Cover Story: Breath of Fresh Air

Stacy Sims changed her life, and so can you

Jymi Bolden

If you stick with Pilates, says Stacy Sims (right), you'll feel better, look better and maybe even get a new body.

It's 8:30 at night, a day or two before Christmas, and I'm strapped into a device called the Reformer — the Reformer! — at Stacy Sims' Over-the-Rhine Pilates studio. I'm clutching a pink plastic ball — a pink plastic ball! — between my quivering legs and concentrating on my breathing.


This type of breathing, Sims says, is very important. It is, she says firmly, integral to Pilates.

First inhalation, then exhalation, followed again by inhalation.

In fact, this type of breathing is integral to most things. But in Pilates, unlike most other pursuits, it's particularly important: first a deep, steady inhalation, fully expanding the chest and lengthening the intercostal muscles, and then the slow and controlled exhalation, which, if done properly, sounds like a tire that has suffered a critical and irreparable puncture.


A single drop of sweat slides down my neck, pauses for a moment and grows a little fatter before sliding on.

This should be a Zen moment. But before I have time to contemplate the beauty of that sweat droplet and each of the multitudinous water molecules that formed it all vibrating and thrumming with my natural energy, Sims is instructing me to put my feet on the footbar of the Reformer, pull my stomach muscles into my spine, breathe deeply and push away.


This is not a Zen moment after all. I am, as Sims patiently reminds me again, supposed to be concentrating on my breathing.


There I go again.

Sims, who is 42 but looks much younger, has more than 50 clients who visit her regularly at Pendleton Pilates on the corner of Pendleton Street and Reading Road. The Reformers are filled between 50 and 70 times a week, she says, and she teaches between 20 and 30 hours a week.

On Jan. 6, Sims opened her second Pilates studio, on Brazee Street in Oakley — four more Reformers, several more mats and lots more pink plastic balls.

The inner muscles
But just what is Pilates? And what is a Reformer?

"What is Pilates?" Sims echoes thoughtfully, pronouncing it puh-lah-tees. "Actually, somone described it once as: If you crossed Yoga and Nautilus you'd come up with something close to Pilates. It's yoga-like in that there's a very specific breathing pattern, lots of stretching and very coordinated moves. And then the Nautilus-like component of Pilates, at least as it's done in our studio, is the machines."

Ah, yes, the machines. The Reformer. It sounds like a good title for Steven Seagal's next film, and it looks like an elaborate medieval torture device.

It's neither. Designed in the 1920s by Joseph Pilates, the father of Pilates, the Reformer is almost as integral to Pilates as are the specific breathing techniques.


The Reformer consists of a wooden or metal rectangular frame that measures approximately 7 foot long by 2 foot wide — like a coffin — and is raised about 16 inches above the floor on four legs. A wheeled and padded carriage sits on top of the Reformer and is guided by metal tracks that run the length of the frame; the carriage attaches with springs at one end and a handle-and-strap pulley system at the other and is fitted with a headrest, shoulder blocks and handgrips.

The student — and currently that student is me, huffing and puffing away — sits, lies, kneels or stands on the padded carriage, performing one of the almost 100 Reformer exercises that Pilates developed in the 1920s specifically to stretch and extend different muscle groups.

As I huff and puff, Sims continues: "Pilates said, 'You'll feel better in 10 sessions, look better in 20 and have a whole new body in 30 sessions.' It does realign the body, it does improve the posture.

"I had a guy start this weekend because he had a herniated disc. If you read what type of exercise you should do for back pain or to alleviate arthritis, they're Pilates exercises. People who have general issues with joints — knees, shoulders, elbows — it's a great way to get the body moving without any pounding."

According to the 2002 Superstudy of Sports Participation — whatever that is — Pilates is the single fastest growing fitness activity in the United States, with more than 2.4 million regular participants for the year 2001.

Here's why: Pilates exercise techniques have been shown to have positive therapeutic effects on a wide and extensive range of medical problems, including arthritis, asthma, cancer, depression, heart disease, irritable bowel syndrome, lymphoma, memory lapse (provided you remember to attend your classes), multiple sclerosis, osteoporosis, sciatica, scoliosis, sleep disorders, spina bifida and stroke.

By strengthening the inner muscles that surround the spine, Pilates develops core stability, increases balance and strength, elongates the muscles and improves balance and posture. And, according to findings in a 1998 scientific paper that appeared in the enthralling journal Medicine Science Sports Exercise, Pilates exercises helped to significantly improve the leaping ability of six elite rhythmical gymnasts. Rhythmical gymnasts!

More importantly, Madonna does it. Really, she does. So does Gwyneth Paltrow.

