The Pilates Body with Brooke Siler

Last Editorial Review: 10/23/2003

WebMD Live Events Transcript

Event Date: 06/07/2000.

Personal trainer, fitness instructor and author Brooke Siler will discuss her views on the Pilates body conditioning techniques.

The opinions expressed by Ms. Siler are hers and hers alone. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Moderator: Welcome to WebMD Live's Mind and Body Auditorium. Today we are discussing The Pilates Body with Brooke Siler.

Brooke Siler is a personal trainer, a certified Pilates instructor, the co-owner of the successful re:AB Studio in New York City, and the personal trainer of a number of celebrities. As the youngest of six athletic children, including four brothers, and the daughter of an Olympic-level athlete, she was constantly encouraged to develop her physical skills. Siler has spent over 600 hours under the tutelage of Romana Kryzanowska, a prot?g? of Joseph Pilates for more than 30 years, and has since gained her own reputation as a respected teacher in the field. She is the author of The Pilates Body: The Ultimate Guide to Strengthening, Lengthening and Toning your Body--Without Machines.

Brooke, welcome to WebMD Live. How did Pilates begin?

Siler: Pilates himself was born in Germany. And he began creating a method for himself because he was a sick child with asthma and rickets and, in order to do the things he wanted to do, he needed to strengthen his body. He began to study the human form and how it moves. He even studied animals and the way they moved their bodies. And, in that way, his interest in the body's movement became greater and he was able to develop a series or a system of movements that strengthen the circulatory system, the cardiovascular system in terms of breathing, and the muscular tonality and stretch. And the combination served to strengthen him to the point where he was able to become a gymnast and acrobat and boxer and skier and swimmer. He became a true athlete in every sense of the word. And this was all due to the system of exercise he developed. Later on, he was interned during the war and began to teach this method of mat or floor work to fellow internees. Going further, he worked in a hospital during the war with non-ambulatory patients who didn't have the muscular strength to do his system and so he took bed springs from the hospital beds and attached them to the bed frames and thus was able to work with the patients' limbs that weren't able to move on their own. By moving them, he was able to create a form of movement in which their circulation could be improved. He and the doctors noticed improvements in the patients and this was the beginning of his apparatus design. Many people associate Pilates with big apparatus, but the foundation was the mat work, which is what The Pilates Body is based on.

Moderator: In America, this started in the dance community many decades ago. How did that happen?

Siler: When Pilates immigrated here in 1925, his studio happened to be in the same building as the rehearsal space for Ballanchine. And Ballanchine began to bring his dancers, injured dancers as well, to Joe Pilates. And it became a forum for dancers to go to gain more strength in their bodies, because dance is a very strenuous activity. Joseph Pilates' system worked in conjunction with the movements that dancers were used to. However, with the added resistance and control they were able to make their dance moves safer by working within their joints and strengthening the muscles around their joints so there was less injury. However, Joseph Pilates himself catered more to acrobats and anyone willing to learn, actually. He was a big proponent of teaching his method to any and all who were willing to be there with him.

Moderator: Tell us about Romana Kryzanowska. Who was she?

Siler: Romana began training with Pilates. She was a Ballanchine dancer. He brought her to Joseph with an ankle injury in 1941. Romana began to train in the original Pilates studio under Joe for about four years, training extensively and they became very close. He began to teach her his method. And, over the years she began teaching with him and under him and he used her as his prot?g?. She stayed training in total about 30 years. She never stopped teaching even though she moved out of the country. When she moved back to New York, she trained under him again and ended up taking charge of the original Pilates studio after his death and worked with his wife. Romana has since been at it about another 30 years after that, so about 60 years total. She still teaches every day, and travels around the world and teaches and carries on this method, and makes sure that it stays as pure as it was when she learned it. This is very difficult because many who learned under Joe began to teach other people the way they'd been taught for their own bodies which isn't necessarily the way to teach everyone. Romana learned from Joseph how to break down each movement so it could be taught to each individual. That's the difference. Many who didn't stay with their training tend to teach slower or more therapeutically than originally Joe had planned. Essentially, what Romana likes to reiterate is that Joseph Pilates wanted Pilates to be for the normal, healthy body and when people have injuries they, instead of focusing on their injury as you might do in physical therapy, you focus on your strengths around the injury, so you're not a product of your injuries, you're a normal, healthy body with an injury. That's a very important idea, especially in a society that is so based on almost becoming victims of the medical community, or we tend to look outside of ourselves and take advice about ourselves that we actually have control over. Pilates is very much about autonomy and responsibility for your own well being. Autonomy, meaning when you came to Pilates, you were a student. It was not a system that was meant to make you dependent upon a trainer or a piece of equipment. It was meant for you to use to strengthen your body so you'd be better able to perform your daily activities and sports. And it became a foundation for anything else you were doing. I think that's important because people tend to think that if you learn Pilates, then that's all you do. But it's meant to be a foundation and most people find that after learning Pilates, it provides them with everything they need so they don't choose to do anything else and that's fine too. However, Pilates was a very active man and wanted all people to be active and efficient in their activities. And, that was the foundation of Pilates.

