I’ve crossed an ocean in a small leaky boat, dived with sharks, and been escorted to a Mexican jail by a twitchy man with an AK-47, but it took a 100-pound Pilates instructor to truly scare me.
One particularly grayTime to work on our Brazil butts,” says Brigitte Garten, my 100-pound Pilates instructor with a deceptively innocent giggle, board-flat stomach and what I’ve come to suspect as a secret desire to be a U.S. Marines drill sergeant. Case in point: After the collective sigh that washes through the Newport Beach Yoga Works studio thanks to the Brazil butt comment, a sly smile sneaks across Garten’s face. She knows the next five minutes of our sweaty, muscle-
challenged lives are going to be butt-burning hell.
Now, admittedly, my sigh is the loudest, because as the only male in today’s class of 20-odd women, and with the physique of a marathon runner – without the muscles – the last thing I’m worried about is attaining a Brazil butt. “Can’t I just do a few more push-ups or something?” I ask.
“No,” says Garten. And I’ve already learned that she means what she says, so I moan into position on my elbows and knees – cat’s pose – and endure the further determined and painful assault on my masculinity by performing a series of excruciating butt-clenching exercises, all while Sergeant Garten stands over me saying things like, “tummy in,” “squeeze your butt and crack those walnuts,” and “no frowning [i.e., sagging] butt cheeks; we’re working on creating smiles.” I want to scream, “I’m a skinny male, my butt cheeks will smile until I’m approximately 72, then it really doesn’t matter anymore, does it? Oh, and don’t say tummy!”
But I don’t say anything, because frankly, I’m afraid to make this woman mad. She’s dangerous enough when she’s giggling.
The way I figure it, the fact that I keep coming back for more only means I’m more of a man. Right? I mean how secure do I have to be in my manhood to perform butt cheek clenches and pelvic thrusts in a room full of women?
Okay, I’m not buying that either, but the fact is that in the four months that I’ve practiced Pilates – twice a week, an hour each session – my strength, flexibility and general physical and psychological health have all improved dramatically. I also have a newfound respect for the women of Brazil.
Pilates can be done with machines – specially made for the discipline – or without, which is called matwork. I do mat Pilates, which sometimes feels like 50 minutes of sit-ups and a few push-ups thrown in. In addition to creating Latin-flared derrieres, matwork concentrates on core strength, flexibility and focused breathing. Because of this, I am stronger in the surf, more fluid on the golf course, and have more energy after the hour of torture than before it. Of course, that may just be survivor’s exuberance, but who’s checking? Feeling good is feeling good.
But it can’t be denied. Despite the fact that Pilates is, by design, individualistic and non-gender specific, so far, it seems to be a chick thing. “I’d say about five percent of my clients are men,” says Garten, who’s been a full-time Pilates instructor for four years and has 30 private clients and three group classes a week. On the plus side, that represents a 400% increase in that time.
A dancer in college, Garten discovered Pilates back in 1991, when few had heard of the practice and most of those who had couldn’t pronounce it. For years she couldn’t find a studio that offered it, until 1999, when she was living in Dana Point and working as a hospital nutritionist. She tried it, loved it, and, after two years of formal training and study, she was torturing unsuspecting clients for a living.
She understands why Pilates is mainly practiced by the fairer sex, that men gravitate more toward heaving huge chunks of lead around. She says guys think of Pilates as “girly,” and smirk at the machines, which, with their minimalist springs and funky straps, seem like the 100-pound weaklings of the sports equipment world. Men simply reject the idea that a slow, determined workout on a yoga mat is going to do much more than provide a nice nap. “Then they take a class,” she says, “and, well, they usually change their minds.” Sure, she says, maybe a guy can bang out 100 push-ups, “but are they Pilates push-ups?” I’m sort of afraid to respond to that; she may make me do a set of Pilates push-ups, which, by the way, would break The Rock. In case you doubt it, here’s the recipe for a proper Pilates push-up: Start by standing at attention. Place hands on floor – legs straight – and “walk” them forward until you are in plank position – back straight, butt clenched, tummy, uh, stomach tight and in, chin out, shoulders out of the ears. Now, bend elbows half way and breathe in without expanding your stomach… hold… hold… okay, now straighten with exhale.
Congratulations, that’s one.
