By Lou Mancinelli
In the late 1800s a young German boy suffered from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever. The ailments inspired the young Joseph Pilates to dedicate his youth to overcoming his weaknesses, improving his physical strength and studying body-building, yoga and other fitness disciplines. By 14, the young boy was fit enough to pose for anatomical charts.
Many years later, the Pilates physical fitness system he developed as an answer to his pain has become a household name. Pilates (1883-1967), the son of a gymnast of Greek ancestry and a naturopath mother, came to believe poor posture and unregulated breathing, symptoms that could be attributed to the lifestyles of the modern human, were responsible for poor health conditions that plagued many individuals.
He eventually developed a studio in New York City in the late 1920s to teach his methods, which began to attract dancers, performing artists and others who led physical lifestyles where control of the body was essential.
In Mt. Airy, through her organization Pilates Alchemy, local resident Christina Fanizzi, who was raised in New York City and studied all types of dance and participated in theater as a youth, teaches Pilates through the Mt. Airy Learning Tree (MALT). She also teaches private and duet lessons.
“It’s the gold of life,” said Fanizzi, who requested that her age not be mentioned, during a recent interview. At its core, Pilates utilizes a concept its founder once used to refer to his method, “contrology.” It refers to one’s ability to control the muscles and body with one’s mind. This requires intense concentration, another key element in the exercise.
Correct breathing is another essential principle in the practice of Pilates. Others include centering the body, flow of efficiency of movement, precision and the “powerhouse,” which many instructors refer to as the abdomen, lower and upper back, hips, buttocks and upper thighs. By controlling and concentrating on the powerhouse section of the body, students complete various exercises like crunches and leg raises.
Most Pilates exercises are performed on the ground on a mat. It is similar to yoga and like-minded modalities. One inhales deeply, allowing air to expand the rib cage. One then exhales and squeezes in the belly. button.
“If you do Pilates on a regular basis, after 10 sessions you will start to feel a difference,” said Fanizzi. “After 20 sessions, you will start to see a difference. After 30 sessions, you are on your way to a whole new body. Pilates himself said this, but I can vouch for it, and it is definitely true.”
After graduating from Wagner College in Staten Island in the early ‘90s with a degree in theater and speech, Fanizzi worked in New York City as an actress. She toured and performed in regional productions of plays like “Wizard of Oz” and “Guys and Dolls.” She supplemented her wages with part-time work.
In her late 20s, towards the end of the decade, she discovered Pilates after one of her acting mentors, Gloria Maddox, was diagnosed with ALS. Along with other students, Fanizzi visited Maddox when she was bedridden. During her final months and days, Fanizzi helped her mentor perform simple range of motion of exercises that worked her arms and legs.
When Fanizzi realized how much the exercises soothed Maddox’s pain, and after talking with fellow students, Fanizzi decided to take her own Pilates course. She studied under Fran Lehen in Manhattan. Lehen had studied with Carola Trier, an original student of the method’s founder. Fanizzi was good enough to be offered a job by Lehen, and she taught on the Upper West Side for three years while she continued to perform and hold down part-time jobs.
But a wish to go abroad took her to London a few years after the turn of the century, which proved to be her turning point. There she met Pilates instructor Amy Alpers. “I was teaching it full-time before I started studying with her,” said Fanizzi, “but she just inspired me to really embrace the work completely with a new, fresh and inspired perspective. I had all this knowledge inside of me, but I hadn’t been able to integrate and fuse it.”
Fanizzi went on to earn a master’s certificate from Alpers’ Pilates Center in Boulder, Colorado in 2010. Two years ago, a relationship brought Fanizzi to her current home in Mt. Airy. In addition to her six-week, one-hour class at MALT, she teaches Pilates at Balance in Chestnut Hill, FitLife and Vitality Studio, both in Mt. Airy. In all, Fanizzi has been teaching the discipline for 13 years.
She says Pilates is for any type of individual at any age with any physical ailment, as well as for those who are looking for a simple increase in self-awareness and a healthier existence. “You are literally transformed,” she said. “It’s kind of like an alchemist using different chemicals to make gold.”
For more information, visit www.pilatesalchemy.com, email Christina@pilatesalchemy.com or call 267-974-6217. For more information about Mt. Airy Learning Tree, call 215-843-6333.