Jonny Ralfe is the locality’s answer to Mr Motivator. If your hips hurt, your hamstrings are tight or the spring in your step is as flat as the coils in an ancient mattress, his pilates classes could have you running and jumping for joy. And, in case you were wondering, the pain threshold you need to cross first is minuscule — honestly
How did you first get involved in pilates?
It happened about 15 years ago as a result of an ongoing long-term lower back issue (chronic back pain). I was working in the building sector at the time, which didn’t help. My then partner knew a pilates teacher and she sent me the name of a teacher in Somerset. I went for a one-hour lesson at it was fait accompli. I went along with the usual scepticism that comes with ignorance, but pilates was a revelation to me. An hour’s movement with someone who understood the mechanics of the body and the issues that arise when you move badly meant that I was hooked.
Which classes did you go to initially and how did they help you?
I booked an ongoing weekly class at The Scott Studio in Castle Cary where I was fortunate to be looked after by Suzanne Scott, who I consider to be one of the finest practitioners in the country. At first we did one to ones on equipment resembling a torture chamber (racks, springs, pulleys) and gradually we built a programme around stabilising my spine and moving correctly. After a while I moved into a group of three clients who shared a teacher for the class.
The classes helped me hugely. I learned to focus on my own body, to listen to its various issues and to isolate and integrate movement to balance the various muscles. The hour long class would always fly by and the concentration required would invariably provide a welcome break from the pressures of everyday life.
What prompted you to learn to be a teacher?
After a few years of pain-free work, my back finally decided that it didn’t want to lift heavy loads on a building site any more and I was diagnosed with a ruptured disc. I had an operation on my back and it was during my time spent recuperating that the idea of becoming a pilates teacher first arose. I was going through some big changes in my life and when I returned to The Scott Studio to begin my rehabilitation my teacher Suzanne asked me if I would be interested in training to become a pilates teacher. I thought about it and decided that it was a great opportunity for a life change. So I said yes and embarked on a year’s training to become a matwork teacher.
Where did you train?
I did my training at The Scott Studio under the supervision of Suzanne. I spent a year training in theory (anatomy, pathology, practical application, etc) and learning all the movement patterns and exercises. I also worked under other teachers, assisting them in classes until I was ready to take (and pass!) my theory and practical exams. It was the hardest and most rewarding thing I had ever done. Being a glutton for punishment I then embarked on another year’s intensive training to become qualified to teach equipment work as well. I passed that too! After that I began practicing, which was about seven years ago — I think. Time flies!
How many classes do you run now?
At one point I was working five days a week running countless classes, but while this was rewarding I found teaching more exhausting mentally than anything I had done before, so over the years I have gradually reduced my hours to a more manageable level.
Where do you teach, apart from in Upton Noble?
I teach in the local area, running small private matclasses in village halls as well as being employed by gyms and clubs to work with bigger groups. On a Wednesday I work all day at The Scott Studio, teaching equipment work. Yes, they actually gave me a job!
What do you think of Upton’s loyal band of pilates students?
My class in Upton Noble is one of my favourite groups. It starts with a loyal group of dedicated pilates disciples keen to learn and quickly disintegrates into a catch up on village gossip before I can persuade anyone to begin. Then someone will announce they’ve forgotten their hearing aid and so will be unable to hear me anyway… Once underway we work through an hour of moans, groans and giggles. Then, when the time is up, somebody (not the Batcombe interloper) will declare that they feel “better for that” in a tone of surprised wonderment. And so it goes on….
What is pilates and how can it help people?
For me pilates is a way of teaching the body to move correctly. It is about identifying a sense of ‘centre’ (physically and mentally), stabilising the body and enabling a person to perform functional movements and actions without pain. It is about maintaining good practice through reinforcing muscle memory and building strength where necessary. It is not rocket science but common sense.
Why is it such a powerful exercise programme?
The power of pilates comes from its ability to offer (when taught correctly) the chance to move and exercise the body in all the ways it was designed to — flexion, extension, rotation and lateral flexion. Its wide range of exercises enables a (good) teacher to adapt these to suit an individual. No two human bodies are the same after all, particularly in Upton Noble! It can also offer a mentally rewarding experience that comes with concentration, focus, mindfulness and the practice of breathing to relax.
What are the most common problems/issues you tend to see in your clients?
Where to begin? Poor posture, tight hamstrings, tight hip flexors, bad backs, knees and hips, neck and shoulder tension, rigidity, foot problems, imbalance, asymmetry, emotional issues, arthritis, osteoporosis… Would you like me to carry on? Very often the act of starting to do something about these issues, simply by joining a class, can be very empowering. It’s the feeling of not giving in to an issue, of not allowing yourself to be defined by it. The feeling of improvement is rewarding too.
Tell us about your new studio and the classes you’ll be offering
I have now reorganised the way I work, offering classes from my own teaching space at home (in a newly converted barn). There will be the chance to do matwork, which is just the client on a mat working through a series of exercises, as well as equipment work using various machines unique to pilates. Try Googling Pilates Reformers, Cadillacs and Chairs for a flavour of what goes on.
Apart from teaching pilates, what have you done in life?
I have lived here for nearly 10 years. I love the view from our windows in the morning. Looking across to Alfred’s Tower first thing with the mist sitting low in the valley is special. Before that I lived in Bruton. I grew up outside Oxford and went to school there before going to college in London to study journalism. I stayed for five years before leaving to travel. I spent a year in India and worked in Australia before returning home, at which point I bought a cottage, did it up, sold it and became a property developer for 20 years. At various times in my life I have worked as a labourer, landscape gardener, cheese seller, builder and in the gold mines of Western Australia. Today, at the farm, I run a B&B, but it is currently closed while we build an extension. I also run Glory Boy Records, buying vinyl records from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s onwards, including pop, rock, indie, reggae, jazz. In fact, all bar classical.