A Pilates Instructor for 20 years. Wow, but are we nearly there yet?

I qualified as a Pilates Instructor 20 years ago this month.  I’ve come a long way in that time, and so has Pilates.

The origin story is unpredictable, my career has been a meandering journey of fitness around a parallel journey of the other defining feature my last two decades: having  children.  And what of the future?  Have I got it sussed as a Pilates Instructor?

How did I become a Pilates Instructor

1985 and a plan to study Music at Nottingham Uni abruptly ceased in favour of studying Applied Biology at the (now) University of Hertfordshire.  I got the degree and spent a year in research in a plant biochemistry lab.  This is significant because I’ve retained a science-ey way of thinking and it informs how I think about and teach Pilates.

Next came some office admin in London and long story short I ended up in Leeds doing Nurse Training.   I qualified in 1994 and worked as a nurse but quit quite early on. Like the science background, this is part of the story because I do think that the nursing has influenced me.  Put very succinctly, (yes I can do that if I really try), I view my work as Pilates instructor as, in some way, caring for the person in front of me rather than simply teaching Pilates.  Lots of teachers have the same philosophy of course, but the origin of mine is nursing.

After that I became a medical secretary and because I worked at the  Leeds General Infirmary I got a gym membership for the hospital gym.    At the age of 31 I discovered fitness.   If you were born in the 1960s like me,  at school you were either sporty or not.  There was no fitness, just the on/off binary choice of sport.  I was not sporty and was definitely written off by the netball team (yes I was the person chosen last for the team each week) and wrote myself off too.

I joined the gym and never looked back!

This is back in 1998 when I very much doubt Pilates existed anywhere in Yorkshire.

I am one of those converts who found exercise and was hooked from day one.  So much so that I decided to train as a  PT and I absolutely loved the course.  I qualified in 2000 but couldn’t see how to make it work as a career so shelved it.  Until 2004 with a baby in tow, I enrolled to do an Exercise to Music (ETM) qualification at the the local FE college.  Genuinely I cannot remember why!  ETM, more  often called Aerobics, was big back then, (although  sadly not now). I had never ever done an aerobics class at this point.  What  on earth was I thinking?  Definitely one of the most epic Sliding Doors moments of my life I reckon.

When on the ETM course it was suggested to me to do the Pilates course and my new friend Tina, who I met on the course and who I still know, said “yes  Alison, why not do it with me!”  I did, and qualified in March 2004.

Births, Deaths, no Marriages and a lot of High Impact Exercise

So that was the first few years.

Mostly I worked for Leeds City Council and the University of Leeds and was at both for 16 years of the last 20.

After Elinore was born and I returned to my admin job after maternity leave.  To say things went sour is an understatement so let’s draw a veil over that.  I quit with perhaps 5 hours of regular fitness instructor work each week and started my own business.

I did all sorts including teaching Pilates.  All interesting, all good, including training and working as a gym instructor, which has been a massive influence.  For many years I taught Chair Based Exercise and helped with the Lifestyle and Wellbeing project with students at the Uni.   I do think I’ve just spent the last 20 years absolutely rushed off my feet but  don’t have any regrets.  Far from it.  I’ve been tremendously fortunate.

So how did I end up specialising in Pilates?

I used to call myself a Fitness instructor and now I say Pilates instructor because I don’t really do anything else these days.

Why Pilates?

It is helpful in business to specialise.  However over the years I simply wanted to focus on Pilates, and with the pandemic I had to stop doing other things and never returned to them.

I used to roll my eyes a bit when I read bios of fitness professionals who talked of their passion for fitness.  In my literal minded world, passion was the kind of thing football fans show when their team scores.  I didn’t realise that a laser focused interest and fascination for your subject constitutes a different kind of passion  Quieter maybe, but there.   It turns out that I am passionate about Pilates.   Well strictly speaking the thing I’m passionate about, the thing that gets me up in the morning, working long hours with a distinct lack of boundaries, is actually using Pilates to help people move,  move more, move better, rehabilitate, reduce pain and generally feel better.