Moderator: In your book you say "Physical fitness is the first requisite of happiness." What does that mean?

Siler: Pilates believed that it was impossible to -- you know how they say "in corpus sonus mentus" -- that in order to have a happy healthy mind you have to start with a happy, healthy body. That, and the fact that it's actually our minds and our will that control our body. When you work in unison, mind and body, you're able to achieve anything that you need to achieve.

Moderator: What are the mat work principles?

Siler: There is concentration and control and breathing, fluidity. These are all the ideas behind Pilates. When you're working, you're not focusing on only one thing. There are many things happening. Centering, and I added also imagination, intuition and integration. And, in the book you'll see there is an explanation for each. But, essentially, the principles give you a focus. Many people want to know what Pilates can do for them. What is it based on? And, those are the principles that it's based on. And I think many other exercise forms aren't as philosophical per se. And, Pilates really was a philosophy of movement and exercise. He taught people to enjoy and understand the importance of movement and connecting to your body and how good you can feel from moving. Whereas, nowadays, I think we're trained to believe that exercise is not only you "should" do and "have to" do, but it becomes very restrictive, and it's drudgery for many who drag themselves out of bed to get to the gym and they don't know why they're doing it except they're told they should.

One thing I wanted to be very clear was that the models in the book weren't chosen to intimidate or be everybody's ideal, although they are quite ideal, each and every one of them. But, each one of them has worked through their own challenges to get to the point where you see them in this book. When I chose them, I chose them not only because of these beautiful bodies, but I chose them because they were strong enough to be able to endure the days of shooting which were very long and arduous. They were troopers and I can't extol enough credit to them. And you can see in the pictures that they did a beautiful job.

Moderator: What is the "powerhouse?"

Siler: The powerhouse is the foundation of Pilates in the sense that it is the center, it's your abdominals, your lower back, hips and buttocks. So it's the band of muscles that circles your body just under your belt line. If you think of a corset cinched around your waist that goes down around your hips, that sensation of being pulled into a tight center is the foundation of Pilates because you're using your own muscles to create a firm center. With a firm center, all your movements come from a place of control. They happen to also be the target areas which is not random. If you notice, those happen to be the areas that when you tell people that those are the areas that Pilates work they say, that's exactly the area I need to work. And that's because many exercise techniques don't focus on those areas. The beauty of Pilates is that is your initiating focus. However, every single muscle in your body is worked simultaneously. So, you don't develop a firm center and have flabby arms and legs. That doesn't happen in Pilates. If you're taught correctly, you understand that your body works in unison, each part helping the other. When you begin from your center, you have a core because your center is your center, the only part of your body that is on line. Your right arm is on the right and your left arm is on the left, et cetera. So we focus on the center in order to be improved.

Moderator: "Scooping" is another expression. What does that mean?

Siler: Scooping is the act of contracting your abdominal muscles so that they are pulled into your spine without shortening in your back. You don't want to pull in so that you shrink. You stand at your tallest or lie down at your tallest, longest point and contract your muscles down to support the delicate parts of your lower back, which is generally where most people have pain because they let their abdominals hang forward. And most back pain is alleviated in Pilates within the first five to ten sessions. It's just incredible -- when people really learn how to begin to engage their abdominals, they find that nagging back pain disappears and it's not a coincidence.

Moderator: What is the "Pilates stance?"

Siler: If you think about what I was saying before that the right leg is on the right and the left leg is on the left, the way to become stronger in your center is to bring your legs together. And the Pilates stance is a slight turnout so you begin to use the muscles of your buttocks and thighs to draw your muscles into that center. Think of a column. Pilates was interested in thinking of the body as columnar and if you think of it as a column with pieces sticking out left and right, that's the stance you take in order to keep your strength in your center.

albertsantana_webmd: Can you do Pilates without all of the equipment?

marianna251_msn: I was always under the impression that Pilates was used with a machine. Is that not the case?

