My beautiful beautiful arms, or, someone made me do Pilates and I’m very grateful

It’s nine o’clock on a Monday night, and I’m lying face down on my bed, groaning. My armpits ache. If I try to move, my abs complain and the muscles between my ribs feel like they might just give up entirely. Doing stairs earlier involved a lot of wobbling. This isn’t what I expected when, two years ago, my osteopath marched me to a poster and showed me which Pilates class I needed to sign up for.

Pilates is a bit of bending, some planks, yoga with weights maybe? I was never really sure, except that I thought it a) was a bit hippy and gentle, and b) wasn’t for me, because I hated PE so I must be Bad At Exercise. I was wrong. It’s not gentle or hippy (apart from the bit at the end where we give ourselves a round of applause, I love), and I’m not bad at it. The kind I do is reformer pilates, which involves a machine a bit like a rowing machine, so we do a lot of things against tension of one sort of another, but it’s easily adapted to our own needs and capabilities.

It’s not gentle, but it makes me calm. That first instruction to inhale deeply, filling my lungs to the sides, then exhale through pursed lips, is wonderful. I feel the tension melting out of me as I breathe, and settle in for the next hour. I can’t hold much else in my head when I’m focusing so hard on breathing, so my head empties and, for an hour, I am focused on and present in my body in a way that I never am the rest of the time. I can’t think about how I need to close a bank account when I have to concentrate on engaging my pelvic floor. I can’t worry about my friends when I need to keep my elbows at shoulder height and my biceps are burning. I definitely can’t think about anything else at all when I’m trying to maintain a plank.

My osteopath made me go because, two years ago, I had a back problem which caused me to collapse one morning. It had been brewing for a while – it had been weak for a long time and I had twisted my knee skiing, not badly, but enough to throw everything out a bit. The knock on effect of that led to tension in my hips and lower back, and my right hip tilted upwards visibly. My osteopath explained that the problem was likely to be that my ligaments are too loose, allowing my joints to move too far, but my muscles weren’t strong or flexible enough to stop them, or to recover from those exaggerated movements. She told me in no uncertain terms that I needed to strengthen my muscles to prevent this from happening, and that she believed pilates would be the best thing to help.

She told one of the instructors about me, and made me book a class. I was so scared, of being terrible at it, of being judged by other people, of looking bad, of hurting myself by doing it wrong, of hating it, but I was also terrified of injuring myself again, so I went. I was hooked from the beginning, on endorphins and that magical breathing and on being looked after by someone who knew what she was doing. Over the next year, I fell in love with it, went to class every week. I had a wobble when my regular instructor left and the class I liked best disappeared from the timetable, struggled to plan around it at a different time, to get used to different teaching methods, but after trying a couple of other classes on for size, I think I’ve found one that suits me. It’s been almost two years since I started, and I have grown strong. My posture has improved, I have developed visible muscle definition: the first time I saw my own actual bicep, I squealed, and I cried when I got home. I never thought I’d see that. My back and shoulders look amazing, my legs are strong, I have beautiful beautiful arms. But more than that, I can count on my body to support me in a way that I never could before. It’s not perfect, but a fair amount of that is to do with my own laziness, my reluctance to adapt, to give in.

Making this part of my life is one of the best things I’ve ever done. It’s not cheap, but I live at home, which makes it possible, and I’m very fortunate. I’m learning to look after myself and my body, to challenge myself safely. I’ve learnt to tell the difference between the pain that tells me to stop and the pain that means I can keep going. I’ve learnt to ask for the harder option, and not let myself down. I’ve learnt not to take my body for granted, that I need to work to make it the best it can be, to support me wherever I want to go. A body I can trust is something to work for.

Well, that, and these beautiful beautiful arms.

I go to Bamboo Fitness, a dedicated studio in Crystal Palace, South London. If you’re local, check them out. They also do hot yoga, ballet barre, and an annual retreat to Morocco.


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