I find myself enduringly fascinated by the body, by movement and how I, with my Pilates, intersect with bodies, including me own!  I’ve never got bored or run out of places to expand my knowledge into.  If only.  Sometimes I am left reflecting on the fact that the more I know, the more I seem to not know very much.

To be more granular about the “Why Pilates”

Well, it is everything about it really. The useful focus on alignment, on breathing, upon harnessing the body/mind during each exercise.

I like that the exercises can be small, verging on non existent, where Pilates meets Feldenkrais or Somatics.  Equally, exercises can be expansive and involve the whole  body.

Working in my studio I can use the amazing machines that Joseph Pilates invented.   This is the “other world” of Pilates.

Pilates is a very useful “platform” to use for movement therapy and movement enjoyment and I think that it suits me and the way I think and the way I teach.

Some generous doses of pure luck helped me on my way to becoming a successful Pilates Instructor

Getting into Pilates when it was on the up, and still is.  Pilates came to the UK courtesy of Alan Herdman in the 1970s, so he was the pioneer in UK for all us. It was really only a London thing a couple of decades.  The first studio opened in Leeds in 1999 and I took my first class, for staff at St James’ Hospital, in 2001.

Finding something I’m quite good at.  How lucky is that?  When I started out I was an ex nurse who was rather good admin.  The latter has proved invaluable over the years too!

Living somewhere with a cellar with its own doors which enabled me to open a home studio.

Starting a business when working families tax credit was around to help me.  I would have survived without it but it would have been hard and much slower but I would have “made it” eventually.

Roger my website designer and at times, business adviser, who has been with me since ventured online.  There is no way my business would have flourished without Roger in the background managing everything to do with the website.  I never even shopped around, I just phoned him up in 2013 and away we went!

And the future?  Am I nearly there yet?

Do I have it sussed?  Pilates. Bodies. Movement.

I’ve definitely got steadily better but tend to focus on how I can improve rather then dwell upon where I’ve come from.    For example, on the small scale, I am on a regime at the moment to try and suss out accurate and reliable counting in class.   Those of you who take my classes know this is not my strong suit and I need to nail it  It causes some people real difficulties.    Don’t expect me to ever know right from left though!

In some ways, I  have enough knowledge, if only I could remember it all!  I document a lot of stuff now, and hope that I can remember where in my notebooks the relevant notes are when I need them.  Just last week I had to refer to one of my notebooks for 3 of the best exercises for Plantar Fasciitis.

I am still learning however.   Also last week (yes, clearly a busy work for knowledge transfer) I watched a webinar about the value of internal hip rotation for pelvic floor health which was pretty much all new to me.

I have just enrolled on a brief course (lucky it wasn’t last week eh)  about exercises, fascial release and massage for the breasts or more particularly the tissues that support them. It is so much easier to assimilate this kind of more specialist knowledge because I can layer it onto what I already know.   I’ll be taking notes for sure.

It isn’t just knowledge

Really it is all about observation.   This is every bit as necessary as books and courses.   Without the real bodies the theory is pretty useless.    That really is the heart of the the whole thing, applying knowledge to the real world or real bodies.  And even the body, as in the muscle, and bones isn’t the whole story.    The complexities of chronic pain have as much to do with what’s going on in our head as in the body.   Another perspective is age.  Teaching a 56 year old body like mine is very different to the Uni students I used to encounter, or people in their 70s and 80s

This a State of my  Nation blog post I wrote in 2017. Feel free to compare and contrast.

Pilates and Me

I have a significant degree of injury to my abdominal muscles, a diastasis recti which is 2.5 fingers in width around my tummy button, and unlikely to heal.    My abdominal muscles are weak as a result and disrupt the balance of my thighs and abdominals at the front, buttocks and back muscles at the back.     I’m fine but have to be careful and what I really cannot do is advanced Pilates exercises.  The trendy, clickbait-ey ones that show up on Google?  Absolutely no chance.   This has been and continues to be a massive influence on my approach to Pilates.   I’m operating as an injured person doing their best rather than from an expert practitioner who can embrace the repertoire with ease.

