WITH its chrome poles, black leather beds, chains and stirrups, this places resembles a torture chamber or some seedy sex den.

But look again and you see the pale peach walls, feel the thick pile of the oatmeal carpet and hear the soothing sounds of New Age music.

Pat Issitt’s Pilates studio, snug in the heart of York, is a place where people learn to make their bodies work properly.

Through a mix of mat-based workouts and more challenging programmes using the machines, Pat and her team put clients through their paces.

Pilates was devised by German-born fitness enthusiast Joseph Pilates, who originally called his programme of movement ‘contrology’.

The aim is to restore the body to balance, improving strength and flexibility as well as posture. The exercises keep the skeleton in alignment, explains Pat, so it can handle the forces applied to it every day.

If you wince when you try to touch your toes, or flinch when you stretch to fix your seat belt, or feel your back give when you bend to pick something up, Pilates could help.

“If you practise Pilates, it improves your core strength,” says Pat, a fitness teacher for almost 20 years and a Pilates tutor for the past five. “It gives you strength in your trunk so that if you want to do anything like kick a ball or bend over and pick something up, your body is held in place.”

Pilates has long been popular with dancers, athletes and sports stars (including England’s Ashes-winning cricket team), but is now widely practised by millions of people of all ages and levels of fitness. Pat has one client who is nearly 90.

Osteopaths, physiotherapists and GPs commonly recommend Pilates as one of the safest forms of exercise.

Joseph Pilates was proof that his methods worked. A sickly child, he suffered from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever. Through skiing, body building, yoga and gymnastics, he overcame his ailments and became a boxer. He moved to England in 1912 and trained police in self-defence. Pilates was interned by the British during the First World War, which was when he began to develop his exercises regime with fellow detainees. It is thought these inmates survived the great pandemic of 1918 due to their good physical shape.

Pilates also helped rehabilitate detainees who were ill and injured; using bed springs and beer kegs to create resistance equipment that were the forerunners of the machines found in Pilates studios such as Pat’s in Franklins Yard, off Fossgate, York.

These machines are for seasoned Pilates practitioners. Most users will have done at least a year of Pilates before moving on to the equipment.

Having attended a Pilates class for three years, I feel ready for a new challenge, but when Pat climbs aboard and hangs upside down from the Cadillac – which looks like a leather and chrome four-poster bed with springs, cuffs and bars attached – I wonder what I’m letting myself in for.

Luckily, she doesn’t ask me to copy her. Yet.

We warm up with some basic Pilates exercises. Although instruction DVDs are widely available, Pat recommends beginners join a class. “It’s like Tai Chi – you need to learn how to do it; and by learning and practising, you get better at it,” she says.

Crucially, you need to learn how to breathe and “engage” the deep abdominal muscles – those you are “working out” while exercising.

I lie on my back on the Cadillac, with my knees bent and hip-width apart. Pat helps me “pull on” these muscles by asking me to imagine a bolt piercing down from my navel to spine, as well as two coming in sideways from my hips deep into my abdominal cavity.

From this point, I begin the warm-up exercises; performing a “shoulder bridge” by slowly tilting my pelvis upwards and “peeling” each vertebrae off the bed until my hips are in the air and my body weight is resting on my upper back.

Later, we try this on the equipment. I feel like a trapeze artist as I tuck my feet on to a bar. I push the bar back and as it comes forward I let it carry my legs high into the air, raising my body off the bed at an impressively acute angle.

We also use the Cadillac to practise “rolling up”, a tricky manoeuvre in Pilates, where you have to raise your torso up from a lying-down position, using measured steps, curving your back into a ‘C’ shape before sitting up straight.

I find it easier with the bar; it gives me the momentum to defy gravity and lift my body up, freeing me to concentrate on working through the correct positions. I regularly do this exercise on the mat, but for the first time fell I’ve really “got it”.

Pat says this is what the machines help achieve.

“The equipment works in two ways: it can help support you so you can do more difficult movements or, for more advanced students, it provides a lot more complex movements that can satisfy you.”

Whether exercising on a mat or a machine, the benefits of Pilates go beyond improving posture and core strength. According to the Pilates Foundation, it is an ideal exercise for women before and after giving birth, can help alleviate aches and pains, maintain and improve bone density and is a safe programme for people suffering from conditions such as MS, arthritis and scoliosis.

It also relieves stress and tension and promotes a feeling of well-being.

Pat loves this holistic side to Pilates. She says: “It makes you feel complete – and that’s what people can’t see.”

Fact file

• For more information about classes and tuition at Pat Issitt’s studio, The Pilates Space, Franklins Yard, York, email: patricia@yorkpilates.com or visit yorkpilates.com

• Find out more about Pilates at pilatesfoundation.com. Search for a local teacher at bodycontrol.co.uk Classes are widely available at local gyms. Future Prospects runs classes across York; the next batch start in the New Year (phone 01904 634748 or visit futureprospects.org.uk)

• Pilates classes range in cost from around £5 to £10 per hour, often booked a term at a time. Expect to pay more for equipment-based classes or one-on-one sessions.