This is what I’ve learned within 20 minutes of my first Pilates class: I have no idea what I’m doing but I know that I’m doing it badly. Here, even the simplest request takes on a new meaning. “Flatten that rib, Andrew, or I’ll put some barbecue sauce on it,” barks instructor, Susanna Foustok, founder of Dubai’s Pure Pilates. Ok, so not all of the requests are simple.
Have you ever wondered about that moment in life where it all starts to go south? You lose your zip, your edge, your extra yard of pace? I fret about it on an almost daily basis. But I don’t think it’s, actually, a moment at all. The empire doesn’t burn, it just slowly falls into disrepair.
Here’s how: You get injured when you’re young, but you don’t bother rehabbing it properly. Soon you start picking up niggling little injuries because, well, you didn’t really fix the initial problem in the first place, so the rest of your body overcompensated. The years pass and you eventually miss more gym time. You stop playing as much sport, too, because you’ve likely got a family now, and when you’re not with them you’re at work, sitting, sinking, spine curved, shoulders hunched, slowly but surely sagging into oblivion.
So, anyway, that’s me. But there’s a good chance that it’s you, too. At least that’s what Joe Pilates thought.
The story goes that it was in a British internment camp during World War I that he came up with the idea for Pilates (he called it Contrology.) As the men in the camp grew weaker by the day, Pilates noticed that the cats prowling the yard – themselves skin and bone – remained lithe and bouncy. When they weren’t on the hunt for mice, they would stretch and strain, keeping their muscles alive. Pilates created a course that his fellow prisoners could do to replicate that movement.
Turns out those cats were ahead of the game, too. From the day we stop running, jumping, climbing trees and generally clambering about the place, our bodies begin to seize up. A three-week course in Pilates brought that home to me this month.
The studio overlooking Dubai at Pure Pilates is packed with equipment boasting the signature medieval torture aesthetic. But it’s the matt that gives me nightmares. At one point I feel like I’ve surrendered all control over my body to Foustok, who stands behind me trying to move my flailing limbs into the correct exercise postures – there are 34 sets of them, which I get nowhere near completing.
But as Pilates himself said, this is about how the mind controls the body. It’s about neural connection, and that’s something we’ve forgotten. Our bodies move roughly in habit more than anything else. When you’re asked to place your shoulder flat to the ground that really shouldn’t be a problem, right? But the reality is most people probably can’t do it – at least not without using all the wrong parts of their body. Concentrating enough to make it happen the right way is truly exhausting. In one class I find it literally impossible to put my heel to the floor using a Foot Corrector. Yeah, that was a high point.
“Pilates makes your body strong and supple,” explains Foustok, pushing my shoulder into a position it really doesn’t want to go.” Foustok loves Pilates. She’s been doing it for 17 years and sometimes jumps into an animal position, just to demonstrate how our bodies should be ready to move at a second’s notice.
“The best way to look at it is a two-way stretch from a strong centre,” she explains, thrusting my legs high into the straps of the Cadillac. “By working all the core muscles to support your body and lengthen your spine, your musculature improves and so does your posture. Pilates gives you an ability to hold that posture in daily life.”
That ability was something Pilates himself obsessed over, too. The whole point of his method was to give you a body fit for the challenges of life. But life requires a bit of grit, a bit of fight, a bit of core.
Here’s a test for you: get in front of a mirror and stand as normally as possible. Now, pull your abdomen in and push your shoulders back. Instantly, your body shape looks better, right? Your shoulders broaden and you stand a little taller. Now this is meant to be normal, but to get there needs work. Ten one-to-one sessions and then just an hour or two each week should be enough, but it’s worth it. Pilates is a good a reset button on your body as I’m yet to see.
But remember this: not all classes are created equally. Aim for one that sticks as close to Joe Pilates’ methods as possible. It will get easier – honestly. Eventually your body will move into position unprompted – and you can do it anywhere, too. The key to everything? Pull your abdomen in. Keep trying it until it’s no longer an effort.
Pilates is one of the toughest, most connected workouts you can try – mainly because no other class will make you think about your body like this. Yes, CrossFit will beast you and F45 will leave you a shivering wreck – and do incorporate those into your weekly workout. But the base, the core, the strength to put your body through it all and it still be ok? That comes from Pilates.