Is Life as a Pilates Instructor Any Good?

14 years ago I handed over my IBM laptop and accompanying padded PwC Consulting bag, ethernet cable and a generous salary for a voluntary redundancy package. I was 25. Disillusioned by the corporate world. I didn’t see my future in what I was doing and I’ve always had a need to do something fulfilling. Something bigger than the capitalist ideal – as hard as that is.

With hindsight I probably needed a few coaches along the way who understood me better, or perhaps I needed more confidence to say, ‘No this doesn’t work for me.’

I share this story because as I sit and write this in 2016, I am a Pilates instructor. I’ve been through the working in gyms rotation. I’ve been a gym instructor, a personal trainer and manager. Heck I’ve even been sacked (long and legally tricky story). I’ve been there. Done that. And no. I’d never go back!

I now run a fitness business with my husband (who I met whilst on one of those gym rotations). I have a few people on my team and a little team of instructors who teach for me. I have an online Pilates programme. I write articles and create content for my own business, national and industry press. I’ve been invited to speak at the biggest fitness conference in the UK. I’ve helped some of the biggest names in fitness to write books and I’m still learning. About business. About marketing. About customer service. About financials. About tax. You name it. I’m either doing it or learning about it!

Through my experiences of working with women, who are still in the corporate world, I know some long for ‘my life.’ Or ‘to do what I do’. Perhaps not Pilates. Perhaps to become a personal trainer or a yoga instructor. Perhaps to just work for themselves. But there’s a longing in some women. Women who, like me, see the bigger picture and wonder if they could do things … differently.

What’s it like?

Where would I start?

Am I good enough?

So what is it like?

Well, if I’m honest, it’s great! But for different reasons than I first realised.

I get to set my own hours. Although those hours are often based on childcare juggling (I have a 2 year old and a 5 year old) and the hours others are childcare juggling or not at work. So technically you only really start to set your own hours, with experience and careful planning.

I don’t have a boss to answer to, which brings both pros and cons. There’s no bureaucracy. No red tape. If you want to try something new, you just do. Make a few phone calls, check a few policies or finances and bang, away you go. You get to take educated risks and play at business. Of course there are also times when you feel a bit low and it’s still all down to you. Or the time you screw up and it’s all your fault. But in the main, it’s pretty good being your own boss.

I get to teach Pilates every day. Well not every day because I’ve chosen to not be the instructor who teaches 20-30 hours per week and has no life or energy. I have done the ‘lots of classes’ thing. It was fun in my 20s but I’m approaching a big birthday and quite frankly, I like the balance of teaching, writing and business owning. It means that when I get to a class, with a group of participants virtually hand picked, it rarely feels like work. It’s still the best part of what I do.

I chose an active life. I know a lot of women who struggle to fit everything in. I’ve sacrificed some things in my life because I knew I wanted activity and health to be at its centre, and that meant, for me, being my job.

I get to meet lots of amazing people. When you teach classes and are in fitness networks, you have to find your tribe. I love meeting new people and finding out their stories. I love hearing incredible feedback on how exercise has changed their lives. I also love what I can learn from them.

I’ve been able to create a community through what I do. This has always been one of my goals. In a time when community is rare, to have created a little network of people with similar interests and life views is so rewarding, not to mention fun.

But it’s not all roses

I’m in the fitness industry. There are a lot of people out there who want to take a lot of money off you! Some fitness industry courses cost considerably more than a chartered physiotherapy course. Until recently, the industry has been unregulated. The recently formed Chartered Institute for the Management of Sport and Physical Activity (CIMSPA) is trying to change this.

It’s very male dominated. Partly due to the family/work life balance of many women, historically the management positions or expert voices have been predominantly male. Fortunately this is changing, with women on the rise. I’m part of an organisation helping to facilitate this change, Women in Fitness Empowerment (WIFE). It’s vital that as a self employed person in this industry, you create a network of business people who you trust and can count on.

It has its ups and downs. Both financial and emotional. If you choose to work for yourself it can take a while to stop taking everything personally. I’m still learning to see Karen Laing, the businesswoman as a product. The Karen I take home to my family is separate. But it’s easier said than done.

Similarly when a corporate client decides to drop you, your salary nose dives. Or if a business you’ve formed ties with or who owe you money stop communicating or cease to trade, it’s your loss. With time you learn that this is just the ebb and flow of business. Things go to leave space for better things. As the Reverend Mother says: ‘When God closes a door, somewhere He opens a window.’ And I believe this to be true. But it still hurts like hell if the door metaphorically slams on your finger!

Social media makes everything easier for the sole trader, the world has got smaller but it’s also made it a bit more manic and much harder to switch off. You stress that you should be doing something.

There are trade offs for all things. If you like secure monthly incomes and security, they come with time (you can never sack yourself) but your bank manager may not view your prospects in the same way!

So I wouldn’t change it for anything. There’s nothing static or boring about my life as a Pilates instructor, unless you are counting tax returns and class bookings, but it can be unpredictable. Both good and bad.

I can buy a pink laptop case if I choose but there’s no technical support line, just the long old drive to the Apple Genius Bar even when a deadline looms.

What I love the most is that I have freedom. I am not trapped. I can choose to poke my nose in an open window or jump the hell through it. But afterwards I can lie on my mat with some deep lateral thoracic breathing to meditate on whether or not that was a good idea.

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  1. You have been very sensible and should give yourself a pat on the back. I’ve worked for myself for 32 years and don’t regret it. Although I have worked too hard at times and should have taken a step back and let others do it for me. Not very good at delegating. You sound to have a good balance now. Well done you.

    • Thanks Janet. It’s always inspiring to hear from people who have worked for themselves all their lives. Makes you realise it is possible.

  2. Hi
    I am hoping to do exactly what you did but will have to do it around my current job. Is it still possible to earn a good living (although I know this is subjective but I still have a mortgage to pay for unfortunately) even though there are a lot of people teaching pilates out there?

    • Hi Lisa. It’s taken a while but I’d say yes. We’re doing okay. My advice would definitely be to niche down and find a local instructor you can learn from. Preferably someone who’s independent and running a business rather than working for gyms. Feel free to drop me an email. Also check out JPilates for training. Can’t recommend her courses and community enough. Good luck x

  3. Thank you for sharing your story, Karen. It has a wonderful ripple effect and I for one feel blessed to have been able to read it. Thank you.

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