On a seven-day Pilates holiday in the Alpine village of Sainte Foy, Kate Birch discovers stunning scenery, a head for heights and muscles she never knew she had
I’ve got it! Oh my goodness, I’ve found it,” I gasp as I lie in a river of sweat on my back, knees in the air, hands positioned on my pelvis. Twelve people crowd me, clapping and smiling, acknowledging this momentous occasion, for they know what health and happiness such a discovery will bring.
You see, I’ve just found my core: that oft-elusive part of the body – the deep muscle layers in the trunk/pelvis area – that so few of us have a real awareness of.
“It took me a week to find mine,” says the 60-something Scottish woman – she actually looks 40 – next to me, as she rocks comfortably back and forth on her spine; while the chiselled chap opposite, who has been standing on his shoulders for 20 minutes, pipes up, “Once you have a deep awareness of your core, your body will be more flexible and will more easily respond to all of life’s challenges.”
It’s my second day on a seven-day Pilates retreat in Sainte-Foy, a village nestled in the Tarentaise valley in the French Alps, and in a professional Pilates studio looking out over
stunning snow-capped mountains, I also discover tensions I never knew I had. “My goal on this seven-day Pilates holiday is to undo tightness, tension and weaknesses created by poor work postures, demanding repetitive sports movements and lifestyle environments,” explains my Australian Pilates instructor, Brett Moremon, who is not only a decadelong expert instructor, but also has a wicked sense of humour and some killer abs to boot.
He can also spot a wrong move at 50 paces, is totally interactive and works through every exercise – Pilates centres around 34 original exercises created by German founder Joseph Pilates – pretty quickly, ensuring there’s plenty of variety.
As well as demonstrating the moves, Brett manages not only to assess how we each stand and move, but also to locate our tensions, adjust our moves and tailor exercises to help correct our individual posture grumbles.
Mine is an over-arched, aching back. Though by the end of day two, I’ve managed to release the tension in my upper spine – tension accrued thanks to two decades of daily computer slouching – and for the first time as an adult, I discover how to stand tension-free.
“You need to release your common holding patterns and tensions to allow a deeper awareness of the core,” explains Brett, who believes many forms of fitness develop core imbalance, in turn leading to injury.
“Pilates is an excellent basis upon which to realign and rebalance the body. I see Pilates as the missing instruction manual to the human body,” he says.
The location of my core, tensions and muscles I never knew existed is not all I discover, however. I discover that holidaying with a bunch of strangers (I swore I’d never entertain a group holiday) is really rather enjoyable. Yes, these bodylengthening enthusiasts love Pilates, but they also know how to have a good time.
I also discover that the practice of Pilates isn’t, as I had always believed, boring.
You see, I’ve always maintained that I would rather do ‘anything’ but Pilates, which has always seemed, well, a little dull… a lot like lying on the floor; exercise for women too old, too unfit or too injured to do anything else.
“That’s such a Pilates myth,” announces a long-limbed, postureperfect twenty-something called Tara, who swears by weekly Pilates sessions back in her London home. So does Pippa Middleton (sister of the UK’s duchess of Cambridge) apparently, whose toned derriere, which came into the public consciousness at 2011’s royal wedding, is thanks to weekly Pilates sessions.
“You get out what you put in. Pilates can be slow and quiet, but if you push yourself, it can be fast, exhausting, even a little painful,” says Tara, who as if to prove her point, manoeuvres her body into what looks like an incredibly agonising position.
It’s also a myth that it attracts only women. The two men on our holiday – svelte, strong, sporty, yet sensitive – are poster boys for Pilates, while actor Leonardo DiCaprio is a faithful follower.
Oh, and it’s a total myth that Pilates is sweat free.
“Not only do you sweat, but you are so ‘in the zone’ that time simply flashes by,” explains Tara, bicycling her long, lean legs in the air. “Oh, and it sculpts your abs unlike any other exercise I’ve ever done,” she reveals,
These body-lengthening enthusiasts love Pilates, but they also know how to have a good time
lifting her vest just in case I was in any doubt of the benefits. I’m not.
By day four, I’ve not only seen the products of Pilates – these perfectpostured people with straight spines, toned inner thighs, circuslike flexibility and bags of energy – but also heard everybody’s ‘Pilates saved me’ story: how it brought one young chap back from the brink of depression, helped an older woman alleviate a lifetime of back problems and has been the exercise to combat one woman’s flabby inner thighs.
But it is a doctor’s testimony – she has been practising Pilates for a decade and believes it to be the “root of good health” – that ultimately convinces me that these are wise moves to be making.
And, what better way to learn such life-changing, health-enhancing moves than in the nourishing environment of the stunning Alps, where not only is the air squeaky clean, but the temperature in summer is a couldn’t-be-more- perfect 30⁰C, and the outdoor activities on offer, seemingly endless.