After a set of these during my fourth class, I told Garten, “Hey, that wasn’t so bad. I must be getting better.”
“No, you just did them wrong,” she says. “Pilates gets harder the better you get at it.”
“Gee, that’s encouraging.”
That got a few laughs from my classmates; even Garten giggled. Then she stared right at me and said, “Okay, everyone into cat’s pose. Time to crunch some walnuts and make those butts smile.”
That was pretty much the last time I talked back.
Duly intimidated – not to mention scared and sore – in those first few days after entering the Pilates world, I needed to get more information on the methodology, not to mention why there were so few men doing it. I mean, were my future children in jeopardy here?
Now, if you’ve read any of my previous stories of personal discovery, first, well, I’m sorry. Second, you’ll know that when I’m cornered by my own ignorance, I search for a Dummies book on the subject. Fatherhood for Dummies, Windsurfing for Dummies, Magazine Writing for Dummies (I only skimmed that one)…. Basically, I’m a very well-read dummy.
It should be said that concerning Pilates, there is no better way to learn correctly than in a reputable studio with an experienced instructor. So I pretty much skipped over the how-to parts and concentrated on cracking why Pilates seemed more aimed at chicks than Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.
I didn’t have to look much further than the cover: three women doing something called a Teaser pose and a woman author. But I decided not to judge it by all this and looked inside. I scanned the contents page. Trouble came a few lines down when a chapter title started: “Meow!” A few lines further and it got worse: “Size Does Matter.” And an entire part devoted to “Pilates for the Pregnant…” Some other words stood out: Poochy, Swan, Chicken and Mermaid. Yes, my machismo was taking some serious shots to the tummy.
But then it occurred to me that for a very long time, yoga was thought of as a sissy thing. But celebrity and athlete endorsements turned that around. Yoga became okay for guys when Sting, David Duchovny, Woody Harrelson came out of the yoga studio closet – actually, scratch Woody, he’s kind of fruity. Then, despite Woody, yoga became downright de-sissified when top athletes joined them. Some of the first were legendary surfers such as Kelly Slater, Tom Carroll and Garrett McNamara. Then came mainstream athletes from decidedly macho sports: Minnesota Vikings great Chris Carter, the entire New York Giants team, Shaquille O’Neal. What? You’re gonna call Shaq a sissy? He’s 7’2”, and apparently very limber.
In fact, Yoga Works, which has thriving studios in Laguna, Newport and Huntington Beaches, Costa Mesa, Mission Viejo and many in Los Angeles, was the brainchild of two very successful men whose lives were changed – they’d say saved – by yoga. Thanks to Pilates’ close ties to yoga, and these two men’s belief that Pilates will gain popularity among both genders, they brought Pilates mat classes and/or Pilates studios (with machines) to every local branch.
So, here’s what I suggest: Assuming that Budweiser is not going to sponsor a NASCAR Pilates day anytime soon, perhaps the Oakland Raiders could trot out silver and black Pilates machines before a game for their warm-up.
The great irony of women’s dominance of Pilates’ studios across the nation is that the discipline’s inventor was an Uber-male: Joseph Pilates was a muscled German boxer, diver, gymnast, and skier born in 1880. When World War I broke out, Pilates was living in England and already had a storied life – at one point he joined the circus – with an emphasis on exercise and spiritual study. Unfortunately, England was not the place for a spiritual German anything in 1914, and he, along with other German nationals, was placed under forced internment.
Not one to sit around and let people enjoy a war, Pilates began devising his “matwork” exercises, which he called Contrology, based on his 20 years of self-study in yoga, Zen, ancient Greek and Roman physical regimens, and, presumably, circus acts. Then, he “helped” his fellow internees get fit. Yes, it must have been a festive Hogan’s Heroes-esque atmosphere indeed: One day, you’re enjoying fine English cuisine and impressing girls with your macho foreign accent, the next you’re forced into camps where a big German guy makes you perform 100 butt crunches. That’s what they call, getting der schaft.
After a few years, Pilates was transferred to another camp – apparently, the English knew what kind of secret weapon they had here and wanted to spread it around. In Pilates’ new camp, he became a nurse/caretaker and was turned loose on patients struck with wartime disease and physical injury. Pilates took in the situation, made some assessments, then began systematically tearing apart his patients’ beds. But to be fair, it was in an effort to free them from the beds – uh, right after he strapped them to them.
