My first direct contact with Brazil was an email that landed in my inbox in 2002. It was from a Brazilian physiotherapist with a small business distributing resistance bands and physio aids. Renato had bought my book Pilates on the Ball in an airport bookstore in the US and was very interested to bring Pilates, the exercise ball, and me, to Brazil.
Brazil was in no way on my radar. It was a country utterly foreign to me except for its sensual music style, bossa nova, and its infatuation with futebol. I knew nothing of its culture and falsely believed that Portuguese would sound like French when the language turned out to be utterly incomprehensible to me. But I said yes like a shot. Trust was built in daily emails. ‘We could start,’ Renato suggested, ‘with two-day workshops. What do you think?’
Renato thought of everything: tea breaks, lunch breaks, the logistics of supplying mats and blowing up balls. He would pay the hotel, air tickets, all meals, taxis, and my workshop fees. He would do the advertising and arrange for a good translator. The first ‘tour’ was scheduled for an obscure city with a name unfamiliar to me. When I googled São Paulo I was amazed to read that it had a population close to all of Canada stuffed into its urban and surrounding districts. Too late to get ‘wet feet’. Renato had sold five two-day Pilates on the Ball workshops of fifty students each. Did I have any doubts? he wrote. Later, I realized that when Brazilians use the word doubt in English, they often mean a question; not a problem, or an emotion filled with hesitancy, such as the qualms that had begun to needle me like a stone in my shoe. I had never been anywhere in South America and had no idea what awaited me.
The risk, in fact, was on both sides. Afterwards, Renato told me his brother thought that the entire Pilates on the Ball ‘gamble’ was fraught with danger. We had signed no contracts, only confirmations through email. What if I didn’t pitch up? Renato had the most to lose as he’d upfronted money for venues and my air ticket. Not to mention the many balls that had to be shipped from Italy. These balls would be given to students as part of workshop fee; the rest would hopefully be sold, based on the success of the workshops.
I knew I could be trusted, but how did Renato know that? Did he worry I would arrive in one of the world’s most populous and gridlocked cities and have a nervous breakdown before the first workshop began? I had assured him that I was not a kid. At the time I was in my mid-forties, and no stranger to arriving alone in foreign cities and forging out ways to cope. Travelling by myself to Paris in my early twenties, I found the city beautiful by day, though twilight was danger-time for me, full of mood swings and isolation. I solved that by registering in a Monday to Friday French class from 5:45 to 7pm. Loneliness was then pushed to the weekends, and I managed those with extra long walks and splurged meals in Le Drugstore, a sort of French diner. I was in my mid-thirties when I first arrived alone in Toronto, a city where I knew no one and had never been before. I would go daily to the early timeslot (I believe it was 7pm) at the Paradise movie theatre on Bloor Street: a nice way to manage both spare time and moods.
But could São Paulo be managed in the same way? No, it could not. It turned out that I spent great deal of time in my hotel room, reading and stretching on my yoga mat. Or in a mall directly across from the hotel that offered freshly squeezed lime juice and foot massages. Lime juice (more delicious than lemon) and foot rubs made that first trip worth it. So did the workshops. It was my first experience teaching Pilates to foreign groups, and I loved it.
There was nothing more thrilling than to work with Brazilians. Their unrushed way of being in the world was in direct contrast to my closed up, galloping energy. I tried to imitate their leisurely gait, as I tried to repeat the open vowels of their Portuguese speech. Even our physical postures were different, as I noticed in my first workshop. Some of my Brazilian students were more lordotic than me, meaning they had more of an arch in their low backs. This posture opens the upper body and in turn, the heart. My low back is flat, my pelvis tucked, my collar bones bunched not expanded. Stereotypes aside: my impressions were that Brazilians were gamma rays of spontaneity and warmth, while I projected cool rigidity. They touched and kissed often, creating intimacy and affection that affected me like a drug.
Teaching these extra warm, extra foreign students kept me focused and on my toes in a way few things did back home. When my excursions to Brazil began fifteen or more years ago, few of my students knew English. I learned very quickly the thumbs-up gesture Bem, or Good, and I used it often to congratulate them on a correct position or accomplishment. I thought of innovative ways to communicate using hands-on techniques. I even heard myself speak a phase or two of Portuguese, a childlike pigeon Portuguese that delighted them as much as me.
Even ‘lunch’ in Brazil was slowed down and stretched out. The midday break was never a quick sandwich, but a sprawling buffet of hot dishes of chicken, fish or beef, and platters of salads, roasted vegetables, beans and rice. At one buffet in Rio de Janeiro, I recall four different hot soups were on offer! And after each spread of food there were pastries and puddings, cheeses and fruits, and coffee served in espresso cups thick as mud. I learned to stop eating halfway through, as after a heavy meal fatigue would overwhelm me. I’d wish I could take a little nap on my mat in the middle of the workshop, but I couldn’t.
Brazilians are great catnappers. Remember: these students were already down on their mats and recovering from the above-mentioned buffet (included as part of the workshop fee, so why not eat your fill). I envied those who had the ability to snooze out for a few moments and wake up sharper, keen to participate. What’s wrong with giving yourself permission to phase out for a bit, instead of being on, on, on and driving your body into the ground. Moments like this I loved the most. Our differences and our similarities. I learned as much from them as they did from me.
My students were fitness professionals and physio therapists. I was an enthusiastic tour guide, happy to introduce them to Pilates on the Ball — a way of working out that I was passionate about. At the end of the two days, I could see that my passion had gotten through to them. This was especially apparent in the master class, the last hour of the day, where I led the students through a one-hour class designed to put together all the exercises and principles we learned over the two days. We were all in synch. I could see in their bodies that they had observed and understood the work. And during the final relaxation, the release was visible.
There were many reasons why I continued my workshops after that first trip. How could I not say yes? I felt differently in Brazil. My emotions and perceptions were sharper, a sharpness I could not find in my daily life back in Toronto. Everything I saw or experienced took on a fresh light. Such as the beauty in the flowers found in the pails outside a maternity hospital near my hotel. Orange tropicals, multi-coloured orchids, and plump begonias– each exotic bouquet represented a newly born life. Or the way I’d give a hug to Priscilia, my foot massager. She spoke no English, and me no Portuguese, yet we embraced each other like long lost friends. Could it be true that if people were open and relaxed around you, you might become as open and relaxed? Maybe. Each time I landed in Brazil (as I continued to do, for the next ten or so years) I was pulled out of my ordinary existence and given a glimpse of the possibility of who I could be.
Adapting Pilates for our Longer Lives blog will return in the spring, 2022. Online Pilates classes continue as scheduled over the holidays. The only exception: no classes on December 22nd, December 25, or January 1st. Have a great holiday season! I wish you health and many happy times in 2022!