Because what I also discover is that there’s so much more to the Alps than simply skiing. While the oh-sopretty, unspoiled village of Sainte Foy, along with its bigger neighbours of Val d’Isere and Tignes, is renowned for its skiing, during summer, the hills surrounding Sainte-Foy and the Tarantaise valley come alive with activity and adventure.
From hiking, cycling, climbing and canyoning, to rafting, paragliding and even warm-weather skiing, summer in the Tarentaise valley, referred to as the ‘world’s greatest outdoor playground’, is all about adventure and self-discovery.
On a group hike from Sainte Foy to the pretty mountain hamlet of Le Monal (you can do the sixkilometre trek on mountain bike or horseback too) I discover I can breathe more deeply. Locals say that here under the gaze of the melting glaciers of Mont Pourri, the glacial air that comes off the river in summer is a retreat in itself.
The following day on an organised trip to an Aerial Adventure Park in a forest in Seez, a 10-minute drive away, I discover that my body is starting to move more freely. Climbing and navigating the roped bridges, zip wires and obstacle courses, my body is less restricted: my torso twists more; my spine stretches further; and it even feels like my arms are longer.
Then just two days later, I discover that I do have a head for heights when I find myself sitting in a chair lift, climbing the 3,800-metre-high mountain Grande Motte, in the neighbouring ski resort of Tignes. During summer, its lake becomes a hive of activity… you can ride in canoes, on paddleboards or even hot jump it – throw yourself down a slide – into the icy waters.
At the top of the mountain, I drink in the incredible views before hiking down one of the 25 mountain trails. Others ride down, joining one of the 150 kilometres of mountain bike trails. You can also summer ski on the glacier, or play a round at Europe’s highest golf course – think lakes as obstacles and exceptional views of the glacier – before relaxing your aching muscles in a hot tub at Le Lagon spa at the bottom.
Instead, I choose The Peak, our group chalet back in Sainte Foy. On
a wooden balcony looking out at an impossibly blue sky and snow-capped mountains, I soothe my Pilatespunished body in a bubbling hot tub.
Peace is available in spades here, with any number of sunny sanctuaries, including my own oversized wooden balcony that faces breathtaking mountain scenery, in which to chill with a wedge of local cheese or a slice of homemade cake.
Yes, you heard me right… cake, cheese, chill. This is no puritanical Pilates retreat. The cabin rooms are plush – think squashy sofas, sunken baths and pony hair furnishings; the food flows, with three-course gourmet meals and local specialities like sticky tarte tatin and gooey raclette rustled up by The Peak’s residentWelsh chef; and there’s enough free time between Pilates sessions and other organised activities to do your own thing.
There is cake and chocolate, as well as soul- and skin-nourishing sessions in the sauna and steam room and muscle-melting massages delivered by a lovely Scottish lady called Sarah Sissons, who will lull you into a luxurious sleep.
More serious spa-goers will love the organised day-long trip to thermal spa, Pre St Didier, in Italy. It’s worth doing for the 45-minute journey alone, which involves traversing spectacular Tour de France territory, through pretty chocolatebox Italian villages and stopping en route for creamy Italian cappuccinos.
It is at Pre Saint Didier, on a large lawn at the foot of Mont Blanc, sprinkled with wooden saunas, pools, fountains and pine trees, where I finally discover that I am able to relax, body, mind and soul. I soak up not jut the sun and the surrounding mountain scenery, but the espressosoaked ice that’s brought regularly round by the staff.
Here, you pay one price (44 euros or Dh222) and can do everything as many times as you want: dig into the super-healthy snack bar; enjoy never-ending massage (thighs in the Jacuzzi, back in the waterfall, feet in the Kneigg Hydrotherapy room); and participate in the half-hourly ‘events’ – think mud hair wraps, body salt scrubs and having ice thrown at you in a sauna. It’s a blast, quite literally – both exhilarating and tranquillising.
Which is good news because the following day, the final day, my stamina and strength are pushed to the limit. After a sweat-inducing 180-minute session in which we perform the full classical mat-work Pilates sequence, I’m exhausted. My body feels like it’s just done a 70-kilometre Tour de France trail.
But the hard work has paid off. By the end of the week and my 10 Pilates sessions, I’m not just sitting taller, I’m sitting prettier: my skin glows, my abs feel firmer, and my stressedout shallow breathing that has ruled my life has taken on a smoother tempo. Even my mood has lifted and my confidence been given a boost.
As well as finding my core, a head for heights, inspiring new friends and a beautiful part of the world, I’ve discovered a respect for my body and a passion for fitness that I had only half hoped to find.
Pilates centres around 34 exercises created by its German founder Joseph Pilates
The Cathedral of Sainte-Foy in Conques is a masterpiece of Romanesque art
What better place to
learn life-changing moves than The Alps?
Visitors will find a variety of activities from hiking to skiing
travel The Peak, a group
chalet, boasts breathtaking views and gourmet meals