Pilates 101: The Lilypad, San Francisco

Course: Pilates Reformer Class

Institution: The Pad

Instructor: Ansley

Location: San Francisco/Marina District

It started with pain - specifically that area where the hamstring meets the gluteus maximus – a real pain in the butt. I tried stretching, I tried kvetching and I even stopped running for a while. Nothing helped. So I finally made an appointment to see a sport’s doctor. She told me to stretch, stop running, and see her in a month.

I went straight home and Googled my symptoms. Yes, an often dangerous thing to do but this time, instead of thinking I had some rare form of cancer, I found Pilates.

I had heard of Pilates before and even tried it – a class at a spa here, a class at a gym there. The couple of times I tried it in the past, I was unimpressed. I wanted speed, I wanted heavy lifting, I wanted to sweat or I didn’t feel like I had a work out. What I didn’t get at the time was how much slow, controlled, precise movements that incorporate flexibility and balance can kick your butt and the pain, too. Ansley was to teach me that.

A quick history lesson: Pilates was developed by Joseph Pilates in Germany around the 1920s. It primarily focuses on the stomach muscles, lower back, hips and your butt, also known as the “powerhouse" or the “core.” These muscles are important to your stabilization and strength in daily living. Originally Pilates was done on the floor – called mat Pilates. Eventually, Joseph created equipment to up the ante, sort of speak, or rather, introduce additional resistance. The resistance is provided by different colored springs. The most common pieces are the Reformer, the Cadillac (like its auto brethren, this is a bigger more imposing piece of equipment), the Wunda Chair and the Ladder Barrel. Believe you me, they may have strange names but you’ll be calling them something else when a good teacher gets you on them.

I wasn’t sure what kind of person the name Ansley would be attached to, but after plunging through the Yelp reviews on Pilates classes in San Francisco, I noticed that the name came up a lot. “Drill sergeant,” “shows no mercy” were common descriptors. As I am pretty hard working at exercise as well as life, these descriptions made me all the more interested. “Good,” I thought, “maybe this Pilates thing isn’t just for delicates.”

So I went online to the studio where Ansley works: The Lilypad and made an appointment – sight unseen. When I found the studio on Union Street, I was immediately intimidated. Surely this was a watering hole of the Marina girl. As I approached, nothing but beautiful young women with perfect bodies entered the studio. I’m talking women who clearly gave up careers as print models to become trophy wives. I felt decidedly out of place.

Still, I mustered the courage my thirties give me and walked in. Ansley, it turns out, is a tall, blonde and striking woman. If you were to see her walking down the street and didn’t know her, you’d either want to be her or cower from her – really anything that prevented you from actually standing next to her.

Ansley greeted me and brought me over to a Reformer. I had a difficult time slowing down and easing into the moves. My balance was terrible. I couldn’t seem to delineate my right from my left or take deep breaths and my body started to shake embarrassingly. Our first session was very humbling. I don’t think I uttered a word for the first three sessions because I was concentrating so hard. For her part, Ansley continually gave direct clear instructions and gently corrected me. It was brutal and I was sold.

I couldn’t believe how difficult it was. Then it hit me, I had an outstanding teacher. Several months in now, she still does not let me half-ass anything. She constantly makes me aware of my body and my breathing and that is an incredibly grounding thing, if at first uncomfortable.

Also, after moving me through a number of basic moves, including learning how to get in touch with my pelvic floor (I know it sounds positively gynecological but it’s one of the first things you learn how to do, e.g., “tucking your tummy” and “going to neutral”) she has continued to build on the repertoire and that means I almost never know what she is going to have me do next. I am forced to focus – which is in of itself very meditative. But also a great counter-balance to sports where you can, after a fashion, learn to just get by – like running and cycling. You can’t do Pilates in your sleep.

This can be frustrating if you just want to tune out. What I like about it, though, is that I’m constantly learning and I know my brain’s neural networks are developing, just like my abs. In the mental sense, I find it very similar to a dance lesson and the Pilates moves often leave me fantasizing that I’m training for an all important ballet. Hey – a girl can dream, right?

Over time I have learned to hone in on the tiniest of movements - it takes a lot of muscle control to do it – and I’ve learned how not to judge tall, beautiful blonde women. Ansley is a taskmaster, but she’s also a dedicated business owner who is compassionate, funny, attentive, professional and as interested in learning as she is teaching, which I find is a quality of the best teachers out there.

I continue to learn from her. As a result, my strength, posture and flexibility have improved and I no longer have a pain in my butt – though some might think, I continue to be one.

Note: If you’re expecting to drop pounds by hitting Pilates once a week, I’m afraid you’re going to be very frustrated. If your goal is weight loss, I’d recommend Pilates as part of a more comprehensive plan. If you, like me, already have a pretty rigorous routine and want to take your body to the next level, I think Pilates is just the thing to do it.