I love being a Pilates instructor. Not only is it a fun job—sharing a form of fitness that I love—it’s also a privilege to be able to work with amazing people every day, to help them live healthier lives.
But fifteen years ago, when I decided to transition from dancing to instructing Pilates, these blessings of the profession were far from my mind. Back then, I thought that becoming a successful teacher just meant getting through the certification program looking like the best Pilates practitioner there was. Everything else seemed superfluous.
When I started instructor training, I knew I had a reputation for being blunt and direct. I would have described this as “honest.” Others might have interpreted it…well, in less rosy terms. On top of that, I could be picky and stubborn, and tended to react to failure with frustration and impatience. These traits had worked to my advantage as a dancer; everything in dance was so particular. No one needed to learn. Everyone was a perfectionist.
But once I learned the Pilates part of the certification program—all the techniques and movements—the most important lessons remained. My first year was a tutorial in who I am as a person, and how to overcome limits. I had to learn how to be forgiving, how to be kind, how to be a cheerleader for my students. In short, I had to learn how to be a good teacher.
For one element of the certification program, I had to find a “body,” i.e., someone who I could practice on (I know—it sounds very macabre!). We were told to source a wide array of people: tall, small, thin, heavy, flexible, in shape, never exercised, the whole gamut. During this time, I joined a gym for cardio, and befriended a man there, a neonatal ICU nurse. He mentioned that he’d heard of Pilates and always wanted to try it, so I offered to teach him as a “body.”
I met him at the Pilates studio later that week, where I was learning an apparatus called a Ped-O-Pul. It’s a tricky one: a tall bar from which two heavy springs suspended. I had been frustrated trying to instruct with it, partly because I’m short, partly because I had struggled to memorize its moves. Add to that the certification program’s intensity and exhaustion, and I was primed for a meltdown.
So my “body” entered this situation, having never even seen Pilates in his life. I put him on the Ped-O-Pul and began teaching, but quickly became frustrated. His form kept breaking and I could barely reach to readjust him. It seemed that his failure to execute the moves reflected on me—that I therefore was imperfect. It took 20 minutes of me sighing and harrumphing and telling him that he was doing everything wrong for my “body” to turn animate. “Look, Gia,” he said. “I just don’t want to do this anymore. This isn’t fun. You’re getting upset and I feel like I’m disappointing you.” And that was that. He left. The session was over. I remember waiting all day until I got home, at which point I let myself cry. I had been so focused on myself that I had forgotten my job: to teach and to give my student an enjoyable experience. I felt like a screw up. But I also knew that I couldn’t give up; I had to try again. I had to believe in my student, and I had to believe in myself.
Three days later, I saw my “body” at the gym and apologized. When I asked if he would try Pilates again, he said of course. (He was a very nice guy.) The next lessons went swimmingly; I even used him on my exam as a sample student.
My friends and family have said that the longer I’ve taught, the more compassionate and patient I have become. And I can say with certitude that my quality of life and general happiness have improved after I learned the virtues of teaching. I’m a much more solid and grounded person than I was in my 20s. There’s a gravity to this job. Every day I know that I’m responsible for other people’s well being. At first I did not process this, but as I got older I realized that it’s an honor to help people feel good in their bodies, and an honor to be entrusted with that instruction.
So, to my “body” and everybody I have taught: you’re doing great. And thank you for teaching me to be the best I can be.