If you think of Pilates and when you do, you think of wealthy celebrities and stuffy, expensive classes, you’re not alone. Abena Tolentino had the same idea when it came to this mode of fitness, and it took a lot of convincing for her to even try a class back when she was living in her native London.
“I heard about Pilates in London but at the time I felt it was just such an elitist type of workout and it was very snobbish,” she said. “I knew Madonna was doing it, not that I thought she was snobbish, but it’s expensive. I didn’t even think about doing that.”
But after moving to Los Angeles with her husband in 2009, finding herself immersed in the fitness scene and being encouraged to try a Pilates class, Tolentino did and found herself obsessed. Expensive and elitist it may be, but she noticed the way her abs strengthened, her back pain decreased and her posture improved.
Years later, she moved to New York in 2016 and was running around the city teaching Pilates before deciding she wanted to do things on her own terms. Tolentino rented out an apartment on the Upper West Side where she taught a growing clientele and allowed other instructors to use the space to do the same. She was raking it in.
“I was finally making money after a year.”
But when business started to boom, someone called the Department of Buildings and claimed she was running a full-blown gym out of the apartment. She was forced to close. That didn’t stop Tolentino, though. She decided to go fully commercial, and after six months of looking, she went on and bought a space across the street from her old digs on the Upper West Side, which she fully revamped.
“I was determined to stay here,” she said. “I had a taste of working for myself and not having to answer to anyone, and I wasn’t going back to that. I saw that this can actually work. This can really work.”
She has since opened Abena Pilates, a swanky, gorgeous studio on W. 64th Street right near the Hudson River. The space has been open since April, and the 40-year-old mother of two (of Ghanaian background by the way), is teaching people from all walks of life about the fitness system, which she, herself, continues to learn from other Black women instructors like LA’s Cynthia Lochard and NYC’s Cynthia Shipley. Her next mission is to get more Black women in the doors of her studio, which is often filled with white and Asian women, to help them reap the benefits.
“I just feel there isn’t enough information. ‘It’s like something white people do.’ It’s not something that white people do, Pilates is great for everybody,” she told me in her bright, cozy space. “It’s great for injured people, it’s great for dancers, it’s great for athletes, it’s great for after having kids, it’s great if you’re about to prepare for a surgery on your hip. You can have tendinitis and do Pilates. You can have an injured shoulder and show up here and still get a good workout. It’s very much catered to your body and what your body can do.”
And while these classes, on her customized reformer machines, are pricey (a welcome package of three sessions goes for $270), she says they’re worth the cost due to how beneficial her workouts are to your vessel.
“It just equips you with knowledge about your body,” she said. “It is an investment.”
We talked to her about how Pilates not only changed her body but also healed it, the importance of diversifying the modality, and how she went from hating on it, to loving it and now teaching it.
MadameNoire: In terms of your background, did you play sports growing up or are you just a general fitness lover?
Abena Tolentino: I was always a very active kid. I loved walking, I loved running, I loved playing football with my cousins. I was always going to some fitness class: circuit class, spinning class, I would commit to certain days even when I was working in the city because I had an office job in London. I would commit my Tuesday and Thursday nights and run towards the studio just to get my fix, so I’ve always had that. I’ve always been active like that.
How did you end up falling in love with Pilates when you moved to Santa Monica, Calif.?
When I got to L.A. I was really into fitness there as well and eating well and I had my second son and I just couldn’t really pop back into shape in my abs. I looked fit. I could fit into stuff but I just felt very loose around my stomach in a way that I hadn’t felt after my first son. After my first son I was able to pop back into everything. After my second, no. Within three years I had two pregnancies, and that really stretched my abs out. I freaked out and I was looking for fixes and I was doing spin and I was back in shape, but I just felt really loose in my abs. I tried Pilates after a friend of mine told me about it, that it’s great for stretching and relaxing. I went to try it just to prove her wrong and I became hooked [laughs].
By stretching around your abs, do you mean just the skin or did you have diastasic rect?
Yes, I did, but I didn’t know it then. I had a hernia, I had all of that. If one rushes to start working out immediately that happens. After childbirth, you’ve got to allow your body to heal. There’s a healing process, and I actually think six weeks is not enough because I was counting the days down to when I could get in the gym. Six weeks I was already in the gym doing my sit-ups, doing my spinning.
I wanted to get a buzz, sweat and not think about things and go hard, sweat sweat sweat. So when I had my friend saying, “Well, I don’t really like to sweat but I’m doing this workout called Pilates. It’s not sweaty but I feel really strong afterwards,” I thought, okay, what is this about? I just went to it, I guess, to show her that whatever you’re doing can’t be harder than what I’m doing, and when I got there it was the opposite of everything I had known. I had to focus, I had to get my core together and it just gave me the centering I had never felt before. That’s where it all started.
So what was it about this particular modality that you couldn’t get enough of?
Just felt strong and centered and I felt it also relieved my lower back pain. I had a lot of lower back pain, even with fitness because I was doing a lot of hard, high-powered workouts without balancing with stretching and strengthening. I thought I was strengthening but I didn’t understand stretching. If you’re out there running an hour, pounding the streets or on a treadmill, you’ve built all of these muscles, but after that, you walk away and you do nothing about it. You need some time to stretch those muscles, loosen out those joints because you compress everything in. So imagine doing that for years. That will cause problems in your back or on the weakest side of your body, which could be your hip, your knees or your back. It could be anything. So for me, it was a huge pain reliever and I felt great. When I felt that relief, I thought, wow, if nothing else, I’m going to do it for that and it took on a life of its own.
The way you thought about Pilates originally was as something elitist. As someone who now owns a Pilates studio and is a lover of this modality and knows the benefits, how important is it to change the way people view it? Some people may not think it’s elitist but instead, could think it’s for dancers and not for Joe Schmo trying to get back in shape.
Right. It pains me to say this because I’m doing exactly what I avoided when I was starting out. I thought, this is really expensive. There is no way I’m paying $150 for a single session, that’s a lot. It’s still very expensive to do Pilates, but there are different kinds. There is mat Pilates, there is private and semi-private Pilates consisting of two people and then there’s a trio. I do open my doors to that. If a couple of women came and said, “Hey, we’re friends, we want to do Pilates together. Can you teach us?” I will do that. However, as I just started the business out, it’s a challenge to invite those people in, not because I don’t want to but because I can’t get someone who’s really weak to workout with someone really strong. So it is an elitist thing, and yes, it’s expensive, especially if you own a studio because you know the prices in New York. It’s very expensive to own a space, to rent a place, but you get my undivided attention. And even if you do a session once a week, it’s better than nothing. How much money do you spend on coffee a month? Even a session once every two weeks is better than nothing. You get to stretch your joints out. It’s better than not doing anything about it. So the way you put money towards Soul Cycle and pounding your knees, and going out or having a nice sushi, how about looking after your body like that? It might seem like a big spend but my packages actually stretch out over the course of time and it makes a big difference because it’s one on one and it’s stuff you’re able to take with you and apply to other workouts. You start to be very conscious of your posture, so it’s quite beneficial. It’s a great investment.
So how important is it, do you think it is, to diversify this form of exercise and get women of color in general into these spaces not only to learn but to also teach?
It’s very, very important for me because it’s a bit isolating. The thing is, Black women are strong, there is nothing we can not do. Athletically, we’re very gifted. I just wish I could share this with so many other people. If I had a place where I could teach mat to a lot of women once a week I would love to do that. I would love just to introduce it into a community, into schools — it’s so good for your body.