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My Mental Health Journey as a Black Mother Led Me to Pilates & a Reformer

Jazmin Towe

With all that we as a society have had the misfortune of dealing with these last few years- COVID-19, inflation, increasing environmental disasters, violence and brutality — along with balancing the scales of work and social life, it’s easy to see why many of us are struggling mentally. With the additional weight of being a full-time parent to a school-aged kid at the forefront, the scale can occasionally tip over. In my case, I noticed the scale had completely fallen over and shattered in early 2022.

At that point in time, I was dealing with juggling many things in an extremely short amount of time. My son’s school district lifting the mandatory masking policy caused anxiety for many of us parents and guardians. Going through the process of having a child start school can be nerve-racking, to say the least, but sending your only child off to school at the height of a global pandemic comes with a completely different set of worries. The weekly calls from the school notifying parents that another student or staff member had contracted COVID only heightened my fears, and rightfully so with research finding that Black mothers have been disproportionately affected by the effects of coronavirus.

Not only was I attempting to maintain a social life outside of working and being a mom, but I also had to balance the social life, activities, and schoolwork of my child. I found myself searching, yet again, for missing shin guards while prepping an after-school snack and helping a 6-year-old navigate the internet to check his homework assignment before logging back into my laptop to finish up work and head to soccer practice. And that was on an easy day. Work, household duties, and parental obligations controlled every second of my day.

In an attempt to cope, I resorted to my usual self-care methods — facial masks and skin care, movie nights featuring popcorn and wine, reading, meditation — but to no avail. The things that usually sparked some type of joy were no longer doing anything for me. Instead of feeling better, I felt as though I was just going through the motions, resulting in a deeper pit of anxiety and despair. What do you do when your pick-me-ups just aren’t picking you up anymore? In the midst of a downward mental spiral, a suggestion came: Pilates.

“Before that first day, I had never heard about nor seen a reformer. This machine, with its straps, springs, and ropes, pulled and stretched my body in ways it hadn’t been stretched before.”

Like most people, I didn’t really know what Pilates consisted of. I signed up for a free class at a local studio nearby but was full of nerves. Did I need to bring my own mat? Grippy socks were a requirement for the class- where would I get those from? Luckily, I had recently taken my son to a birthday party at a trampoline park and kept the socks, so I threw those on and headed to class.

I quickly learned Pilates is not for the weak. Whatever ideas I had about what I thought Pilates would be like were completely changed by the end of the trial session. Before that first day, I had never heard about nor seen a reformer. This machine, with its straps, springs, and ropes, pulled and stretched my body in ways it hadn’t been stretched before. Intentional deep breathing helped me to stay present and engage different muscle groups throughout my entire body. Switching between the red, blue, and green springs on the reformer gave various levels of resistance, pushing my body to work harder to complete exercises. Despite the new pain I felt, my mind was in its calmest state. Laid back on the reformer, staring up at the ceiling, the daily worries I had ceased to exist.

Pushing through the workout centered my brain’s focus solely on following instructions and maintaining a steady breathing technique. Stretching between exercises allowed my brain and body to reset before the next one. When our instructor announced that the 50-minute session was over, the once quiet class, with the exception of groans and heavy breathing, burst into applause and sighs of relief.

I started my membership that same day, signing up for two classes per week.

The soreness was unlike any that I had experienced before, but the energy I had felt like something different. Workouts in the gym usually exhausted me; after my Pilates class, I was energized. I felt happier, lighter. In preparation for my first set of classes as an actual member, I did some research on its benefits.

Along with increased energy, Pilates aids in enhancing body awareness, a crucial element in identifying the body’s reactions to sensations and emotions. As someone who was dealing with mental health issues, this helped me to become more aware of which emotions I felt during stressful situations more quickly, making it easier to process and work through them. Through higher body awareness, I was able to realize when I was overworking myself, not only with exercise but in life and work as well.

In my quest for more info, I came across the history of Pilates and felt pride in learning that a Black woman helped to popularize the exercise in the United States. A choreographer, dancer, and lover of the arts, Kathleen Grant Stanford studied directly under its creator, Joseph Pilates, and was one of only two people to receive certification from him. Stanford was one of the first Pilates instructors and holds the status of Pilates Elder due to studying the exercise from the creator himself. With a start instructing at Henri Bendel in New York, her classes gained in popularity, and she eventually expanded to the Tisch School of the Arts. Pilates was not a topic I heard much about, if at all, within my community, so learning that a Black woman had such an impact on its development motivated me to continue with classes that much more.

The more classes I attended, the easier it became to see the benefits Pilates had on all aspects of my life. The physical advantages were evident; I knew for a fact my body was changing when my sister told me I looked more toned. (We all know how hard it is for siblings to give genuine compliments.) The mental gains, however, were what I was most proud of. Sleep came easier. I experienced more days feeling up than down. I was able to identify the source of any negative feelings faster. I felt more present; instead of anxious feelings about what the coming days might bring, I could focus on the day I was in and the elements that were under my control. And though there were times during classes when my body felt like quitting, especially doing the Pilates 100, my mind constantly felt serene.

Coming up on the one-year anniversary of my first class, my mental state has improved significantly, and I attribute a large part of that to finding Pilates. Personally, my body has never looked better. But most importantly, I’ve made tremendous improvements mentally and emotionally, the effects of which I have the joy of experiencing daily in my social life, thriving career, and development of my son. And though there are days when the left side may be a little higher than the right, or a strong gust of emotional wind comes through and the gap is a bit more noticeable, held together with tape, glue, and the love of Pilates, my scale is standing upright. 

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