Let me explain: Pilates took the springs from their beds and began rigging them up, along with supports for the neck and shoulders, and straps to hold down those pesky escape-happy feet and hands, and created resistance exercises for the bedridden. (Later, in New York, when Pilates had access to more sophisticated materials, he would create more than 20 machines, many of which resembled medieval torture devices. The fact that today the most sophisticated Pilates machines look very much the same as his originals is a testament to his ingenuity – or to the total fear and exhaustion of every would-be-improver who came after him.)
It wasn’t until after the war, when his literally captive audience was freed – can you imagine that party!? – that Pilates’ work could be truly tested on an all-voluntary basis. This is when Pilates and his wife Clara, a trained nurse, brought his matwork and machines to the world. And the battle-weary, obviously confused, world, embraced them. Hey, it was better than war.
Over the following decades, Pilates trained many instructors, not releasing them on the blissfully out-of-shape public until after they had completed years of study. But perhaps there has never been a better example of Pilates’ success than Joe Pilates himself. Living a full and healthy life, right up until he died (which is curiously hard to get info on, by the way), Pilates showed thousands how pitiful and weak their existences were and gained a – literally – healthy following, especially among professional dancers. Religions have been founded on less. And to be sure, Pilates was on a mission of salvation. In 1965, at 85 years young, he declared, “I must be right. Never an aspirin. Never injured a day in my life. The…whole world should be doing my exercises. They’d be happier.”
Or dead, I think as I perform my fifth grueling Down Dog Push-up in my fourth month of a love-hate relationship with Pilates. But I do not blame Joe for my Pilates addiction. In his own control-freak, sadistic kind of way, he seems like he was a nice guy. And he must have done something right, because more and more of the world is joining the Pilates revolution. In fact, on this day there are three other men and four new women in my Pilates class; there’s barely room for Sergeant Garten to patrol the ranks. And the male additions are good for my morale. I’m pretty tired of losing the push-up and stomach crunches battle to the sweet woman to my right who talks about her grandkids after class.
In fact, on this day, I’ve been keeping an eye on the tan, muscled, six-foot-something guy who sauntered in with his petite girlfriend and looks like he could bench press my entire family. We’re about halfway through the class when I spot it: the first facial signs of the “What the hell did I get myself into here” feelings that hit most Pilates newcomers – it’s the same look I imagine hits a novice hiker who just woke the 900-pound grizzly bear. And because I went through the same thing with my wife, I can imagine the conversation that got him here:
Girlfriend: “Whew, Pilates was tough today.”
Guy, smirking: “Uh, yeah, right.”
Girlfriend: “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Guy: “Oh, nothing. I think it’s great for you girls to have something other than shopping. I just need something a little more… physical.”
Now, if she was really smart, like my wife, instead of just a direct challenge at this point, she played with him a little before setting the trap…
Girlfriend: “We did a lot of tummy crunches, and ten push-ups.”
Guy: “Oh, gee, a whole ten?”
Bam. Gotcha. Next stop, pain on a mat.
I’m enjoying this little movie playing through my mind when Sergeant Garten snaps me out of it. “Butt up, heals down, suck in that tummy, relax the neck.”
After class I corral the only male who has been coming to Garten’s class longer and more consistently than I have, Rob Wendell, a 34-year-old principal with a Newport Beach mergers and acquisitions firm. Wendell is single, so I’m wondering just how he ended up doing butt crunches with a room full of women. Surprisingly, it was his boss, a man, who pushed him in the Yoga Works direction.
“My back hurt all the time, my knees hurt, I was totally inflexible,” says Wendell, a lifetime athlete who spent two years on tennis’s “minor league” circuit. “I was 33, but felt 50.” His boss, however, is 65 but looks 40. “He does yoga five times a week, religiously, and for a long time he was trying to get me to try it.” When Yoga Works opened up across the street from their office, Wendell had no choice but to give it a shot.
But yoga wasn’t for him. “There was a lot of chanting and just getting into and out of the poses it felt like I was going to be in traction. I knew it would help me, but it was too big a leap.”
So Wendell wandered into a Pilates class hoping it was a better fit – hey, at least it was half an hour shorter. He took his first class with a woman he describes as the Pilates Nazi. “Harder than Sergeant Garten?” I ask. “Oh, man, yeah,” he says as if we’re talking battle stories, “but even though it was hard, I enjoyed the entire hour. And I went back to work with renewed energy.”
