Mullum celebrates decade of twisted Pilates

Kate Henson’s wealth of body awareness culminates in a quirky pièce de résistance at her Mullumbimby Pilates class. Come get a piece of the fun.

Known by locals as “the daggy brick building”, Pioneer Hall stands in the shadow of our more glorious Civic Hall. It is loyal and humble home to a gem of a class that’s been quietly running strong for eight years. Once a week only from 5:30 – 7:00pm Mullumbimby hosts the absurdity, experience and eloquence of Pilates teacher Kate Henson.    

While Kate also teaches at Core Studio in Byron’s Industrial Estate, the Mullum class has a particularly idiosyncratic vibe. Is it the background music of raucous lorikeets screeching from the palm tree tops along Burringbar Street? Partly, but it’s also that in this class not only the teacher but the students crack jokes. It’s not a comedy show, and Kate is quick to point out that “not everyone would find it humorous; they might find it annoying!”

The class is delightfully bent. We once sat on chairs in a large circle facing in, opening our arms wide while tipping up and over from the waist. Kate instructed us to “Show your beautiful… armpit to the person opposite you. Your armpit is smiling”. 

Such mellowness running through an otherwise focused and solid workout is refreshing.  Kate says, sensibly, “It's counterproductive to get too stressed and serious in any movement practice. To ask, ‘Did I lift my leg high enough?' 'Am I pleasing the teacher?’ Put the tension in useful spots, not harmful spots.”

In describing the eclectic content of her class, Kate says, “It’s quite nice to incorporate gooey flexibility, a kind of floatiness, and contrast that with power, strength and support.” While it’s not a beginners' class Kate has a fantastic ability to read the mood as well as skill level of the class from the outset, even noticing stretches students might casually be doing before the class commences and using that as a starting point. Her Mullum class is a mix of many movement forms, to the point that its title “Pilates” (spread only through word of mouth, mind you) could be seen as misleading.

Perhaps it’s only called that because it’s easier than saying “a well integrated blend of Pilates, yoga, gyrokinesis, ballet and silly jokes”, which would be more accurate. Kate asks, “Why would anyone only do Pilates?” Her rich movement background, and obvious excitement for learning explains this sentiment. As a contemporary dancer for 15 years, alongside gymnastics, Kate first experienced Pilates in the dance warm-ups, “although I didn’t know it at the time – it was called centering back then”. 

She has worked as both physiotherapist and yoga teacher for six years, and was the anatomy teacher at the (now closed) Lismore Dance Conservatory. Then, after an initial three years training in Pilates with local Julia Rocheli, and constantly increasing her skills in Sydney and from other local teachers, Kate taught Pilates at Fit Fix (aka Heart and Soul) and now Core Studio where she is still teaching after five and half years. She also began Gyrotonics training (yoga for dancers) through visits to Hawaii three years ago. This dancer awareness and vocabulary of “focusing on the movement between point A and point B, the path between shapes” is a clear influence in all her classes.  

It’s ironic what a key role language plays in all movement classes. The tone of the teachers voice, and of course the content of what they are saying direct the students as much as physical demonstrations and adjustments. A typical verbal correction of Kate’s is to, “Exude your essence out of your pores almost into the space – otherwise you’re just holding your arm up.” Kate moved to and fell in love with Australia from California in 1985. In her still rounded Californian tongue, “nerve stretches” (for which she has a penchant) becomes “nrrrve stretches”, sounding much more fun.

Accent aside, she has a masterful and imaginative approach to her verbal directions. During the wind-down period found universally at the end of movement classes, Kate suggests on one occasion to “notice the spherical shape of your body. You are a tube, a worm.” She pauses, letting the next imagine arrive: “a squid”. Once we have visualised our squidliness she reminds us in see-sawing pitch, “There is nuh-thing to do now.” 

During one class we did the iconic Pilates “clam”. However Kate opens up a fresh way of experiencing the movement by describing it in a completely new way. Lying on our sides with knees bent in a loose fetal position, students lift and lower the top knee to make said clam.

As we move, Kate asks us to focus on the back of the pelvis, on the sits bones, anus and sacrum in order to keep the pelvis stable. Clam revelation! Guided by these directions it often feels as though you are undertaking an ordinary movement, for example a sit up, for the very first time. This brings a lovely excitement into the body and spirit, like a child learning to walk.

Kate is one of many glowing older women in our Shire. That is, if 55 counts as “older”; it’s the upper life expectancy of the Republic of the Congo, with many other countries’ citizens not this lucky, yet literally hundreds of women in Western nations now give birth in their 50s. Being old is a matter of perspective. Perspective and location. Any exercise class will essentially keep you looking younger through the well worn promises of toning muscle and “burning” fat (which sounds painful in any case), but observing Kate in action is heartening. 

You see that ageing can literally mean getting spunkier, stronger, more fluid and funnier. Sure not everyone harbors the somewhat futile fear of growing older (known as gerontophobia) but for those keeping the botox industry alive in Byron Shire: Check out this class! At the risk of sounding politically incorrect, Kate looks young and her class makes you feel young.  

With an aim to help students “learn how to move their bodies safely, to have a sense of wellbeing, achievement and endorphins” here’s thanks from one Mullum student who delights in the weekly good times provided by Kate Henson. 

Related to - Therapies, Modalities | Sharing ourselves | Pilates | Healing

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