Siler: As I said before, the essence of Pilates or the essential Pilates comes from the mat work, which is what The Pilates Body is based on. For those who are not able to control their muscles in space, if they're not strong enough, the machines were designed to aid people who needed additional help. So, where most people think the machines are what you build toward, actually what you're building toward is the strength to do it all just with your body. And then, the machines or apparatus become an enhancement to your workout. But, actually, in the beginning, they were meant for people who were not strong enough to do the mat work.

marianna251_msn: Is there any other special equipment needed?

Siler: Hopefully, nothing is needed but your body, which in Pilates we consider the body the most perfect tool of all, the most perfect machine ever designed. As you learn more about your body and how it moves, you begin to see how incredible we are with nothing. But Pilates was an inventor and designed many different tools to help when he was teaching people with different ailments. He even had something called a "foot corrector," a little spring-based foot platform almost looking like what you'd measure yourself for a shoe and he'd use it to teach people alignment. What we don't realize is that many of our knee and hip injuries or pains come from not knowing how to use our feet correctly. We walk in heels or on uneven pavement or carrying a bag on one side. Pilates believed that it was our bad habits that led to our injuries.


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marianna251_msn: How so you know if you are strong enough?

Siler: What I put in the beginning of The Pilates Body, which is available at, is a very modified series of seven exercises. You'll find them challenging even in their modified form. I can do the modified version and even find myself sweating and having a good workout. It's even to the point that if you try repeatedly to do the modified movements and cannot get it or find pain involved due to an injury, you may want to seek a teacher's tutelage.

Moderator: Most people who do Pilates seem to have very long, lean muscles. Is that a result of doing this exercise?

Siler: Absolutely. That's not to say that you can't be overweight and do Pilates or that you need to be stick thin or look like a dancer. Pilates lengthens your muscles because you're working from long positions as opposed to contracted positions. So you are stretching your muscles while simultaneously strengthening them. As opposed to when you go to the gym and you're using your weights and bulking and contracting your muscles without proper stretching, your muscles will contract and become shorter. That's why you not only get a bulkier look, but you don't have the same range of motion. So Pilates believed that strength without stretch was useless and vice versa, but the two together is what gave Pilates its edge. When you think about an Arnold Schwarzeneger versus a Bruce Lee, you can notice the difference. Bruce Lee with his long, lean muscles was able to perform more movements with agility than Arnold was able to perform. I think, given the opportunity, most people would want to feel more Bruce Lee than Arnold, although Arnold has a beautiful body. That's an aesthetic preference.

Moderator: Is this good for actually losing fat or should you do it after you've reached your desired weight?

Siler: Certainly, Pilates will never hinder any weight loss program. Therefore, it can be used in conjunction with anything else you're doing. In terms of weight loss and Pilates, what Pilates does primarily is begin to increase your circulatory system. As that increases, you'll find not only does your metabolism begin to function better, which usually tends to aid people in losing weight, but your energy level increases to such an extent that you find yourself being more active. The more active you are, the more weight you lose. So what I tend to find and what has been, as far as I've ever heard anyone say across the board, is that Pilates will reshape your muscles and generally you'll lose sizes before you'll lose actual pounds. And I see loss in size all the time. For six years, I've watched people drop down clothing sizes and not necessarily need to go on restricted diets and that is a big plus.

Moderator: How long does that usually take? How many times per week?

Siler: It really depends on the person. And, I can't say that if you're in shape that it works faster, because that's not true. Some people absolutely get Pilates right away. And it's not a brainless exercise. It's really an intelligent form of movement. So, for those willing to put in the time and effort, and it's not a lot of time and effort, it' s just concentrated time and effort, it's quality -- for those people, they'll need less time. I like to equate it to learning a language. You can go and learn a little bit every day or you can learn a chunk a week. Obviously, somebody studying every day will have more results than someone learning sporadically. I see clients who after two sessions are already standing taller and their energy is increased, while others it takes six months before they fully understand how much of their will and control is needed. When you commit yourself mentally to Pilates, it is the most rewarding system of exercise I've ever encountered. And, I've tried everything. I was very fickle when it came to exercise. I was a personal trainer and had seen it all. When I found Pilates, I've seriously never looked back a day. I've never found anything as efficient as Pilates. And, it hasn't stopped me from doing other things. I'm a horseback rider and it has only increased my awareness of how I ride. And there is nothing more beautiful than someone walking into a room with their head held high and shoulders in form. It's how you carry yourself and that's what Pilates is about.

