Adventures with Pilates

No relaxing beach vacations for these Pilates teachers. Their idea of the perfect trip is challenging the outer limits of their physical fitness and mental strength.

by Stacy Baker Masand

“I trekked through the jungle of Borneo’s Mount Kinabalu.”Joakim Valsinger, owner of Bälans Pilates Studio & Treatment Rooms in Perth, Scotland

WHAT INSPIRED THE TRIP: I was a soldier with the Australian Commando Regiment (part of the Australian Special Forces) for about three years, then joined a unit of the British Territorial Army that is attached to the Royal Marine Commandos. In 1994, my Sergeant Major was on a failed British Army expedition: Ten men set off to climb Mount Kinabalu, the highest peak in Borneo, and then descend down the steep cliff faces into Low’s Gully, the deepest ravine in the world. They got lost and struggled their way through for three weeks without food and with debilitating injuries. He co-wrote a book—Kinabalu Escape: The Soldier’s Story—about his amazing survival; the idea behind my 2006 trip was to retrace his footsteps.

JOAKIM VALSINGER SITTING ON THE EDGE OF A CLIFF.

THE TRIP: To avoid the mistakes made by the original trekkers, I employed an official Mt. Kinabalu Park Ranger as my private guide. I also decided to only go as far as the point of no return, i.e., the place where they rappelled into the valley, after which it was impossible to go back the way they came. From there, I backtracked and went around the mountain to where they were rescued.

My expedition lasted four days, starting with a four-wheel drive up the track to the village where the group was rescued. The next day, we walked to the half-way station at Laban Rata, a four- to five-hour steep trek. Day three, we walked about two hours to the top, back down a few hundred meters, and then off the track, over a large rock lip into Easy Valley, which is an enormous bowl of gently sloping ground that falls away between 1,000-meter cliffs. The jungle undergrowth is so thick that you end up having to walk across the tangled mass of vines and trees, often balancing more than 10 meters above ground on swaying vines. We walked back down and returned to the bottom of the hill very late in the day. The last day was spent recovering and meeting the locals around the foot of the mountain.

The ascent to Laban Rata was tough. I’m an experienced hiker, having regularly carried 75 percent of my own bodyweight on military exercises, but it was challenging walking even though I only carried a small day sack (experienced hikers can do it, however). Altitude has a fair effect as well; at 4,095 meters, it makes all exertions more tiring because of the thinner air.

But I get a real sense of achievement when I discover something unusual or achieve something that has to be earned. I suppose I enjoy standing back and realizing that I just overcame something that frightened me at first.

HOW PILATES ENHANCES TREKKING: High-altitude oxygen depletion meant that I benefitted from the better breath control I got from Pilates, and it helped with the balance and coordination necessary to scramble across precipitous vines. Climb a Mountain and the Runner were obviously beneficial exercises—they are very useful for propelling the body upwards against the rising path and keeping your balance and coordination on uneven and unstable surfaces.

HOW TREKKING COMPLEMENTS HIS PILATES PRACTICE: It helped me understand humility in the face of nature. The jungle and the mountain are immense, and they can be very dangerous. Taking on too big an adventure in exercise without proper preparation is foolhardy. One’s Pilates career should be like walking a big mountain—taking one step at a time.


“I scaled Mount Rainier, a glacier-covered volcano.”Jack Lanham, founder and senior instructor at Studio Jacks in Seattle

WHAT INSPIRED THE TRIP: I’ve lived in Washington State all my life. That volcano just beckons you to climb it. I first got an invitation from my mom’s husband in 1997 and went for it. I’ve climbed it almost every year since, either to just the base camp or the summit.

THE TRIP: There are several routes to the summit. Some are day hikes that take from eight to 10 hours; the most technical is Liberty Ridge. It

JACK LANHAM CLIMBING THE GLACIER ON MOUNT RAINIER.

takes about seven days to climb. It’s gorgeous, but you’re at the mercy of the mountain—you definitely need to be an advanced climber. We usually climbed for six to eight hours a day.

For this ascent, you need crampon spikes that you attach to your boots, so that you can get traction on the ice. We usually try and go with three people, so if one slips, the two others anchor the fall. (Or one anchors and another helps retrieve the person if they fall from a cliff or crevice.) You also need an ice ax for self-arrest; if you slip, you’ll slide very fast, and if your rope mate falls, you must dig your crampons and ice ax in and be ready for a huge jolt.

