Give Me Strength, Give Me Pilates

Instructor Melanie O’Connor caters to a variety of ages and skill levels in her Brentwood Bay studio

  • Mar. 4, 2019 10:30 a.m.

-Story by Lauren Edwards Photography by Lia Crowe

Trying Pilates for the first time, I don’t know what to expect, but I like the sound of instructor Melanie O’Connor’s philosophy: “Let’s get a good workout, let’s do it safely and let’s mix it up a little bit.”

As the owner of Benvenuto Pilates, Melanie has a studio that lies in a richly forested area of Brentwood Bay. A serene setting envelops her studio and Japanese-style home. Natural light from a soaring skylight illuminates the studio space, including a series of large mirrors that line the walls. The environment is warm and welcoming for long-time Pilates enthusiasts, as well as newcomers like me.

Melanie’s classes cater to a range of ages — from high-school-aged youth to adults in their 70s — who look to Pilates for a number of benefits

“It’s a variety,” Melanie says. “They’re here to improve their physical health, their stamina, their strength and flexibility. Often, they’re looking for some posture alignment.”

This class will consist of Mat Pilates — toning movements done on the floor to learn to control muscles — and Equipment Pilates, which uses a special apparatus to add resistance to the repertoire of lessons.

I’m shown to a piece of equipment called a Reformer; it has supports, straps, springs for resistance, and a bar and a carriage that is pushed back and forth. It’s a Medieval-looking mechanism that seems intimidating at first, but after a clear demonstration, quickly becomes easy to work with.

The Reformer was invented by Joseph Pilates — the “father” of Pilates — who was a boxer and self-defence teacher around the time of World War I. German-born, Joseph lived in England and was forced into an internment camp during the war. Denied access to a gym, he continued his passion for physical therapy with what was available: bed springs, beer kegs, boxes and the floor. Joseph utilized the bed springs as a form of resistance for his movements, practicing with the ancient Greek’s idea developing body, mind and spirit. The movements caught on among other detainees and ultimately helped improve their strength as well.

In 1925, Joseph immigrated to New York and opened his own studio. Integrating his self-taught studies of Buddhism and Zen, he trained elite athletes, dancers and other New Yorkers. Joseph called his methods “Contrology,” defined as the art of controlling muscles. In 2011, the American Congress for Rehabilitation Medicine advocated for the benefits of the Pilates technique, saying there is strong evidence that it improves flexibility and dynamic balance, and moderate evidence that it enhances muscular endurance.

Benvenuto Pilates owner and instructor Melanie O’Connor at her Brentwood Bay studio.

Today, many places teach Joseph’s methods, including West Coast Pilates where Melanie completed an internationally recognized Stott Pilates Essential and Intermediate Matwork course in June of 2017, followed by the Essential and Intermediate Reformer Instructor course early last year.

Melanie has practiced Pilates since 2008, and her interest in teaching it was sparked when her daughter fell ill and Reformer Pilates classes became part of her recovery.

Following in the steps of Joseph Pilates, Melanie is also a self-defence teacher, using her studio space for non-combat martial art cardio classes as well as Pilates.

The precisely formed poses use balance and coordination — two things I thought I would need for Pilates. But I find that my body embraces the poses with the help of the equipment, and I achieve strengths that —surprisingly — I’m able to carry for the entire class. The support helps the exercises flow easily into the next, including a Pilates-specific maneuver called the 100s.

“What I like most about Pilates is the variety of the exercises that are available for the client, and being able to offer different options in classes, so that the exercises don’t get stale … stay challenging and exciting, and also provide a full body workout,” Melanie says, adding, “I prefer a class that has some variety, where the clients are able to try something new or progress to the next level of that exercise.”

The quietness within the studio creates an environment ideal for mental clarity and the ability to focus on breathing without outside distractions. Breathing in a similar rhythm to yoga, inhaling through the nose and exhaling through pursed lips, creates “a connection to what your body is able to do,” says Melanie. “It affects your overall well-being, your posture, the way you carry yourself.”

Karen, a fellow classmate who has attended Pilates classes twice a week for the past few months, has “already noticed a difference,” she says, adding that she feels as though she “walks differently now.”

Joseph Pilates was known for possessing a young man’s vitality even as he reached his 80s. Perhaps someone aspiring for a similar goal could look to Pilates.

Click here for more information about Benvenuto Pilates.

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