I’m feeling positive and eager to learn more as I drive to the Chilli Pilates studios in St Albans for a one-to-one taster session. I’ve been to quite a few Pilates and yoga classes over the years, although this will be my first encounter with ‘Reformer Pilates’. I’ve seen photos of the Pilates reformer bed in magazines and it looks a bit like a medieval torture device!

Cheryl is there to greet me with a smile in her sporty red-hot chilli outfit and shows me around the studios and therapy rooms. A curled chilli logo and long-stemmed red lillies in a tall vase add a fiery red finishing touch to the foyer. I’m introduced to Ali, my personal trainer for the next hour. I smile hesitantly. He seems pretty relaxed and beams back at me.

We step into a studio with a mirror along the length of the entire wall. I can’t believe that I have my very own personal trainer and hope he’s not going to push me too hard. Initially, we chat about Josef Pilates and how this form of exercise is a blend of gymnastics, ballet and yoga. Josef Pilates was a sickly child and his exercise regimes evolved over time as a way for him to recover and improve his strength. Josef dedicated his life to developing Pilates and eventually moved to the US; he set up a school in New York and also wrote a few books on what he called ‘Contrology’.

The reformer bed is so unfamiliar to me that it looks scary but with a personal trainer by my side I feel totally supported. We make a start and Ali shows me a few basic exercises demonstrating what he’d like me to do before every posture while continually educating me on what the muscles are doing. In the world of Pilates, the word “core” is used a lot. Unless we all strengthen that, we’re destined to lose our upright postures and grow thick around our middle. Our breathing capacity is also the cornerstone of the discipline.

The black leather bed is padded and attached to springs, ropes and weights that add varying degrees of resistance according to the client’s fitness levels, helping to strengthen, lengthen and isolate the muscles. The colour-coded springs are for different exercises so that you can target muscle groups. I feel quite doubtful at first, then I slowly grow in confidence under Ali’s guidance. I’m amazed to learn that you can adopt more than 100 postures and exercises using the reformer. As always, my back needs to straighten out and I need to engage my abdominals. As soon as I see my reflection in the huge studio mirror, I feel motivated to adjust my posture.

I can see how this session is tailor made to my needs. It doesn’t take long for Ali to notice that I need to slow down and he asks me to do so quite a few times during the session. I try my best, but being a city-dweller all my life, that’s harder than it sounds! If you walk around slowly and breathing mindfully in a great metropolis, you may not survive! As Ali observes, he can tell that this is the habitual inner speed that I feel comfortable with; he is patient with me and educates me on the fact that unless we all slow down our breathing and movements from time to time, we will continually find ourselves in fight/flight mode which is detrimental to our inner balance.

We have little breathers here and there and Ali tells me that after university he was a sports therapist for six years, developing a keen interest in human anatomy, deep tissue and sports massage before becoming a personal trainer. We talk about the importance of self-awareness, of how difficult it is to make long term changes to sedentary lifestyles and how ingrained our breathing habits are.

I learn that his heroes are Muhammed Ali and Bruce Lee. Ali trained in boxing and Martial arts from a young age.

“I love the transformation they have on the body and the discipline they instil in you,” he says.

I share in his enthusiasm as they were both absolute legends!

It’s interesting that Ali has moved from the more competitive side of sports to an exercise that focuses more on personal well-being; he explains that the most rewarding aspect of his job is helping people to continue in the activities that they want to ‘pain free’ and he tells me about an elderly client who has been playing golf his entire life but had recently been struggling to do so. Pilates has changed all that and he now continues to enjoy his favourite pastime.

“As personal trainers we get to know our clients and become part of their life journeys,” he adds.

Yoga and Pilates have always appealed to me as they are disciplines that are not that goal-orientated but emphasize one’s well-being. I don’t really see any benefits to being ultra-competitive in attitude. What would I be competing against exactly? Myself? For me, exercise doesn’t have to be a struggle where I continually push beyond my limits. Who cares if my neighbour is running marathons at 60 or if a colleague is two stones lighter and fitter than me?

Chilli Pilates was established in 2009 at the Welwyn Garden City Studio. Paul Spence was the owner of a rehabilitation clinic and he and one of his clients Karen, decided to set up a studio. They became its co-founders and are now celebrating its tenth anniversary with five studios in the Hertfordshire area.

It is the long-term benefits and therapeutic effects, apparently relaxing and calming the nervous system, promoting balance, flexibility and stability, that impresses me the most. If I were to come here every week, we’d focus on exercises tailor made to suit me and each time push myself a little further. In the process I would possibly drop a dress size and leave lengthened and strengthened!

I have enjoyed this Chilli Pilates session and thank Ali, despite moments of torture towards the end where he pushed me a little harder. I buy a pair of Pilates trainer socks on my way out and have a look at a live class of 10 people each exercising on their own reformer bed. Cheryl is pleased that I’ve enjoyed my one-to-one and invites me and a friend along again for a free group class in November.

  • Marisa Laycock moved from south west London to St Albans in 2000. She enjoys sharing her experiences of living in the city.