Moderator: What are some of the most important changes you've seen in yourself from Pilates?

Siler: My energy, I would say, is the number one. And body awareness is the second. I feel like I'm no longer fighting my body. I don't need to worry as much about eating too much one day, or that's not my concern anymore. I feel so in control and in synchronicity with my mind and body that I would say it's a very empowering feeling and that is the biggest life change. I mean, it really changed my whole relationship to exercise.

Moderator: How did you learn about the Pilates method?

Siler: I was a personal trainer in a gym in between jobs. I wanted to be a writer. While I was working at a small gym in the West Village, a woman brought the equipment into the gym and began teaching. I was fascinated and had never seen or heard of it. It looked crazy and interesting and I couldn't afford to do the session so I began to do the mat work. I had never been so humbled in my life and I was a trainer. I mean, I was big and bulky, but comparatively I was in terrible shape, but no one else would have known. I could do hundreds of sit-ups and push-ups and thought I had it all. I was very bulky and felt heavy and cumbersome. When I began the mat classes, I was frustrated. I found the frustration to be a challenge because I knew this wasn't an impossible technique but that I just needed to understand it. So I stuck with it and every chance I got to be in a class, I was there. There was no reading material available then. So I had to just remember things and practice the way I stood and walked. I tried to be conscious of what I'd learned in my class. Slowly but surely, I couldn't even touch my toes when I began. And, that's so key, especially as we get older. Our muscles aren't as kind if we don't pay attention to them. I like to think of the body as a pet, and it's friendly and wants your attention and so when you give it attention, it will obey. It knows nothing in this world other than what you tell it, so if you give it the care and commitment that it wants, it will do wonderful things for you. I can't believe that my body can do the things it can do. At a young age, I became very lethargic. I didn't have a lot of energy and I worked out a lot to the point of exhaustion. The beauty of Pilates is that it increases your energy. You never feel exhausted after a session. You may feel the effort, but are never exhausted. In fact, the energy level is, I think, what keeps you coming back. The people that come back to my studio time and again, and the people I hear who continue with the Pilates method are people who in the past have never, ever committed themselves to anything physical. The proof is in the pudding -- there it is!

Moderator: How did you become a certified instructor?

Siler: Well, it didn't take much longer than about a month before I was ready to know everything there was to know, which of course will take me the rest of my life, which I love. I love that it's a never-ending process. I would be so bored if I learned it and then was done. Your body is ever changing and your mind is always coming up with new ways to work your body. About a month into my classes, I decided this is for me. And I didn't take the certification course to become a teacher. I took it because I was studying. That's what I am. I'm a student of Pilates. No matter how many books I write or how much I teach, I'm an everlasting student of Pilates and I love that idea. There is always a new challenge around the corner. The certification course is 600 hours under Romana Krymenoswka of intensive observation, training, and teaching. It took me six months to a year because I was working still. There are programs that tell you that you can learn this in a weekend, and that's so scary to me that people are out there teaching that.

sejordan_webmd: Brooke, I just read your article in Fit magazine. I would love to try Pilates at home on days that I cannot get to the gym. Would you recommend getting started on your own with the magazine how-to sections, or getting an instructor first?

Siler: If you are lucky enough to have a teacher in your area who's certified -- because those are the only people I can vouch for. I don't know the styles that other people teach. What I know is the course that I took -- and if you can find someone who's taken that course who is accessible to you, by all means, that is a beautiful way to begin Pilates and it's a nice thing to do for yourself. If you can't, I am not the biggest proponent of learning from a magazine. The positions are what a photo editor has chosen. And, it's a magazine. It's more glamorized. If at all possible, if you can't get to a teacher, you can buy the book, The Pilates Body from  It's also important to buy the book because you can't beat having a reference even if you have a teacher. The pictures in the magazine are selected because that magazine liked the look of the position. It's not based around the person's fitness level. In the book, that's why I chose not to be the model for the book because I wanted to be the one watching the positions. I was the teacher for the book.