Soon, he took a class from Garten and now shows up religiously unless he is traveling. And to be fair, it should be pointed out that the universal power of Pilates, and the mark of a good instructor like Garten, is that with every exercise given there are several positions from which to choose – each making the workout a notch harder. The problem for us guys, of course, is our ego’s inability to choose the proper one for our own bodies while lying next to a grandmother who’s doing super-advanced moves without breaking a sweat.
Indeed, that’s something Wendell had to overcome as well.
“I’ve been out to lunch with the guys and had 55-year-old women come up to me and say, ‘Wasn’t that the greatest class on Thursday?’” he says.
“So you admit it to your friends?” I ask.
“Honesty is always the best policy, right?” he says.
“Dude, this is Pilates.”
“Uh, right, well, anyway, I knew I was going to take a lot of heat,” he says. “But it makes me feel so good, I don’t care.” Wendell says he feels 10 years younger (so is that 24 or 40?), can play tennis and run again and has no back pain. “Besides,” he says, “an all women class is not necessarily a bad thing.”
True, and there’s been a lot of talk in the last few years about how yoga studios are the new singles bars. After all, the ratios are a lot better for a single male, and with better lighting, body-hugging workout attire, and the lack of “war paint,” it’s been suggested people know better what they’re getting – on both sides of the equation.
“So, have you ever met a woman in Pilates?” I ask Wendell.
“Uh, no comment,” he says. Right, a diplomat. But also a gentleman, at least from what I’ve seen over the last four months. Besides, no man in his right mind would go through what we go through weekly even if it meant a date with Angelina Jolie, who probably does advanced Pilates and probably would just kick our pansy Brazil butts anyway.
Finally, like Wendell, I’ve decided that Pilates is too good to give up. I’m leaner, stronger, more flexible and relaxed, and so far have not noticed any growth of my feminine side. So I take any flack I get from my male friends in stride and with a deep cleansing breath, because I know, no matter what, at least one part of me is always smiling. day I was driving my mother to a doctor’s appointment near downtown Honolulu, the least Hawaiian part of the entire Hawaiian Islands chain. She peered out the Prius window and said, “Wow, I never noticed how beautiful those buildings were before.”
I looked out the window. “Mom, those are some of the ugliest buildings I’ve ever seen.”
She stared at me for a beat. Then she started to giggle.
For 20 minutes straight.
My 79-year-old mom was stoned off her nut.
Two years earlier, my mom had been diagnosed with cancer. She underwent an operation, then chemotherapy and went into remission.
But the cancer came back, with a vengeance. This time, no matter how hard she tried, my mom couldn’t mask her misery. Most days her nausea was so bad that she couldn’t get out of bed. She stopped eating, her cheeks hollowed out and her skin paled.
I wanted to comfort her, but I didn’t know how. I thought back to my own life-threatening illness a few years before, to the darkness and loneliness that no companionship can ease. I worried about the fear that attacked in the middle of the night, so strong in her now that it showed itself in the light of day. She needed to relieve her symptoms so she could tackle the real problem: constant worry about the future.
A few friends suggested cannabis. But I knew this was a dead end: She had never had a sip of alcohol in her life, let alone smoked a joint. She was proud of this, too, as I heard every time I had a beer around her, which was a lot since we had a typical mother-son relationship: I drove her to nag, she drove me to drink. In fact, since my childhood there had always been a low-level tension between us, and in times of stress, like now, it flared up and kept us from being close, or even comfortable around each other. The result was a severe lack of fun and I worried that despite all my efforts to help, all I was doing was making things worse.
Finally, my sister couldn’t stand it any longer and got my mom’s doctor to write a prescription for medical marijuana. “We have to get her to try it,” she said.
After two days of perfecting an argument to win over Mom, we went to her apartment and braced ourselves for the fight.
She lay in bed, hollow-eyed and pale, bottles of useless nausea medication and a bucket nearby. My sister pulled out the pot prescription; we hoped it would lend our idea an air of propriety. “Mom,” my sister started unsteadily, “we think you should try using marijuana to relieve your symptoms. It’s legal and many doctors …”
“OK,” she said.
