Pilates and Depression: My Story

Anula Maiberg gets raw about her own battle with acute depression, and how, no matter the level of sadness you might be experiencing, the Pilates studio can be a safe place to heal, without judgement or shame.

These days if you Google just about anything, you’ll find an article with “and Depression” at the end of the headline. Some examples:

  • Pets and Depression
  • Shopping for Groceries and Depression
  • Houseplants and Depression
  • Taking a Shower and Depression

So what can be added to the landscape? Only a personal story.

Artwork by Naomi Lees-Maiberg

I suffer from acute depression. From my late teens to early 20s, I knew something was wrong. What was once angst started to lose its charm; moodiness just didn’t have a place in my life as a young adult. I was fortunate enough to seek help and find the right fit. With the help of a psychiatrist and medication, I can now manage my mental illness. There are all kinds of depression, which range in levels of severity, not to mention the various other interconnected brain chemistry imbalances. *** For those who know me well, just imagine how angsty and moody I’d be off my meds. A scary thought. Also: I’d never leave my house. ***

This post is not about analyzing the pathology, but the point is to open up the conversation, to anyone interested, on how to find ways to candidly discuss, share, help and self-help without shame.

The Pilates studio is way more than a place to “do Pilates” for many people. For someone suffering from any kind of pain, the studio is a safe space. It’s a place where a teacher is waiting for you—knows your name, your body, your story. The relationship is about movement, but also about company. In a one-on-one setting or a group class, there are other humans involved. To someone who feels utterly alone, this is a big deal. A huge deal.

A few weeks ago, I worked with a very skeptical geriatric student. We’ll call her Betty. We were in the South, in a city where Pilates isn’t yet a household name. After four different back surgeries, two knee replacements, a hip replacement and what sounded like a negative experience in physical therapy, Betty had plenty of reason to be skeptical of me, a tattooed teacher, a Yankee, visiting for the week. What could I offer that she hasn’t already tried? I could only offer what was in my scope of practice: gentle movement within the Pilates method. Betty could not get up and down from the floor. Betty could not comfortably sit, lie down or stand for very long. She expressed that she’s in constant pain—and can’t remember a time when that wasn’t the case.

Betty’s daughter convinced her to come in and try something new. So what did we do? We chatted a bit until Betty felt comfortable enough to take off her sunglasses, a silent sign she would be staying for the full hour. We stood on one foot. We talked about hobbies and travels. But mostly, I eased toward Betty with touch. Not a creepy touch, but a purposeful one. Directive touch. I touched her back, where she had big scars. I held her hand when she had to balance. I touched her feet where I wanted her to feel things. And as we spoke a little bit about arch strength, Betty looked at me with tears and asked:

“So you’re not going to hurt me?” and I said, “No, Betty. I don’t hurt people.” And then she asked, “So Pilates can feel this good?” and I said, “It definitely can.” Betty cried for a while, and I held her hand and smiled at her and hugged her until she was finished.

Does it really matter what we actually did for an hour? I don’t think so. I think Betty felt better than when she came in.

So what makes me feel better as a Pilates teacher? Volunteering.

The Pilates studio should be a safe, nonjudgemental place, says Maiberg (pictured here).

For the past few years, I’ve kept a few hours on my schedule for reduced-rate or free sessions to the LGBTQ community, for those who can’t afford Pilates but need a place to go without judgment or fear. Because this is a confidential agreement, I won’t go into too much detail, but I will mention one student, whom I worked with for more than a year while he was recovering from cancer. I would visit him in the hospital, and we’d take short walks. When he was ready to return to the studio, he had a colonoscopy bag and was more afraid about spilling in public than he was about chemo. In my mind, the amount of courage it takes to face cancer seems more profound than making a mess. But what do I know? Together we created a space where any kind of movement was a form of healing—even if that just meant lying down and breathing together for an hour. Was that Pilates? I don’t know. Was that the most direct way to address the human in front of me? Yes.

When you’re sad all day every day, you need to find the moments outside of yourself to feel less so. Those moments are moments of grace. Grace in the face of graceless situations.

On the bad days, when I feel the most defeated and low, the only thing that helps is to honor those who are waiting for me. I show up for them. I show up for the unglamorous, frustrating, rejection-filled, ugly moments of the job. Because the job is a practice in humanity. The deep, shameless, unconditional, nonjudgmental patience of loving others.

