Two attractive, athletic girls doing Pilates on the Reformer

When I think back to my first Pilates group class, I remember being confused. I didn’t like the experience and didn’t get the point. I was asked to make my spine move in strange ways, to think about reaching body parts all over the place, and to do lots of breathing. The class was nothing I had experienced before, and while I didn’t go in with any preconceived ideas about what I was about to do, I came out thoroughly underwhelmed.

At the urging of my friend, I went back. A year passed. I kept going but still didn’t understand what I was doing. Then I started to like the pace and get familiar with some of the movements. Flash forward 24 years, and I am in awe of this body of work, what you can do with it, and how great I feel every day. It may sound simplistic and preachy, but I don’t care. Pilates works. It works wonders, in fact. All you need is time and an open mind.

Believe me when I say that every Studio teacher at Body Harmonics works hard to ensure your experience in a group class is positive. Just in case you are scratching your head though, and questioning the value of what’s on tap at our Studios, a bit of insight may help.

First, some context. Pilates is a name of a method of exercise and movement developed by Joseph Pilates. It is a massive repertoire of oddly-named moves, done on a mat or various spring-loaded machines. Joe worked with athletes, acrobats, and the infirm. He was a taskmaster and a mastermind, and the system for movement re-education he designed, helps every single joint in your body function better, so you feel stronger, more flexible, rejuvenated and relaxed. There is an emphasis on concentration, moving with care and attention to detail, and connecting your torso and your limbs in ways that don’t make sense at the beginning. Today, Pilates is in rehab programs, athletic cross conditioning, Olympic training, daycares, dance schools, hospitals and more. Joseph Pilates did not live to see his legacy blossom, but he was steadfast in his belief that everyone should do it as part of a healthy, vibrant life. Why? It’s quite simple. Integrated movement helps almost everything in your body function better.

If you are trying out Pilates as a form of physical conditioning, understand that the look and feel can be very different from traditional exercise. Pilates can be quiet and gentle, or it can be rigorous and demanding. If you were to watch a class, you might think nothing was happening. Or, you might think the moves look circus-like. It is both these extremes and everything in between. The difference in “feel” is that you are asked just that, to feel—how joints move, how breath affects neck tension, how feet land on the floor, how different muscles contract. Sometimes you’re asked to imagine or picture from inside, and sometimes you’re asked to perform micro-movements that seem irrelevant. Then, the following day you wake up and feel muscles you never knew existed. So if you come thinking you’re about to experience a variation of a fitness class, park your expectations. A Pilates class is not a fitness class. It is not structured the same way, the sensations, pace, and outcomes are different. Instructions can be layered and sound uber poetic.

You may be asked to focus on concepts or images that seemingly, have nothing to do with the exercise at hand. For example, you’ll hear a teacher say, “sink your arm bones into your shoulder sockets,” or “reach your tailbone across the room,” or “draw a gentle circle with your thighbone.” These instructions are deliberate and help create clear neural connections, so movement works better. With some practice, you will feel the effect. Simple tilts and weight shifts suddenly feel challenging while giant dynamic kicks and full body rolls begin to feel smooth. What we are teaching you is to create better connections between your brain (the message centre) and your muscles (the workhorses that move you around). And, when your movement becomes more refined, you feel better, stronger, lighter and even taller. Your sports improve, you can sit longer without strain, your energy increases, and injuries stay at bay.

As I often say, “Get the movement right, and everything else falls into place.”

So, be prepared for the following when you are new to Pilates:

A slower pace

Understand this is intentional to help you connect the brain to the body; you can work fast, but the benefits will be slim and progress slow. Embrace a tortoise mindset and settle in. The slower pace at the beginning will quicken your progress down the road.

Lots of verbal instructions

Listen and don’t worry about what you don’t understand; some instructions are simple and some complex, and with time you’ll be amazed at how many make sense. In the meantime, don’t be shy, and ask your teacher for clarification.

Quiet background music

If you like getting carried away by the music, you won’t enjoy this aspect of a group class. Be patient though, and notice how you feel after an hour of paying attention. We don’t often discuss the meditative part of Pilates, but a state of relaxed alertness after a class is a real elixir for stress.

To be frustrated when asked to sense and feel the impossible

This reaction is natural at the beginning because neural links may be weak. Trust that one day you will sense and feel what your teacher suggests, and understand that sensing and feeling strengthen the neural pathways. Without these, you can be prone to injury, and your performance may suffer.

To question the value of what you are being asked to do

This way of learning to move can be frustrating and strange when it’s new. We are all taught the myth that exercise has to hurt, and when it doesn’t leave us tight and sore, we dismiss it as a waste of time. I have exercised both ways and would never go back to harder and faster. The concept of less being more was a tough one for me, but I am stronger for it. My posture has improved, I move with more grace, and feel more power in my muscles. Give yourself 6-12 months and then reassess.

To want the teacher to get on with it and make you sweat

Working hard, sweating and feeling exhilarated is all possible in a Pilates class but not until the neural synapses get reconnected. Take a breath and suspend your imagination. What feels like nothing to start with can end up making your muscles quiver and your heart pound.

To want to think less

Embrace the thinking part if you can; it is your best tool when it comes to making progress. So much research points to this fact—all you need to do is remember that mental focus is key to physical fitness and performance.

To want a quick fix

Sorry, but Rome was not built in a day, and neither were you. Take your time, revel in what is different and puzzling, and pay attention to tiny changes. Baby steps at the beginning lead to long-term gains that sustain.