“How does that feel?” Ashley Newman is asking a middle aged man this question the first time I enter her studio at Union Pilates on Eastlake. He’s bent over on a machine, back arched, cotton pants sweeping the reformer machine he’s using. These are the words she says to me, and many of her clients, the most frequently during our training. Well, that and “belly in,” which has slowly started to become doable.
Her studio is firmly planted on Eastlake, between Hamlin and Edgar – she chose the neighborhood because of its energy. It is a tiny center, with the beat of the city running through it. It feels local, is full of small businesses, and is anchored by Lake Union, just a few hundred yards away. The space came to her almost magically, right when she was making the time to set out on her own in the industry.
A lifelong dancer, Ashley was diagnosed with scoliosis at a young age and a physical therapist recommended she start practicing Pilates to alleviate back pain. “She told me core strength and body knowledge would be the most important piece to staying out of pain,” Ashley tells me as she realigns my body, tucking my feet into terrifyingly evocative stirrups. She started at 13, then continued on and off through high school and a bit of college, beginning teacher training after graduating from Scripps College in 2007.
“When I started teaching I realized it was something I was passionate about—that is, sharing and relating my personal experience and struggles with those around me to help them with their body struggles.” In fact, she credits her scoliosis for helping her connect to clients.
“I often tell my clients that injuries/body issues are a part of us, just like everything else—they aren’t external. It might sound cheesy, but you kind of have to ‘go on a journey’ with your body towards healing, health, and balance. There are a lot of bumps in the road, both physical and emotional, and making it over those makes you stronger and more equipped to deal with the next road block. I know I haven’t experienced it all, and I still have my own hurdles, but I feel like having navigated this path and struggled helps me to be a much better teacher, to empathize with my clients and pay attention to their needs more carefully.”
Having been in a car accident a few years back, I can attest to Ashley’s more careful approach than other studios I’ve experienced. Stretching is emphasized, with a large educational component included—essentially a physiology and kinetics lesson, tucked neatly between ab-awakening exercises. Angles are altered to take pressure off painful bits whose names I don’t even know, and new movements are improvised to target the same areas without the familiar twinge of pain that comes with a lot of routines.
“I really believe knowledge is power in regards to your body,” she explains. “My goal is for clients to learn about their bodies so they can leave and integrate that into their everyday life.” A core group of clients has come to her studio after throwing too much weight in crossfit, or injuring themselves from pushing their bodies to the limit in unsafe ways.
“The do it as hard as you can, as fast as you can, as many times as you can philosophy of working out, as a lot of crossfit and bootcamp classes are structured, break people. I hate the notion of people throwing themselves around until they are breathless, pushing past their body’s limits, feeling a lot of pain and believing this is what working out should be.” It’s been hard, she says, to get people out of the “no pain, no gain” mindset, but one of her goals for clients is to teach them to listen to their bodies, feel the nuances of movement, and use small muscles that create big changes in their well-being.
In the end, she believes that if people are more present in their bodies, it can help them to be more present in their lives. “It can permeate your life, the lives of those around you, your entire community. Feeling more helps us to empathize with those around us as humans and to generally be more happy. If I can help some people with that, I feel I’ve achieved way more than I set out to.”
This doesn’t deviate too far from what she learned at the women’s college we both attended, in Southern California, where she studied politics and belonged to a group of women who worked (and still do) to create class change. “I have a community of friends from Scripps, many of whom have struggled with body image and fitness. Being in a community where we can all share our feelings, especially as our bodies, minds, and lives have changed, it has been really significant for me. That background and community of women has always helped me to question, experiment, and change my ideas.”
It’s this education, in fact, that has helped her to think critically and put an emphasis on questioning the norms of fitness, giving her an edge to stand out in the industry. “I’ve found I’m able to intellectualize health, wellness, Pilates for my clients. For most people, this is a new and welcome experience, something beyond the dichotomies of ‘fat and skinny’ that people have taken as the only pillars of fitness.”
Though she’s been teaching Pilates for eight years, she only opened Union in November 2013, after reaching a breaking point that made her not want to be associated with so many fitness business models. “For years, I said I didn’t want my own studio; I really liked working out of gyms where there were other modalities being taught side by side. I believe in cross-training so it was a great environment for my work. I felt a studio on its own was too insular, removed from reality, but I’ve realized now it’s where I need to start as someone building a larger vision for my work and my business.”
When she was working on her business plan, she was told that you need to have around half your patrons sign up for a gym and never come in order to keep you afloat. She was disgusted. “Building a business around that principle is despicable. If the goal of your organization is to create positive change in the bodies of your clientele, how can you build your business on people throwing their money away and not activating any change? It’s not right. And it’s lazy, which contradicts the core philosophy of this industry. I’ve strived to build my business in creative ways to make money and help people.”
But being a small business owner is not easy, as I’m sure is no surprise. Ashley’s bigger vision is a holistic wellness center, somewhere where she can nurture her clients and create a community for a larger demographic of people. “Fitness isn’t white, thin, young bodies. I have trained clients from 12 to 84 years old, and I want people to get out of the mentality that you have to be skinny to start, or that you’re there to get skinny. I want people who want to be strong, who strive to be healthy, and I want diverse people to have powerful results working with me.”
She’s in her studio constantly, teaching mat classes, tower classes, private lessons, and duos. And she’d really like it if you stopped by, whoever you are.