Patrick Korb attends classes with Sims twice a week. Korb isn't an elite rhythmical gymnast; nor is he much of a leaper. In fact, he's a local interior designer and consultant.

He's also one of only a few men who visit Sims regularly at her studio.

"I don't really think of it as exercise," Korb says, "although I use it as exercise. I think of it as body conditioning. It's far more involved."

The vast majority of Sims' regular clients are female, a statistic that male students like Korb believe will change over time.

"I don't think men think it's sissy," he says. "I just think a lot of them haven't found it yet. We don't get everything right off the bat here — sometimes it takes a while."

Korb has been practicing Pilates with a trainer for more than three years. Like many students, once he discovered Pilates he says he knew it would replace more conventional exercises like lifting weights or playing racquetball.

"It changes your whole life actually, if you really go for it," he says. "It's like you're recovering from a disease. You feel it every day."

Wimp 2 stud
Joseph H. Pilates was born near Dusseldorf, Germany, in 1880. By all accounts, he was a sickly, underweight child who suffered from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever.

Determined to overcome his physical weakness, he began studying diving, skiing, gymnastics and bodybuilding alongside Eastern exercise techniques like Yoga and Zen meditation. By the time he was 14, Pilates was transformed. He was such a perfect specimen that he was employed regularly as a model for anatomical charts.

In 1912, when Pilates was 32, he traveled to England to train as a boxer and teach self-defense to Scotland Yard detectives. Two years later, World War I divided Europe; Pilates was interned in England in a camp for German prisoners.

While there, Pilates trained his fellow prisoners, teaching them some of the exercise methods he'd devised and practiced as a boy. He attached springs to hospital beds and developed exercises based on stretching and resistance training, which allowed injured soldiers to exercise while they were recovering. The Reformer was born.

Pilates grandly called his exercise technique "the Art of Contrology." In 1926, more than a decade later, the war was over and Pilates and his wife moved to New York City. There, on Eighth Avenue, they opened a Contrology studio and trained a clutch of devoted followers, who took the Pilates techniques across the country and then around the globe.

There are photos of Pilates at age 57, bare-chested and flat-stomached, looking like a circus strongman, squinting at the sun. Even then, he looked like a side of beef with a head carefully balanced on top.

His Contrology techniques grew in popularity in the 1940s after being endorsed by high-profile ballet dancers like George Balanchine and Martha Graham, who found many of the 500 movements created by Pilates useful for strength, balance and posture training.

As the story goes, a fire broke out in Pilates' New York City apartment in 1966 when he was 86 years old. Rather than let his photographs and belongings go up in flames, he foolishly stayed behind gathering up armfuls of kindling instead. The floor gave way beneath him, and Pilates hung from the burning rafters for two hours until help arrived. Contrology!

Sadly, it was a costly testimonial to his methods. Pilates suffered extensive lung damage caused by smoke inhalation. He died less than a year later at age 87.


A busy woman
If Joseph Pilates were alive today, he most likely would say that Contrology saved his life. After all, Patrick Korb matter-of-factly says it changed his life.

Stacy Sims might say the same thing too, if you asked her. She might say, in an unguarded moment, that she's having something of a renaissance.

"It's been a huge component of a lot of changes that have happened in my life," she admits.

Born and raised in Cincinnati, Sims worked for the Contemporary Arts Center during the infamous Robert Mapplethorpe controversy that took place in 1990.

"I was head of public relations and marketing," Sims recalls. "I actually came on board a week before the trial started."

The CAC and its director, Dennis Barrie, were tried on obscenity charges stemming from the Mapplethorpe exhibition. They won acquittal on all charges.

Two years later, Barrie moved to Cleveland to start a company that managed travelling art exhibitions, and Sims joined him. Barrie later became the inaugural director of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Sims took over the exhibition company.

Just five years ago, a 37-year-old Sims — who no doubt looked 37 — was still in Cleveland, living what she now calls an unhealthy lifestyle.

"I was drinking way too much," she says. "I was smoking cigarettes. I had panic-stress disorder so bad I couldn't leave the house. I just thought, 'Oh my God, I can't keep living like this, too much partying and just not being healthy at all.' "

Her mother told her about Pilates and, at around the same time, a new Pilates studio opened across the road from where Sims was living.

"I went for the first time and thought, 'This is it,' " Sims says. "It didn't even seem like exercise. I was 20 or 30 pounds heavier and ultimately, over a year or so, I lost the weight."

In the summer of 2001, Sims came back to Cincinnati and taught Pilates for a couple of studios.

"I checked around and kept doing the math," she says.

Finally, she took the leap and opened her first studio across the street from where Pendleton Pilates is now located.

"I started with two Reformers," she says, "and in two or three weeks I was already working 20 hours a week, seeing 10 clients."

