A picture of an 82-year-old teaching Pilates, exercises that mainly involve lifting different body parts, and who has perfectly toned muscles is not a classic look.
Jean Ng’ethe, is the old lady who has mastered the art of Pilates that she now teaches fitness enthusiasts and professional instructors at her Nairobi Pilates Center in Muthaiga.
“I started the Pilates centre 21 years ago, offering classes for all ages. We also teach students who want to become instructors. We have trained about 25 professionals over the years,” she says.
Jean came to Kenya 59 years ago to work as a midwife and was always encouraging new mothers to exercise. She later got interested in Callisthenics, gymnastic-like exercises, where she met a client who directed her to Pilates, a form of exercises that strengthen muscles while improving posture, alignment and flexibility.
“During nursing college, I worked in different departments, one of which was the physio department. Here, my interest in the awareness of the correct movement of the body arose,” she says.
Jean was interested in Pilates, but she never practised until she was diagnosed with osteoporosis in her early 30s, a weak and brittle bone disease. After undergoing surgery, she started doing Pilates right after.
And true to her testament, she is fitter and stronger than most people in their 80s.
“I’m vegetarian, but I don’t restrict myself from eating by dieting. Fitness to me means not competing, looking or wanting to be like someone else,” she says.
Jean says that Pilates has helped tone her muscles and make her body change shape.
The best part of her job, she says, is seeing people improve, and seeing them enjoy the workouts.
“The cause of problems with people in my age group is mostly immobility. I get motivated by observing what they are able to do ,” she says, adding that classes at her Pilates centre are done on Mondays Wednesdays and Fridays.
“I enjoy doing what I do. I’ll get to rest when I’m dead,” she says laughing.
At the Nairobi Pilates Centre, Jean works with Anuja Chehar. The 32-year-old studied physiotherapy in Manchester, in the UK.
“After coming back to Kenya, I worked at Kenyatta and Nairobi hospitals for a few months, during which I discovered women’s health, and more specifically the pelvic floor, how important these muscles are, and how easy it is to exercise and strengthen them,” she says.
During that time, Anuja learnt about Pilates and how the core, which involves the pelvic floor, is the powerhouse to exercises in Pilates. She then met Jean, who was teaching a diploma course at the Alison-Caroline Institute, which is where she began her journey in Pilates.
“Pilates is for all ages and places in life. My interests were specifically in pregnancy and geriatrics, which is for the older people. I believe Pilates is the safest way to exercise. Correct practice of Pilates will help tone muscles, making them stronger and leaner. It brings good alignment, control over the body, and helps one recover from previous injuries as well,” she says.
Anuja felt her body change with every Pilates session.
“I felt more aligned, my posture improved and had great muscle tone. It simply became a lifestyle change. The effect of Pilates on my body whenever I go on a break is what really motivates me. Jean also inspires me, and to be able to do half of what she does pushes me.”
Some of the clients at the Nairobi Pilates Center, where Anuja instructs, have been having classes for as long as it has existed.
“I wouldn’t refer to them as geriatric Pilates clients, even though they fall under the age category. They simply started off early and have been enjoying their journey till date,” she says. She is currently in the process of bringing together Pilates instructors in Nairobi to form an association. This is mostly to learn and grow with each other.
“I am also looking to higher my education in Pilates. We mainly practice Matwork Pilates in the studio. There’s a lot of equipment and apparatus used in practice in the Western world, something I want to get more knowledge on. I’ll be making about four trips to South Africa for the same, and in addition cover 500 more hours to complete that,” she adds.
When it comes to personal fitness, Anuja believes in a consistent good challenge rather than a drastic change that eventually leaves one unhappy or demotivated.
“I believe Joseph Pilates’ philosophy that ‘In 10 sessions you'll feel the difference, in 20 sessions you'll see the difference, and in 30 sessions you'll have a whole new body’ really works,” she says. On fitness resolutions, Anuja says she uses the start of the year to reflect on the previous year; the highs, lows, learning and changes.
To her, fitness is about having a healthy body that allows her to have a good lifestyle and not pull her back from doing what makes her happy.
It also means that she is ensuring her body performs what it should in the most optimal way.
On diet, the mother-of-two says, “I control my portions, but I also don’t restrict my body from cravings because I believe cravings are for a reason. I practised Pilates during both of my pregnancies. Also, I didn’t put pressure on myself to go back to my body shape pre-pregnancy. I understood the body’s healing process and worked with that.”
The best part of Anuja’s job is getting to know that she made a difference in someone’s health.
“I also get inspired by older people who are mobile and independent. Being able to contribute to this independence drives me,” she says.