Last week I went to a group exercise class at a Pilates gym, using up one of the four class passes I’d purchased a while back when I realized that this particular chichi suburban-lady workout place costs basically the same on a drop in basis as the other chichi workout place I already decided is worth the money (Barre3), which is to say it’s expensive but not prohibitively so if you don’t actually go all that often. (Admittedly not really a winning strategy in terms of fitness benefit.)

I always figured Pilates when done on the machines rather than a mat class was astronomical in cost and it probably is if you’re one on one with the instructor but this gym has a number of reformers lined up for group sessions. In normal times you could probably get, what, 20+ people in there together at a time maybe? Currently there is enforced spacing which limits the class size, another blow against this poor business which literally launched weeks before the original pandemic shutdown.

This was my second class and I had pretty much no idea what I was doing. If you aren’t familiar with the Pilates reformer it sort of looks like a medieval torture device of some kind; it’s a big wooden platform that moves back and forth on springs with a bunch of doohickeys extending from it, plus an array of associated baffling equipment (springboard wall, TRX straps, Bosu balls, etc) in each station. Once you learn how to lay down on the board and make it move by pushing your feet against a platform that part is at least fairly intuitive, but the rest — for me, anyway — definitely requires someone with more knowledge to tell me what to do.

Lucky for me this was an intro class, specifically designed to keep boneheads like myself from folding themselves in half on the machine and slowly asphyxiating to death. However, the instructor was in the very back of the room, and like the rest of us, she was masked.

“Lkljdldfjdghvmfdfgfgsh,” she said. “Mskdjdslfj. Fsdjakip. Lmmllm.”

I was flat on my back, my vision somewhat obscured by my own mask, straining my eyeballs trying to see what the people around me were doing. The handful of other women in the room were all tentatively sliding up and down on the platforms, no one in sync.

“Mdfjshfkdjshssdffn,” the instructor said. “Wwmnddmn! Klknf.”

The last thing she said seemed to have some sort of emphasis but I had no idea if she was telling us to perform some sort of different move or if she was warning us that the building was on fire.

“Kdfmdnfmn!” she said, insistently. “Pmmlfffff.”

This ridiculous situation stretched on for several minutes as I tried everything short of telepathy to try and figure out what she was saying, while shooting panicked glances around the room.

Finally, I sat up and summoned my courage. “Um, I can’t hear a single thing you’re saying,” I said, loudly. My mask had a muffling effect but as you’ve surely learned after actual months of being masked the way to combat this is to, you know, raise your voice.

“Wsdjkshad?” she responded. “Psshdjh?”

I looked around, wide-eyed. “Is it just me?” I asked the room at large. (At this point, I wondered if maybe I was having a stroke.)

“NO,” said every other class-goer.

“HJhkjdfhdfm,” the instructor said, in the exact same inaudible tone of voice from the back of the room where she had not moved one inch.

“I still can’t hear,” the woman next to me told me.

“I’m sorry, I STILL CAN’T HEAR YOU,” I blared.

“Qioudsnfsssssss,” the instructor replied.

“I have no idea what she is saying,” the woman across the aisle hissed to me.

So I finally just got up and … left. I left! I went out to the lobby where I put on my shoes while apologizing profusely to the receptionist that I was so sorry to disrupt the class but I just couldn’t hear a damn thing and I couldn’t really wing it so again I am sorry but farewell.

Then I got in my car and drove home, feeling like I’d just taken part in some sort of weird social experiment, an Emperor’s New Clothes kind of situation. We’ve secretly replaced this instructor with a series of unintelligible consonant-centric speech sounds, let’s see if anyone notices!

I also felt more than a little bit like an asshole. A Karen. I had not demanded to see a manager but it definitely seemed like a dick move to just bail. It felt like a FLOUNCE, although my departure was truly more of an embarrassed scuttle than a grand exit.

I had pretty much decided never to return to this gym because that’s the kind of conflict resolution I greatly prefer (the kind where you avoid it altogether) and while I considered emailing the owner with an explanation I wimped out, figuring that any reassurance I’d had in the moment that the experience was not existing solely in my own brain had a damn good chance of being falsified by my unreliable ability to read the room and that the other students were probably still talking about that crazy class when a lady just UP and LEFT, probably to rush to her next appointment which involved screeching at a hapless barista that she asked for a SKINNY DECAF EXTRA HOT WITH THREE PUMPS OF SUGAR FREE PUMPKIN goddammit.

However! Lo and behold, the next day I had a long message from a very apologetic owner. She apologized for, her words, the “debacle” with the instructor, who she said was no longer instructing. She comped my account, she said she was sorry I’d wasted my time, and she hoped I would give them another shot.

Now, I want to be incredibly clear here: I did not in ANY way intend for this instructor to lose her gig. Hell, I didn’t even want to complain, because even though it felt like a nutty situation which could be easily been resolved by speaking up it’s not like I was trying to listen to instructions for delivering CPR or something. It was, you know, a Pilates class. Not a huge deal.

Except I probably really wouldn’t have come back, and now I definitely will. I’ve met the owner and I am pulling for her, she invested in what is surely a high-end franchise at the worst possible time, and I truly do enjoy the workout (for a variety of reasons including the low-impact nature but also for the novelty of the machine).

I’m sure it is a real challenge for fitness instructors who are dealing with mask requirements, not to mention physical distancing. Then again, if you can’t adjust to at least be heard, there’s not much of a point in even trying to teach.

Anyway, I have yet to experience enough Pilates where I can vouch for its ability to transform a cookie-bingeing Netlix addict into a willowy piece of human Silly Putty but I CAN tell you that sometimes it’s okay to trust your instincts and bail, because life is too damn short for going along with shit that just flat-out makes no sense.