Six months later, Sims was hiring extra Pilates instructors. And now, another year later, she says proudly, she's opening a second studio.

"I just feel really capable, physically capable," Sims says, "which I think makes people feel capable of more than just physical achievement."

In fact, Sims has been surprising herself lately with some of her other achievements. In January 2004, Viking Press will publish her first novel, Swimming Naked, which she describes as a coming-of-age story. She says she's already more than 80 pages into her second novel.

"It's a dream come true," Sims says, "which sounds like a horrible cliché. But it is."

Sims is a busy woman. In the next couple of weeks, she'll start working with the University of Cincinnati's women's rowing team, sending two trainers out to instruct a 40-strong squad in Pilates mat work. Her new studio opened a few weeks ago. And she now writes a monthly column for Cincinnati Magazine that she describes as "like Sex and the City but with less sex."

Reform yourself
Buying a Reformer like the three sitting stoutly in Sims' downtown studio can cost anywhere between $2,800 and $5,000 and is as complicated a decision as purchasing a new car. Balanced Body Inc., based in Sacramento, Calif., is the largest manufacturer of Pilates equipment in the world.

"We have sold over 20,000 Reformers since we've been in business, so since 1973," says Laura Hansen of the company's marketing department. "We just shipped 50 of them over to Australia and another 40 to Spain, to our exclusive distributors."

Interested Pilates students can choose from a range of sizes, models and colors. There's the Allegro Reformer, used and endorsed by the Oakland Raiders; the Ron Fletcher Reformer, custom-designed by Fletcher (an original Eighth Avenue student of Pilates) and available in solid-rock maple and a choice of more than 83 custom colors, including persimmon, fjord and pink ice; the Reformer/Trapeze combination, which costs more than $5,000 and looks exponentially more hazardous than a normal Reformer; the Reformer/Half Trapeze combination, slightly less harrowing to look at; the Reformer-and-wall unit; the clinical Reformer; the personal Reformer; and, finally, the studio Reformer, which most closely resembles the contraption I'm sliding up and down as we speak, a pink plastic ball clutched tenaciously betwixt my quivering patellae, considering the multitudinous water molecules gathering on the back of my neck.


And yes, Hansen confirms, people really do buy nasturtium-colored Reformers. They buy camelback-colored and rum sherbet-colored ones, too. They also buy poles, ropes, loops, handles, footbars, footplates, footstraps, flex rings, rollers, balls, poles, cushions, springs, balance boards and all the other accessories that Pilates students often use.

Back at Pendleton Pilates, Sims is leading another group Reformer class — three students, each sliding up and down on their Reformers (which are upholstered in heavy-duty black vinyl), exhaling noisily through clenched teeth. Clients can sign up for an initial consultation series, private instruction, group Reformer sessions, mat classes or Yoga at either of Sims' studios.

For $50 or less — a significant break from $5,000 — anyone can receive an hour of individual Pilates instruction from Sims, who employs eight certified instructors, some of whom started as clients and later decided to become certified trainers. Groups sessions are $25 or less per person.

"It's a really incredible vehicle for people to get back in touch, or more in touch, with their body," Sims says. "It just makes the body so much smarter. I see people feel better in their general life, and maybe that's just because they feel more fit."

Meanwhile, at Pendleton Pilates I'm not yet feeling more fit. I'm feeling decidedly more graceless and uncoordinated than when I walked in half an hour ago. Another sweat droplet has collected, pausing for a moment before gravity imposes, sending it southwards, vibrating, full of energy, aimed directly at Earth's core.

Despite this, and all my concerted efforts to the contrary, I'm quite enjoying myself. And to paraphrase Sims paraphrasing Pilates, I have only 9 1/2 more sessions before I start to feel better and 19 1/2 before I begin to look better.

So I can't stand here talking to the likes of you. I need to start concentrating a little more on my breathing.

"Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh..." ©

Pilates, Please

Tonic for the body, mind and spirit
· Pendleton Pilates

1115 Pendleton St., Over-the-Rhine

4404 Brazee St., Oakley


· The Hyde Park Salon

3330 Erie Ave. Suite 12, Hyde Park


· Pilates Bodys

6934 Miami Ave. Suite 19, Madeira


· St. Elizabeth Medical Center

200 Medical Village Drive, Edgewood


Learn from a master
Master teacher Pat Guyton — the most senior teacher under Ron Fletcher, who's one of three living masters trained directly by Joseph and Clara Pilates — comes to town Feb. 28-March 2 for a workshop at Pilates Center of Cincinnati. The full three-day workshop is $350; floor work only is $180. Pilates Center of Cincinnati, 10921 Reed Hartman Hwy., Blue Ash, 513-791-9070.

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