I aim to do regular Pilates practice but struggle a bit with the discipline of it. My current regime is to embrace the late cancellations in the studio and use the hour for self practice.  On a good day I  “just do it” . Alternatively I use online classes from a Canadian company who I massively respect.

My body, 4 years beyond the menopause is more mobile and flexible it used to be which is pretty good for someone in their mid to late 50s.  I do attribute this to regular Pilates and my aerobic fitness is entirely down to cycling although never sitting still for long and running up and down stairs a lot helps.

Osteoporosis and Me

Well, I definitely didn’t see this coming, but yes I have Osteoporosis,  diagnosed last year.  Consequently, I have increased the strength training I do each week, mostly by lifting heavy  in the gym.   In addition I teach Pilates for Osteoporosis. I have written about the benefits of Pilates if you have an osteoporosis diagnosis and you can read one of the posts here.  This is one direction I did not anticipate taking as a Pilates instructor but what’s new eh.

Neat Conclusion

Of course there isn’t one.     No we are not nearly there yet.  Biomechanics research keeps coming up with new theories and new research about the body; ditto with neuroscience and the brain or brain/body.   I’m assimilating stuff as a go along.  My body is changing and what it needs is changing.   Consequently my personal and professional relationship with the art and science  of Pilates continues on with no sunset in sight and perhaps the prospect of a 30th anniversary.

One other super massive thing

Honestly I do hope you all read to the end so as to get this bit.  This article has all been about me.  Underpinning my last 20 years though, is everyone I encounter and teach, regularly or occasionally, now or in the past.  No class participants or clients means no business.  If you didn’t want to discover Pilates and have it as part of your world, mine wouldn’t exist.  Instead I’d be in one of those parallel universes that exist beyond the other sliding doors.  Honestly, thank you.   Thank you for meeting me on the Pilates mat, the Reformer, a chair, on Zoom, in a slightly draughty church hall.  Here’s to another 10 years.

author in 2024, with her friend Tina who whom she did her original Pilates training course
Alas I have no pictures of us training in 2004 so here is me and my friend Tina in March 2024

6 thoughts on “A Pilates Instructor for 20 years. Wow, but are we nearly there yet?

  1. Fascinating read, Alison. Thank you for being so open and honest. I’ve been coming to your classes since I retired – 12 years now- and you have helped me so much. Thank you!

  2. A colourful and interesting past, a positive attitude for the future makes you a fantastic if unrelenting teacher. We never know what fabulous outfit you will be wearing. You drive us hard, but thankyou, Alison.

    • You are most welcome Linda, about the driving that is. It is hard to find the right level of drive. Sometimes it will be too much and sometimes not enough but on balance hopefully enough.

  3. I find the You Tube video on ‘Pilates for Osteoporosis’ posted in the newsletter to be very useful because I can practise those exercises at home whilst standing next to a mirror so that I can see if I am stretching in the correct places, or not. In the class I often judge that I am doing an exercise reasonably correctly if I feel the stretch in the body part/ muscle that I am supposed to feel it in, but as churches don’t have mirrors I cannot see for sure if I am rounding my back etc.. On Good Friday when there is no class or if I need to miss a Friday class I can do the exercises from that video clip at home whilst checking my alignment in the mirror, to improve before the next class.

    • hi there Anna. Yes, Zoe is a great one for using balls in class! Even more than me and most people find it really helpful. I’m glad you are finding the clips useful too. Are you aware that there are 3 of them?

  4. I hadn’t heard about fascia before, but now I have read a bit about it from the newsletter and I think I understand what the purpose of the exercises are, in which we use balls and the mat. I now think that they must promote what the clip explains as ‘self fascial release’ because ‘self fascial release’ improves the nervous system and lets the muscles glide more smoothly across each other, so that our bodies can be more athletic and mobile. Last night in the class [I think with Zoe] we used prickly balls and small dog balls to produce this effect, and in your class we used bigger but softer balls, resting our chests on the ball.

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