15 Responses to “Lost in translation”

  1. Donna on October 26th, 2020 3:13 pm

    I am so fucking proud of you I can’t see straight.
    And I’m glad you’re gonna go back.

  2. Kim on October 26th, 2020 3:18 pm

    My god, I got a vicarious rush. I know myself well enough to know that not only would I not have spoken up, but would’ve also been too scared to leave. I’m the type who apologizes when someone else is rude though, and it’s something I’ve really been trying to work on considering we’re living in the end times and if there was ever a time to say screw it, it’s 2k20.

  3. Noemi on October 26th, 2020 3:31 pm


  4. Stephene on October 26th, 2020 4:20 pm

    I’m so glad to hear you left!

    When it comes to gym equipment – particularly Pilates, you could have really hurt yourself.

    Best outcome! Go you!

  5. Molly on October 26th, 2020 4:56 pm

    This is awesome. I am such a wussy doormat when it comes to stuff like this, and your story is motivating me to speak the eff up. At least I hope so — the odds are decent that I’ll prob still be a worthless pile of goo the next time I have a chance. Sigh!

  6. Juli on October 26th, 2020 5:55 pm

    I love that you spoke up, and I suspect that she didn’t want to be there. We just took a glass blowing class on Sunday and the instructor said they are having a hard time finding people who want to teach because of covid. Which I get, but seriously, you’re standing there with a metal rod of glowing 2000 degree glass, how close are you getting??? Perhaps this instructor didn’t want to be there, and in fact you did her a favor.

    On an other note: Funny story… 6 years ago I was in a yoga class when I suddenly couldn’t breathe. Turns out all my healthy eating and exercise had dislodged some gunk from my gallbladder and blocked access to my liver, pancreas, etc… etc… I literally had a heart attack while in class, well on the marble floor outside of class because I had left abruptly to use the bathroom.

    A week later I emailed her to let her know it wasn’t her teaching, it was that I nearly died on the floor. So awkward…

  7. Bouncy on October 26th, 2020 6:13 pm

    You spoke up. You left.
    I have a lot to learn.

  8. Courtney on October 26th, 2020 6:14 pm

    Good for you, that sounded unsafe. Also, microphones, they can be worn outside of a mask.

  9. Cara on October 26th, 2020 6:40 pm

    I’m going to guess you weren’t the only one to give the feedback, however indirectly. Most people don’t fire staff over one complaint, and the word “debacle” sounds like the whole class (or even multiple classes) went really poorly.

    It is an important skill to know when to cut your losses. I’m not great at it, but I’m trying to actively teach my kids not everything is worth sticking out.

  10. Wendy on October 27th, 2020 7:01 am

    Oh my gosh, can I relate to this! I am deaf but I have cochlear implants, so I can hear when I wear them. But I still need to read lips, and some people are just unintelligible to me. This is my daily freaking experience and it suuuucks. You described it so perfectly!

    I have done the same with exercise classes. When I joined the Y, I tried a few classes to see if I could understand the instructor (sometimes the music makes it truly impossible) and also to see if the activity works with my CIs. (If there’s a lot of floor work or bending over, my CIs will fall off my ears and the magnets will come off my head.) More than once, I joined a class, got about 1/3 of the way through, and then just left because I couldn’t understand.

    I am so glad you spoke up, and even happier that you get to give the studio another shot!

  11. Belle on October 27th, 2020 10:07 am

    Yay for leaving! I’m now 70 and while I always used to suffer in silence, I now speak up (nicely of course) when trying to remedy an unpleasant situation. I suppose they blow me off as being a crotchety old woman but it still feels better than just accepting something wrong. I walked out of a restaurant last year and boy, that felt good.

  12. Karen on October 27th, 2020 1:13 pm

    It seems like everyone who commented had trouble at some point with speaking up when something was wrong/not working for them.

    What does everyone here have in common?: being a woman.

    What if a man were in a situation where he had paid for something and wasn’t getting any value out of it? He would leave, not feel apologetic, and probably even email the owner of the gym to ask for his money back. As long as it was a nice email, that wouldn’t be being an a–hole, that would be normal behavior.

    Which is to say, sometimes I think “what would a man do in this situation?” and act accordingly. It usually feels slightly uncomfortable at first, but triumphant in the end.

    Glad to hear that you will go back and hope they find a more suitable instructor!

  13. M on October 27th, 2020 2:37 pm

    Everything in me was hearing a metaphor for voting or telling the emperor he’s nekkid. Either way, I hear so much self respect & courage. Inspiring & well done!

  14. Shawna on October 29th, 2020 6:45 am

    You absolutely did the right thing. I am a fitness instructor and gyms are still closed where I live so I’m not trying to teach with a mask, but I support you speaking up and then leaving when it didn’t work. I’ve never heard of a fitness instructor who was unwilling to bellow in front of a class (the profession doesn’t tend to attract wallflowers), but if they are, they should be sticking to 1-on-1 coaching. I myself walked out of a class once because the music was so loud I feared for my hearing. I didn’t say anything during the class because, well, the instructor was a co-worker and I didn’t want to make her look bad when no one else seemed to mind the volume (I was older than a lot of the other participants). I did mention it privately to her afterwards so she would know why I left though.

  15. TravelingBlush on December 7th, 2020 6:37 am

    I splurged on a one on one, private instruction and it’s life changing, I tell you. I was always one of those people who pooh-pooh-ed other people who had private trainers, but by god it is all worth it. Try it once. At least until you get the hang of all the machines. Then maybe splurge once in a while.

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