“We knew you’d say that,” I protested, “But you should give it a chance – wait, what did you just say?”
”I’ll try it,” she whimpered.
“Wow,” I said. “Now, I’m really worried about you.”
Then we mentioned the small hiccup in our plan: While medical marijuana was legal in Hawaii thanks to a just-passed law, island time was very much a thing – distribution centers were likely a year off, something I found particularly ironic since checking the surf usually resulted in a contact high. Still, it meant we had to “fill” her prescription the old-fashioned way: via pot dealers.
That worried my mom. What if guns were involved? Or the police caught us? Rap sheets were terrible for careers. Your reputation, ruined.
“Terry, you should buy the pot,” she said.
“Gee, thanks Mom.”
But she had a point. My sister is a psychologist with a spotless record, a respected reputation and a thriving practice.
I’m a writer.
I would be scoring the drugs.
Complicating things was the fact that because of my tendency toward paranoia – even while not on drugs – I didn’t smoke pot, so I knew no dealers. But fortunately, because of my affinity to surfing, writing and unemployed people, I did have a lot of friends who smoked it. One, coincidentally, was making cannabis candies for a friend battling throat cancer. So, within a few days I was back at my mom’s with some “totally chronic butterscotch.”
She looked and felt horrible, as usual. She’d hardly eaten in days and her pain and nausea were keeping her in bed. I gave her a candy, but neither one of us held out much hope – how could a small luminescent candy help when a cornucopia of pharmaceuticals had failed?
“I’ll check on you in an hour,” I told her.
Thirty minutes later, she walked into the living room. “I’m really hungry,” she said.
There have been a few times in my life when I have considered the existence of miracles: my daughter’s birth, my wife saying yes and my 100-pound mom downing three chimichangas and a bag of Cheetos. Yes, pot was, hands-down, a miracle drug. My mom’s nausea was gone, totally, and her pain went from a 10 to a two. Color flushed back into her face and she did something she hadn’t done in months: She smiled.
She was also really effing high. But, maybe because she didn’t know what even a Sunday brunch buzz felt like, she had no idea. As she mowed through her third chimichanga, my mom insisted that pot had absolutely no intoxicating effect on her. “I don’t feel a thing,” she said as her fork missed her mouth and stabbed her in the cheek.
“Did you feel that?” I asked.
She thought about it.
“No!” she said and broke out laughing.
Cannabis had another superpower, one even more impressive than stopping cancer pain and chemo nausea: It melted the tension that had existed between us for more than three decades. When my mom was high – sorry, Mom, but you were – we got along great. We watched movies together, we went on walks, I drank beer in peace. It was like being in a Christmas movie’s warm and fuzzy third act montage. Without the ugly sweaters.
To keep the good times rolling, I reached out to various questionable acquaintances and my sister became a master baker. But making pot brownies is far from a science, especially when the medicinal ingredient is sourced from a guy rocking surf trunks and a neck tattoo.
Fortunately, unlike legal drugs like oxycontin, it is, according to the CDC, almost impossible to overdose on cannabis – as my mom discovered the fun way one day when I came over with a fresh batch of brownies. “Take half of one until we know how strong they are,” I said and left to take my daughter to the dentist.
I returned four hours later. Two brownies were missing and my mom was in bed staring out the window at a nearby Waikiki high-rise, where glass elevators moved up and down. “Mom, did you eat two brownies?” I said, slightly worried.
“Yeah, but I told you they don’t affect me,” she said. “One odd thing did happen though.”
“I glanced out the window at the elevators for just a minute, but when I checked the time, two hours had gone by.” She seemed genuinely confused. “Do you think there’s something wrong with the clock?”
I laughed. “I think you’re really, really stoned.”
“No, that can’t be it,” she said, and went back to watching the elevators. Pain-free. Nausea-free. Carefree.
My mother died a year later. The pot brownies worked their magic right up until a few months before the end, when the cruelty of cancer could not be denied. But somehow in that year, between the hard times, the painful times, the dark times, we connected like never before. Cannabis gave me a mom, and my daughter a grandmother. And sometimes, it gave her what anyone fighting a life-threatening disease needs most: the ability to lose track of time, forget about the future and just watch elevators go up and down. It also allowed her to fight her disease to the end, with dignity and humor – even if she was baked for most of it.