COVID-19 has challenged us all: as business owners, parents, partners, friends, and movers. For Beth Elkins Wales, owner and Principal Teacher at The Pilates LAB in Buffalo, New York, the pandemic prompted her to close her studio and shift to outdoor classes. It’s not a new concept. Joseph Pilates was a proponent of outdoor exercise, as documented in archival photographs of him exercising in his briefs, in the snow.
Elkins Wales had experimented with outdoor group Mat classes in the past, but until the pandemic, the classes had never really taken off. With her studio closed and her clients feeling cooped up and lonely, she developed a schedule of outdoor classes in the Spring of 2020.
It helps that the city of Buffalo, New York (in the northern part of New York state) has an enviable public parks and parkway system designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the celebrated landscape architect who designed New York’s Central Park and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park with his partner Calvert Vaux. In Buffalo, Olmsted designed a network of parks and parkways creating a “city within a park” that is considered the nation’s first urban parks system.
"City parks are democratic spaces," says Elkins Wales. "So often our 'boutique studios' don't feel welcoming to all bodies. I see teaching outside as a new opportunity to offer our knowledge and our tools in a space that is meant for everyone."
Elkins Wales christened her outdoor classes “Joe + FLO,” which is something of an inside joke for Pilates and Olmsted fans. It took some convincing to get clients to try the outdoor classes, perhaps due to Buffalo’s famously chilly climate. “Once they tried it, they got hooked,” she says.
Elkins Wales’ client population includes parents with children living at home as well as many retired people. “It turned out that people really needed it,” she says of the classes. Parents with kids at home all day loved being able to leave their chaotic households. Retirees, particularly those who live alone, appreciated the companionship. ”Even though we can’t touch or get close, we can still work out together,” she says.
Pivoting to outdoor classes requires flexibility, creativity, and some elbow grease. Individual cities and towns may charge fees or require permits for outdoor programming, so instructors should check with their local Parks and Recreation department. Elkins Wales took a more casual approach, and it worked out. “I decided that it was ‘better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission,’” she admits. She did, however, check with her insurance broker to make sure her professional liability coverage would apply to the new format (it did).
Elkins Wales offered four outdoor classes each week, including one class on Saturday morning that was also available as a Zoom class, while also continuing to teach the occasional private session in clients’ back yards when feasible.
The “Joe + FLO” classes were priced lower than Elkins Wales’ traditional studio classes, even though, as her husband pointed out, she’s working harder. In addition to planning and leading a class of anywhere from four to ten students, Elkins Wales has to pack up all of her props and sanitizing equipment and transport them to and from the site. She repurposed a large collapsible wagon from her husband’s stint as a softball coach to hold all of her supplies, such as Mats, Therabands, disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer. She also brought along a sandwich board with her studio's name and the class schedule. Not only was this a good marketing tool, it also cuts down on passers-by interrupting class to ask questions.
Choosing a proper spot within the park was the first order of business. It had to be easy to find, offering relatively flat terrain, and provide enough room for the participants to arrange their Mats with six feet of distance between them. Participants wore masks but were allowed to remove them once they were physically distanced.
Outdoor classes pose distinct challenges for both teacher and students. Cold and wet weather is the most obvious, though Elkins Wales’ classes took place even on days when it dipped into the low forties. Participants were encouraged to use tarps, towels and even plastic trash bags under their Mats to keep out the dampness and also provide extra padding. “Unlike a studio floor, grass is bumpy and gnarly in spots,” Elkins Wales explains. It also requires a sharp eye to scan the area for any hazards such as broken glass, pet droppings, or trash before setting up.
Sunny days offered a different challenge. Having the sun in your eyes while you’re supine for an extended period of time (think Single Leg Circles) is no fun. There’s also the potential for sunburn.
For a while, Elkins Wales held class in a covered pergola in the park that provided both a flat, even surface and a protective roof. It worked well until the day the class discovered a wedding taking place instead of their 4 p.m. class. (They quickly decamped to an alternate location.)
That kind of flexibility came in handy, because in addition to random weddings, bad weather or potential public health ordinances meant that class could be cancelled at the last minute. Recognizing this, Elkins Wales relaxed her usual 24-hour cancellation policy.
Other adaptations included trading traditional bare feet for socks and shoes (a must in frigid temps) and using the park environment as improvised fitness equipment, for example by looping Therabands around fence posts, benches, or trees.
Elkins Wales notes that participants had to take more responsibility for their workout when they were outdoors. Pilates requires a great deal of focus even in a serene studio setting. Adding in traffic noise, spectators, weather challenges, and a no-frills, bare-bones set-up means you can’t just “phone it in.” This more relaxed atmosphere of an al fresco class also means that there’s less room for perfectionism and comparison. A Pilates practice becomes less rigid and more like play. And who couldn’t use a little more of that in our lives these days?
Elkins Wales enjoyed teaching outdoors so much that she plans to continue even after COVID-19 is behind us. “It felt like you’re hitting a lot of birds with one stone: fresh air, getting out of your space, community, and of course exercise,” she says.
The experience of pivoting to outdoor classes convinced Elkins Wales that Pilates classes could and should be offered in multiple venues. "If you can organize and hold a class in a park or on a tennis court, you can teach in a clinic, community organization, or public school gym," she says. Elkins Wales cites the work of Kevin Bowen’s The Pilates Initiative, which advocates for accessible, reduced-fee or pay-what-you-wish community classes, as a model.
At the time this piece is being written, mid-March 2021, Buffalo businesses are allowed to open indoors at 40 percent capacity. Despite this, Elkins Wales has not reopened her studio for indoor classes. She expects to resume outdoor classes as soon as the weather allows, probably May 1, 2021. “Although it might be a bit wet,” she allows.
Have you taken your Pilates practice outdoors during the pandemic? Share your experiences and “best practices” in the comments below.