Moderator: You mentioned that some people get certified in a weekend. Are they being trained properly?

Siler: No. I cannot imagine how it's possible to learn how to teach the number of different bodies that we see. In 600 hours, there are still people I see who need more learning and experience, and they won't pass their exam and continue. Even after certification, we go through 16 hours of continued training. I go once a week with my teacher Romana and her daughter. They are always teaching me new and wonderful things.

sejordan_webmd: Thanks for your candor. The positions shown in magazines look so easy, but I suppose I never thought about it from the photographer perspective.

Siler: Exactly.

Moderator: What makes Pilates different from all the new trends in fitness we see?

Siler: Certainly, primarily, Pilates has the history behind it. It has almost 100 years of research and development and honing the technique. Trends that come along, you tend to find out in about two years how bad they are for you and safety is key. You don't exercise to injure yourself, obviously. In fact, nothing in Pilates should ever be painful. But the difference also being that Pilates is not based around solely an aesthetic. It's a foundation of movement that is good for your body in every manner, shape and form, if it's taught and learned correctly.

Moderator: What is the difference between Pilates and Yoga?

Siler: It's a very good question. Pilates pulled from many different techniques and there are very similar movements in Pilates and Yoga. However, Yoga is a static form of movement and Pilates is based on fluidity, rhythm and movement, the reason being that we are naturally creatures that move. Our bodies are physiologically designed to move. Therefore, if we learn to "exercise" in motion in correct form and alignment, we are better able to move in life with correct form and alignment. There are many times, including sleeping, that you're moving. Many injuries occur, actually, in people's sleep. So, Pilates strengthens your joints so that you are resilient.

Moderator: When doing the Pilates exercise, what should one focus on?

Siler: You want your movements to initiate from your powerhouse, and the focus is on the movement and the feelings. How a movement feels is something that sounds very simple, but to be in touch with how something feels is different from how we're trained. So in Pilates you want to feel what muscles are moving and working.

Moderator: How do you go about finding a good instructor?

Siler: That's the legal question being contested now. The best way to find a teacher is that I can only vouch for people who have been certified in the same program I have been. To me, I can't understand how anyone would want to do it any other way. But if Joseph Pilates taught Romana and she's been teaching for 60 years, why you'd want to learn from anyone other than her or those coming in alignment from her is something I don't know. So you can find a list of those instructors in my book, The Pilates Body. The National Pilates Studio is also a good place to start, 1-800-4PILATE. They are the keepers of the master list of all of us who've been certified. And, there are about 500 of us now all over the world.

sejordan_webmd: What kind of shape were you in before you began Pilates?

Siler: I was about 25 pounds heavier than I am now. I was strong, but I was bulky. And, I wasn't at all toned. My muscles had no definition. Even for a tall, thin person, I was big. And I felt uncomfortable in my body, even though I worked out constantly. And Pilates helped shape and lengthen my muscles, and gave me a feeling of lightness and control which I like to synthesize into the word alacrity, which I've had a sense of alacrity since doing Pilates.


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sejordan_webmd: What kind of other physical activities do you do besides Pilates? Lots of cardio? Weight training?

Siler: I think, negating the aesthetic, I've never felt better ever from exercising than I did after beginning Pilates. I also do horseback riding and I'm active. If it's ski season, I ski. If I'm near water, I swim. I like to move. I don't run anymore because I found it too hard on my joints. But, I train many runners and if that's what your passion is, don't leave your passion. Just learn how to move your body correctly and you'll enjoy whatever your activity or sport of preference is.

sejordan_webmd: When you added Pilates to your life, did you change eating habits as well? What kinds of changes did you make?

Siler: I chose to at the time. But my passion is dark chocolate and still is. (LOL) And there is nothing better than being able to allow myself my indulgences without guilt. And that is a beautiful thing. I think, more importantly, the same way with exercise, to feel what you're doing is the same with food. If you feel good from what you're eating, if you feel that's a food that makes you feel good and gives you energy then eat it, because that's what food is for. I think it's important for people to trust their instincts. Not across the board, though. There are foods that happen to be better for me than they are for you and foods that you can eat that I wouldn't go near. That's personal responsibility.

Moderator: Brooke, thank you for joining us. WebMD members, please join us every Wednesday at 9 pm EDT here in the Mind and Body Auditorium for our live weekly event.

The opinions expressed by Ms. Siler are hers and hers alone. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

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