Pilates is defined as “a system of exercises using special apparatus, designed to improve physical strength, flexibility, and posture, and enhance mental awareness.” You’ve likely heard of it and some of you may have even tried it or practice it regularly yourselves. One Monday morning, I dragged myself out of bed bright and early for my weekly pilates class, questioning my decision the entire drive as I was exhausted from my weekend festivities and did not know how I could possibly get through a full class without collapsing. During the class I struggled, I sweat, I cursed under my breath, rolled my eyes more times than I care to admit, and I was quite certain at one point I was going to just give up. But then something magical happened, I survived! I not only got through the class successfully but felt incredibly energized afterwards. My car ride home was much different than my car ride to class. I was smiling, had the windows rolled down, was dancing and singing to the radio (those poor people on the road who had to witness this), and felt completely and utterly overjoyed for no reason other than the fact that I just had an amazing workout. Now, I have done many pilates classes before and this one in particular was no different from classes I had taken previously. It is also not uncommon for me to leave the classes feeling really energized and positive. The difference this day was that I had a moment of reflection. I realized just how grateful I was to have the ability to practice such a healing and rejuvenating exercise. Pilates challenges you not only physically, but mentally as well. Had I hit snooze again that morning and skipped the class, I would not have had such a positive, productive, and peaceful day. It is because of this I want to share my experience with pilates with all of you in hopes that you too may find this practice to be just what you were looking for.
I have been practicing pilates on and off for the last 11 years. Prior to pilates, I had been going to the gym and basically walking on the treadmill like a zombie, which was incredibly boring and noneffective for my personal fitness goals at the time, but I was young and uneducated when it came to the world of fitness. As I walked aimlessly on the treadmill one day, I saw an old school infomercial for Marie Windsor pilates appear on the TV. I remember the physical benefits being advertised were a tight butt, flat tummy, and a long, lean silhouette. Oh, and I could practice in the comfort of my own home! I mean, come on, who wouldn’t want that?! Next thing I know I am ordering the DVDs and started practicing about 3x a week at home. I instantly fell in love with the practice and even started to reach some of my personal fitness goals at the time as well. As time went on, I explored the practice deeper through other venues, including mat classes, tower classes, reformer classes, and private lessons at a studio or gym. Fast forward 11 years and I would consider myself at a moderate level of practice.
Pilates, when advertised, always looks beautifully elegant. You see toned, lean, strong women and men just effortlessly moving their bodies in such an entrancing way. Then, you, “the average Joe”, takes a class and you realize everything you ever witnessed was a lie. Well not really a lie, it is not their fault they are at advanced levels and you are just starting out. At my current studio where I practice, there are glass windows which face the hallway of a gym. As people walk by, they are consistently staring and we always joke that they are probably thinking “what the hell are those people doing?” as we literally have our bodies contorted into the strangest positions. Also, if you have never seen a tower or reformer, it looks like it could be an old torture device (and honestly sometimes it feels that way too). There have been times when my instructor would demonstrate a pose and in my mind, I am thinking, “that looks easy enough”. Well, karma is a bitch and I am usually never able to do a fraction of what my instructor just did. But, what I love the most about pilates is that I always feel so STRONG during and after a class, no matter how I performed that day. My general workout routine ebbs and flows between running, spin classes, yoga, barre, hiking, and outdoor biking and while those workouts absolutely leave me feeling strong, I never feel as strong as I do when I finish a pilates class. Again, I really believe a lot of this has to do with the challenges you face mentally during these classes. I have been practicing for 11 years (on and off) and still have so much to learn, so much to perfect, and so much room for growth. So, when I am in a challenging pose and feel like my body is literally going to die, I am forced to put mind over matter. I am forced to challenge myself in ways unlike any other. And when I am able to successfully complete that pose, I feel empowered. When I go to the next class and am able to get a little deeper into the pose, I feel motivated to keep working at it. This is also a parallel to real life. When life gets hard, we cannot just give up. We can complain, roll our eyes, and be frustrated but ultimately, we need to breathe and push ourselves to work through the difficulties. Pilates has personally helped me with this.
