The moment of truth came a few months ago when I was struggling with the zipper of my jeans. It was such tough going that the top of the zipper actually gouged the side of my finger, but worse, when I finally exhaled, I could clearly see a roll of flesh about the size of a medium-size snake, curled around my waist. Clearly, after two pregnancies and 40-something years of almost total inactivity, something had to be done.
Around the same time as my snake epiphany, I began to hear the word Pilates. It started with a friend's mother who must have been well into her 70s but had the energy of somebody half her age. She wasn't necessarily reed thin, it was much more to do with the way she carried herself. Plus her skin positively shone. No, it wasn't a facelift, and it certainly wasn't jumping up and down to the Bee Gees. It turned out to be something far more subtle and interesting. "Pilates," she said. "What?" I said. And so she explained.
The first Pilates instructor I went to see was Romana Kryzanowska, who works in New York out of Drago's Gym on West Fifty-seventh Street. If Pilates is a religion (and to some people it truly is), then Kryzanowska is the keeper of the Holy Flame. Fiercely loyal to Joseph, whom she met in 1941 when she was a young dancer with an ankle problem, she is also the first to excoriate (and sometimes sue) anybody who dares to tamper with the original and, to her mind, absolutely inviolable Pilates system. "I never deviate.
You build strength in that central "core" of your torso, and with stronger abdominals you also strengthen your spine, which devotees of Pilates believe is the key to a healthy body - and, incidentally, to great posture too. But that isn't to say that the rest of you takes it easy. Instead of mindless repetition, Pilates involves a series of more than 500 different movements that you do for a very short time before switching to the next one.
Kryzanowska, who had just turned 75 and had the same lithe vitality as my friend's mother, was also a walking ad for what Pilates can do for your rear end. "Touch," she said, and touch I did. It was rock hard.
Pilates is about firming and toning muscles; it isn't about body-building. With this kind of one-on-one training, there is absolutely no way you can get away with less than total concentration.
After about ten weeks the snake around my waist had slithered back into the jungle. I haven't lost any weight, but I am firmer. I can close the zipper on my jeans without drawing blood, and I haven't had to switch to my Sashimi and Espresso and Nicotine Diet. Most astonishing of all, my daughter and I went shopping together for serious, grown-up, minimal bikinis the other day. A first for her. And something I haven't done since the day she was born, fourteen years ago this July.