How I survived a 21-day Pilates challenge that helped Meghan Markle
Eager to live the life of a minor royal, Caomhan Keane takes one-on-one classes in an attempt to get that Meghan effect
It's been said about Pilates that "in 10 sessions you'll feel the difference, in 20 sessions you'll see the difference, and in 30 sessions you'll have a whole new body".
With swimsuit season upon us, that sounds good to me, so I've undertaken a 21-day challenge for Pilates Day, celebrated this Saturday.
It's not quite as ubiquitous as yoga - seeing as the apparatus it's performed on, the reformer, can't be tucked beneath your sweat-patched arm and paraded about.
But it helped Meghan Markle attain the body that caught Prince Harry's eye and Pippa Middleton earn the bum she's built her empire on, so its renown is spreading. While there were only 10 studios in Ireland in 2010, there are now at least 75 nationwide.
Having always wanted to live the life of a minor royal, I figure the body is a good place to start and head to Live & Breath Pilates for a private consultation with Steph Grey, owner and founder.
"The ideal way to learn Pilates is on a one-to-one basis," she explains. "An instructor needs to teach to the person in front of them, not off a set lesson plan."
Dyspraxic, I have the grace and poise of Jennifer Lawrence on Oscar night. Grey believes I should focus less on flexibility and more on strength. "You should work on proprioception - which is basically your brain's ability to figure out where your body is in space. By performing exercises on the equipment or on the mat, always balancing your hand or foot on something, your neurology becomes more adept.
"You also need to develop your muscles to hold them in place," she adds. "When you stretch a rubber band, it's only going to work if you have an anchor at the other end. As you haven't developed that, your joints move in the direction of the pull and you can't hold the pose properly."
I start my challenge with a mixture of studio and mat Pilates with Katie Holmes in Reform Pilates, Blackrock. I feel like Pinocchio being brought to life by Giuseppe as I tuck my legs and arms into various straps, ropes, poles and springs, stretching, flexing, bending and feeling the burn, as muscles and joints that have long lain undiscovered fling sharp arrows of pain at the invading strain.
"Because of our sedentary lifestyle - sitting in cars, in the office, or at home - our spine has become rounded in a way it is not supposed to," she explains. "Our posture has worsened and we have developed lower back pain, weakness of the core and a lack of mobility in our hips. "The reformer and the cadillac machines help to guide and align your body into a better posture," she adds. "They give you a structure around which your body can fix itself and it can be adapted to support or challenge your body by adding or subtracting springs."
Mat Pilates, while cheaper than studio Pilates, is technically the more difficult of the two. Performed solely on the mat - with an option for a variety of small props, you have to use your own body weight and push yourself harder without the assistance of the machines. But once you get the hang of it, you can perform it daily at home.
While not exactly painful, it is not uncommon to feel a twinge of panic and claustrophobia as you lift your legs and shoulders off the ground at the same time and your core shrieks like it's the pre-credits victim in a horror movie. But these exercises are spaced out and never last long. Just remember to breathe through it, as it will allow you to move more effectively and easily.
With six classes under my belt with Holmes, I feel ready to try the more strenuous cardio-jump-board Pilates.
"Cardio-jump-boards are for people with really good body awareness and machine know-how, who want more kick from their work out," says Milena Jaksic-Byrne, founder of Platinum Pilates. "You alternate between jumping the board in and out while stretching your legs and doing core exercises like planks, changing the emphasis and focus each time."
Byrne says the exercise is particularly good for people like me who want to continue running but whose feet are no longer able to absorb the force of the ground.
"The stuff you do on the jump board teaches you to land and decelerate, so that you are not landing with the force of gravity. Your muscles stretch out, absorb the force and propel you back out again. Basically, you recondition your feet."
Many athletes have embraced Pilates as part of their cross-training. The All Blacks incorporated it 25 years ago. Serena Williams practises three times a week. Annika Sörenstam, the greatest-ever female golfer, found it helped her correct the imbalance that comes from consistently twisting your body in the same direction, putting power behind her swing by increasing ankle flexibility and knee strength.
Thanks to Miss Markle, Megaformer Pilates is the new buzzword for the fitness set. It's not available in Ireland yet, but Emma Forsythe of Pilates Plus, who has exclusive rights to the LaGree Method upon which it is based, says there's little difference between this new machine and the proformer she uses in her studio. "The Megaformer is a proformer, with a boob job," she laughs.
"Sebastian LaGree trained with Joe Pilates, and his pupils in LA who were time-poor approached him, saying: 'I don't have time to do Pilates and personal training. Can you create an exercise that combines them?'" So he started trying to do the exercises on the reformer. But it wasn't sturdy enough and he developed the proformer."
As I observe the class, I wonder how hard it could really be? When I hit the proformer, I quickly find out. My muscles tremble from the wasabi-strength workout and my legs threaten to give way as sweat is expelled from my body quicker than staff from the White House.
"It's the opposite of a fast gym class," says Forsythe. "If you are doing things rapidly, the momentum can help you cheat. With this, by slowing it right down, you actually feel muscles working much better."
Because people are not used to feeling certain muscles in their back or their shoulders, they really feel it, particularly the next day. Perhaps thinking I possessed masculine pride, Emma reassures me that Cathal Pendred, the MMA fighter, has taken one of her classes. "By the end of his workout, he looked like he had taken a shower."
Approaching the end of my 21-day challenge, I'm still more figure of eight than 007, but my sleep has improved and my focus has sharpened. And it's helped tighten up parts of the body that were considering a migration south.
"The body has more fat than muscle as you get older," concludes Forsythe.
"Resistance training develops more lean muscle and quickens your metabolism, so you burn more calories just going about your day."