So, did I get your attention? Are you feeling more curious about pilates? Lucky for you (and me) one of my dearest friends, Angela Maffia, is a pilates instructor and she has shared her opinion of the top 5 benefits of pilates to help those who may not know much about the practice learn more. Angela is an experienced pilates instructor trained at the 600+ hour level, with a total of 5 years teaching experience of full comprehensive pilates. She works in Manhattan and throughout the Hudson Valley, is my personal pilates instructor, and is truly a pilates rockstar. So, it is safe to say she knows what she is talking about.
Photo Credit: Katie Lyman Photography at the Pilates Boutique
Top 5 Benefits of Pilates: As told by my favorite pilates instructor, Miss Angela Maffia:
1.) You get really strong, really fast. Your whole body will change (in my opinion) after ten to fifteen regular sessions; you WILL be stronger and you WILL feel better.
2.) You have to concentrate on what you’re doing with an intensity that takes your mind off of your daily life stress. Whatever was distracting you, hurting you, or making you feel anxious before you enter the studio has no choice but to take a back seat while you’re working out, because pilates kind of forces you to focus on the here and now of your body and how it’s moving in the space. No room for stress!
3.) Your body becomes more balanced. I mean that literally (your balance gets better) but also your internal balance improves–stretching, inverting, focus/control, breathing, core strength, and stamina. All of these things make for a better internal balance because you’re able to emotionally leave whatever ails you at the door and physically you’re able to lengthen your muscles and connective tissues, which generally alleviates pain (especially when coupled with strengthening which you’re almost constantly getting together in every exercise). Additionally, inversions like “Short Spine” also move your blood around. My massage therapist (much more articulately than I’m about to explain) told me that basically, the blood in our legs needs to move around because it can get sort of stuck or stagnant which isn’t great for our overall health. Pilates is GREAT for blood circulation. Also, taking moments to focus on breathing deeply and effectively never caused anyone any harm and several pilates exercises focus on breath!
4.) Everyone can do it–there is a modification and a pilates routine for every body.
5.) Structure! The Pilates system is highly structured and it delivers results, but also, as a teacher and a client, it’s wonderful to know what you’re getting and what to expect each time you enter the space. It’s familiar, yet never fails to surprise because there are about a million variations and ways to change spring settings around to give your body a new and exciting challenge. Somehow, the structure of pilates never gets stale or boring.
Photo credit: Katie Lyman Photography at the Pilates Boutique
I am by no means a pilates expert and am in no way pretending to be. I think for the average person (i.e. those of us who are not pilates instructors or at advanced levels of practice), it is always helpful to hear about an exercise experience from someone who is similar to us in regards to their own level of practice. If you are interested in learning more about pilates I do recommend you first consult with your medical professional to ensure pilates is a safe workout for you personally. I will also recommend, from experience, that you schedule a private lesson with an instructor or take a beginners class at a local gym or studio. While I too was enticed by the at home practice, I did unknowingly put myself at risk of injury. As I started working with an instructor, I realized many of the poses I was doing were being done incorrectly, which increased my risk of inadvertently injuring myself. I understand trying something new in public can seem daunting, but remember, pilates challenges you both physically and mentally, so let this be the first challenge. Also, working with an instructor helped me deepen my practice whereas I would not have been able to do so on my own. I challenge anyone reading this to try pilates one time, if you have not already. Go into it with an open mind, comfortable clothing, and a positive attitude. You will definitely have moments where you want to cry, quit, stay in child’s pose a little bit too long, or straight up tell your instructor “No” (which I have done and do not recommend because she just kicked my ass that much harder) but do not quit. Do not give up. See what your mind and body can do. Push yourself in a safe way. Remember, if you can breathe and work through a difficult workout, you can breathe and work through life’s difficult challenges as well.
Sarah Marandi-Steeves, LCSW, PLLC