I love yoga, and even loved it in my beginner stage, when my body was wobbling and I wanted to laugh at my confusion during new poses. I attended classes in a studio warmed by the morning light and body heat of thirty-odd people packed together. I ommed and stretched and sweated and there was something comforting about being surrounded by so many individuals. My individuality became a stretchy blur, the collective wandering of many minds forming a pleasant cocoon in which I could lose myself.
Pilates is nothing like that.
Since it was my sister, Kate (longtime Pilates magician whom I’d observed performing feats of bendy miraculous strength in her teeny tiny Boston apartment on a reformer that dominated an entire room) who was my first instructor, you would think I’d have been more prepared for the journey.
When I first began lessons, my sense of self was acutely confused and critical. Bend your toes over this foot corrector and pull back without moving your heel. Suddenly I forget how to move my foot, and do I even have toes? How do these things work? Feel your pelvis heavy, reaching your tail to your heels with a full exhale. What? Where is my pelvis? What even is my body?
Through it all, Kate was kind and encouraging. Yes, Amanda, this is totally normal. Yes, sometimes it’s hard to feel your body as it moves through open space. You’re doing well, YES! Now let’s move on and try this next impossible thing you will be able to do if you get yourself out of your head and more IN your body.
Kate didn’t actually say that last bit, but after a few sessions this is what I began to understand: Pilates is about being intensely in tune with your whole body as you move. You can’t lose yourself in a sea of others. Your mind can’t wander into the great beyond. You must think, and feel, with precision and purpose and not a small dose of analysis, why your body moves the way it does, and what movements, especially the infinitesimally small ones, will set you to rights as you strengthen, stretch, and center yourself.
It was actually my experience as a classroom teacher that began to ease my frustration with my body. In a classroom of dozens of young children, you have a big-picture plan of high-level learning, including complex and deeply challenging skills you are helping students achieve. On an individual level, these objectives are still there, but they become much more specific and small. When I meet with an individual child who is a novice reader in an upper grade, I am not thinking, Gosh, she is reading so far below grade level. Instead, I’m closely observing and thinking, What specific feedback does this individual need, right now, to make progress within reach? What strengths does this amazing learner already possess that will support and launch her into that realm of progress? I began to notice during a particular Pilates exercise how Kate was shaping my progress with the same attention to small steps, and immediate needs, that I gave students in my classroom. I started focusing more on my strengths.
As a novice of Pilates, my biggest challenge wasn’t learning the moves, or figuring out how the equipment works (it’s not nearly as complicated as it looks), but learning to accept my body for its glorious imbalances. Pilates helped me stop with the self-doubt and criticism. It eased my frustration with my gangly body and what I perceived to be its various awkward weaknesses. Through Pilates, I’ve learned to anticipate hilarious confusion while my muscles and brain struggle to connect. I relish discovering my body’s unexpected strengths, its idiosyncrasies, how it feels to breathe, and finally finding where the heck my pelvis is.
There is an emotional risk in allowing yourself to admit you don’t really feel how something is supposed to work, and the release upon succeeding in the simplest movements can be joyful, and even confronting. Kate knows this, and the teacher in me recognizes when she makes small adjustments to help me move forward--to experience success and grow as a Pilates practitioner. And this is what makes Pilates instruction so individually powerful, and to me, essential. These small steps toward improvement, and especially toward a deeper connection with my body, have changed the way I think about myself when I step out of the studio.
Pilates has allowed me to be simultaneously infuriated by and in awe of the immense potential of my own body. While I struggled at first with the smallest movements and most basic exercises, I never felt like a failure. I realized that more than any other form of exercise, Pilates has made me more intensely in-tune with who I am, more aware of my body, and more thoroughly, gloriously me.