your peak

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

Friday - - Leisure -

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

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