The geriatric community, especially the widowed, at some point lose the experience of being touched by other humans. When they move into assisted living, they’re isolated from other age groups. They tend to get extremely depressed. Disconnected and patronized.

The LGBT community is similar in a way. If someone is in transition, they can have scars—visible and invisible. They have experienced trauma. Rejection. The local gym isn’t an option. Where do you go to move? To heal?

Recovering from cancer is extremely isolating. The word cancer scares people. A bag filled with excrement isn’t a cute look. Where do you go to just exist?

The elderly, the sick and the “strange” often don’t have the funds for self-care. What if every teacher donated one hour a week to someone in need? That’s just one hour of your time to make someone else feel unquantifiably better. And who knows, maybe you will, too.

Anula Maiberg is a graduate of the Kathy Grant Heritage Training Masters Program led by Cara Reeser. Anula is passionate about upholding the traditions and principles of Pilates while being able to update and personalizing them for the needs of her students. She also feels strongly about volunteering her time to the LGBTQ community, and believes Pilates is a wonderful movement modality and a tool for healing in a supportive environment.

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  1. Blue Star Pilates Reply

    Beautifully written Anula!!

  2. Dawn Reply

    This brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for helping others, sharing your story and giving hope for those who have depression. Including me.

  3. Hanna Reply

    Your words and actions brought tears to my eyes. Being kind to ourselves and the rest of humans is an act of courage nowadays.

  4. Christina Sauer Reply

    Thank you for sharing, Anoula! I think this is a splendid and sincere way to help others. It’s a way to show sincere kindness and true human warmth that is lacking today. We all need warmth and attention and our work is the perfect atmosphere to do that.

  5. Matthew Abernathy Reply

    Well said, my friend…carry on and know that we hear you!

  6. Kristen Reply

    I love you, Anula.

  7. Joleen Reply

    I was very moved by your story. You have such a gift and your willingness to share it makes you a very special being in a world that so desperately needs hope. Bless you, your light has inspired me as it does others. 🙏

  8. Juliette eymere Reply

    So beautiful! You are my favorite Pilates anytime instructor!! I love your humor and creativity and now I even love you more!! Cried while I read this, what a privilege to do what we do! Keep up the amazing work!

  9. pat Reply

    This is beautiful! This is what we do as teachers. Sometimes just listening is enough.

  10. Christiane Ebert Reply

    Dear Anula,
    I suffer from depression, anxiety and ptsd since early teenage years . I follow you on Pilates anytime and where ever I can learn from you . I have my own little home studio in Johannesburg South Africa and am passionate about Pilates and my clients . I have lots to learn still but want to combine Life coaching and several methods of soul therapy with Pilates and all I want I want to provide a better quality of life and help people reach their potential . I hope I am on the right way . I always thought whatever I experienced in the last 40 years should not be staying bad but to be reframed and used to help others . I also write a blog and tried to discribebthe peace and happiness pilates gives me and I hope I can provide that for my people .
    Thank you for your blog love Christiane

  11. Liz Mumenthaler Reply

    Hi Anula, we love you here in Switzerland! You’re 100% correct. It really is all about Human touch and acceptance. Your intuitive style is such a pleasure to watch, and I love the way you let people move according to their own body and perhaps how they are feeling that day. My story is very similar to your concerning depression. I couldn’t agree with you more about Pilates as self therapy. Keep up the great work!

  12. Cheryl Turnquist Reply

    So awesome Anula… love your spirit and hope this can be heard by many…

  13. Vicki Reply

    Wonderful! Thank you for witnessing. It is helpful to hear how other Pilates instructors manage.

  14. Bridget Ericsson Reply

    Yes! Anula, you are amazing. Sharing on my IG. I feel this coneconnec to my students in certain days and know it is all they need. An open heart and mind, a shoulder to cry on and a friend.

  15. Mel Symons Reply

    Anula, thank you for this deeply moving and profound perspective on how being with others and trusting Pilates to enhance the interaction for both. This article verbalised aspects of my encounters and helped me appreciate how pribilepri I am to be a novice teacher fullof doubt on the one hand and 1000% convinced on the other , that this is absolutely where I need to be. Thank you again