have the cash for the equipment classes so I took mat. Then a friend of mine who wanted to be in the best shape of her life when she turned 40 started taking equipment classes. After seeing the taut lines that ran down the sides of her stomach, I decided to try a few classes. So this is one layperson's experience.
Just for a little background, I consider myself fairly active. I'm no Olympian, but I run, strength train and practice yoga regularly. Pilates kicked my butt. When I first started mat classes, I had no idea I was such a weakling. The exercises were so hard, it was addictive. Over time, the exercises got easier but I didn't notice myself being any longer or leaner. I eventually got bored with the series, and I didn't have the time to do both yoga and Pilates so I focused on yoga.
However, I recently took a series of three equipment classes at Pilates on Fifth in NYC. The classes were supposed to be a small group (four people), but I lucked out and the first one happened to be private. That was extremely helpful because the exercises were different from anything I'd done before. Equipment classes were even harder than mat. The machines are odd looking, and they add enough resistance to be excruciating. The classes are a full body workout. Mat classes seem to focus on core and some leg, but the equipment hits all the muscles in your arms and legs too. I kept looking at my watch hoping the class would be over. I got sweaty by the end. Since I took the classes sporadically (weeks in between classes) so I didn't get all the benefits. If I'd taken them regularly, I have no doubt that I would be walking tall. My friend with the taut tummy has been taking private sessions for a little less than two years, and her instructor varies the Pilates with gyrotonics. She also does some mat exercises at the gym.
There are some similarities between yoga and Pilates. As much as I like Pilates, I'm going to stick with yoga. There's an inceasing amount of cross-over. A yoga instructor will occasionally add some Pilates exercises, which is great, and there are hybrid yogilates classes too.
Bottom Line: If you are looking for a disciplined strengthening exercise, Pilates is great. Mat classes will strengthen your core, and if you can afford it, equipment classes are a full-body workout. Combine equipment classes with cardio exercise and you'll have a full exercise program.