When summiting Rainier, one leaves base camp at midnight and climbs straight up. It is about an eight-hour roundtrip to the summit and return to base camp.

Climbing gives me a great sense of gratitude—and accomplishment. You are up against weather and ever-changing conditions on the glacier (whiteouts, avalanches, team members getting injured and altitude sickness), any of which can force you to turn around. Overcoming all those obstacles requires preparation and luck. It makes you realize that we really can do more than we think—and that no challenge is too much.

HOW PILATES ENHANCES CLIMBING: Before my first-ever climb, I hadn’t yet discovered Pilates. I did a lot of cardio and weights, which definitely helped, but I was still pretty sore and stiff when it came time to summit. The next trip, I had been doing mat Pilates and my muscle recovery was a lot quicker; that’s when I realized I wanted to become a teacher. I studied with Lori Coleman-Brown and Lauren Stephens at Pilates Seattle International, all under the guidance of Romana [Kryzanowska]. I think Romana was tougher than Mt. Rainier!

On another trip, Pilates literally saved my life. We’d just taken off the ropes and I was carrying them, so my pack weight was about 60 pounds. We were crossing a crevice and my right leg collapsed the ice bridge. Luckily my left foot was on solid glacier, and I shot out like a rocket so my right foot landed on solid land. It was so much like Going Up Front on the Electric Chair—it really did save my life.

HOW CLIMBING COMPLEMENTS HIS PILATES PRACTICE: The mental and physical challenges of climbing have enhanced my Pilates by helping me find my breath and sense of calm. When I started my practice, I found I would run out of gas. Now I’ve learned to breathe and stay in the moment.

It would be great to see more Pilates practitioners on the mountain and more mountaineers in the studio!


“I whitewater rafted through the Grand Canyon.”
Melanie Pfister, private Pilates teacher in Salt Lake City

WHAT INSPIRED THE TRIP: I had done some whitewater rafting and kayaking during my college years. My husband wasn’t comfortable in the water, so I put boating on the backburner for 20 years.

MELANIE PFISTER SPENT 24 DAYS RAFTING THROUGH THE GRAND CANYON WITH HER HUSBAND.

Then in 2014, a friend of ours got a permit for a private Grand Canyon rafting trip—a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—so I convinced my husband we absolutely had to go.

THE TRIP: Ten people, two on a boat, went with us, and the trip covered 279 river miles and lasted 24 days. Though it depends on the day, we usually averaged about six hours a day on the river. It was harder rowing our boats than a kayak due to their size (18 feet) and weight, as they were loaded with all our food, water and gear. We had to unload the boats every night and set up camp, cook meals, set up the portable toilet, then break it all down in the morning and load the boats. It was like moving a little town!

There’s a lot of flat water on the trip, but there are a number of rapids as well, and some of them are enormous and downright terrifying.

Being on the river also provides access to some amazing hikes that you can’t access except via the river; we also went hiking daily.

The Grand Canyon is stunning in its starkness in some places and its abundance in others: Where there’s water there is vegetation and wildlife, but as soon as you leave the water sources, it becomes a desert landscape. Then there are lots of aquamarine side streams as well as waterfalls and caves! You are literally traveling through millions of years of geological time as you float downstream, as the river has cut deeper and deeper into the layers of rock along the canyon walls. The area has been inhabited for centuries so there are many archaeological sites as well—I’ve heard there are more than 500 separate sites. It really is one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

The trip was a life-changing experience. It was such a departure from the daily grid—no Facebook check-ins, no Instagram photos, no news. Rivers only flow one direction, so there was no going back!

HOW PILATES ENHANCES ROWING: Rowing upwards of 200 miles on a heavily loaded raft is a highly repetitive activity. You need to use all those Pilates principles, including regulating your breath, or it’s going to be a very miserable vacation. There is the potential for back and shoulder injuries, so the Hundred, the Rowing Series and the Long Stretch Series on the Reformer are key for shoulder stability and endurance.

Being 47 and as physically active as I am, I couldn’t do what I do—backpacking, boating, skiing, running, mountain biking, etc.—if it weren’t for Pilates’ incredible way of patterning healthy movement in my body.

HOW ROWING COMPLEMENTS HER PILATES PRACTICE: When I practice, I can visualize the muscles I need to row—those transverse abdominis that need to fire to protect my back. Rowing enhances my practice by giving me goals and objectives that help me progress in my personal practice.


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