Smile Politely

Pilates and Yoga For the Rest of Us at Two Birds, One Tree

Like most people of my generation, my scant knowledge of Pilates has been gleaned from chance encounters with late-night infomercials hosted by Denise Austin or Daisy Fuentes: it was invented by Joseph Pilates, it’s kind of like yoga, and it’s what supermodels use to stay toned. So when I was recently offered the opportunity to try a private session of Pilates with personal trainer Rachel Hills, owner of Two Birds, One Tree, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, and I was a little nervous.

(Ed. note: Every so often, Gillian will write about her first-hand experiences with health and wellness topics in this column, Your Guinea Pig. If you have a suggestion for something she should try, email her at

When I arrived for my session, however, my fears were quickly assuaged. Rachel has a quiet, comforting demeanor that seems to put you at ease the instant you come into her presence. “I would like to create a welcoming environment, a place where people feel cared about, and where people get personalized attention and high quality instruction,” she explained. She certainly has done just that. Two Birds, One Tree operates out of the front room of Rachel’s darling home on Green Street. The mustard-colored walls and tidy oak floors provide a sense of warmth and coziness that you won’t find in a corporate gym or fitness club. The room is decorated with a minimal amount of artifice, so that your attention can stay with your own body and within the partnership or group. Even the name, “Two Birds, One Tree,” has been chosen deliberately. Traditionally, the two birds can represent your own relationship with yourself, or your relationship with humanity. Rachel considers the tree “the idea that we are all in this together, we are in this life together.”

As we began, she first had me lay down so we could make sure my posture was correct. She then taught me “Pilates breathing.” As you are breathing in deeply, you expand your ribs out to your sides; as you are breathing out, you exhale sharply and squeeze out every little bit of air left in your lungs. (It was a difficult process to get used to, but by the end of our session it seemed almost natural.) For the next hour, she talked me through a series of exercises designed to work your “core” muscles: your lower back, abdominals, and glutes. My favorite was the Plank, in which your palms are on the floor shoulder width apart, and you are supported by your toes. It’s basically the position you would put yourself in if you were going to start doing a push up, except you don’t move, you just hold it like that for what seems like five years.

As we went through the positions, she was right there next to me, gently nudging me into place here or there and answering any questions that I had. It could be overwhelming at times, remembering to maintain my posture, breathe, and produce the required movement slowly and correctly. I was never frustrated for very long, though, because whenever I would complete a particularly difficult task, she would cheer for me as if i had just reached the summit of Mt. Everest. Afterwards I felt refreshed, renewed, and a little sore. I also felt a little high, which i think might have been from all of the extra oxygen i had been taking in with the new breathing technique.

Rachel’s passion for Pilates was sparked in 1999 when she read an article about it in a womens’ health magazine. She had already been practicing yoga for several years, but she was intrigued by the possibilities of posture improvement and enhanced body strength that Pilates seemed to offer. Unable to find a teacher in the area, she purchased a book and practiced by herself for the next four years. After a new teacher arrived in Bloomington in 2003, Rachel’s personal Pilates journey hit warp speed. After nine months of thrice-weekly classes, she began teaching on her own. It was just recently, though, that Rachel decided to form Two Birds, One Tree, and start conducting classes and personal training sessions out of her home. While she still holds classes on a regular basis at the Mettler Center and Parkland College, she yearned for a smaller group where she would be able to check posture and alignment for each student. Six people fit comfortably in her home studio, and in her opinion, that is the perfect group size. “Sometimes the difference between someone working too hard and not hard enough is [a fraction of an inch].” Working in small groups or one-on-one enables everyone to get more feedback on their own personal issues and to get the most out of each training session.

In addition to Pilates, Rachel also teaches yoga and breath work. When I asked her why breath work deserved its own class, she replied, “I’ve always been interested in breathing to some extent because of my interest in yoga and Pilates. Just breathing fully and efficiently, the way our bodies were designed to, can help get rid of stress and make you feel better instantly.” I can attest to that, just based on what I experienced during and after our session.

Overall, my time with Rachel was lovely. I look forward to our next session, and would encourage anyone to give it a try, especially those who, like me, may feel uncoordinated, inflexible, and just generally awkward in group fitness classes sometimes. “Pilates is for everyone, whether you are flexible or not!” Rachel said. “The goal is to achieve balance.” Thank you Rachel. With your help, I’m definitely on my way.

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