David Hill

A handful of programs aim to bring mind-body awareness to grueling urban jobs.

Marcia Polas doesn’t care about what goes into a cocktail. When she watches a bartender at his craft, she’s more concerned about crooked shoulders, locked knees, uneven hips, swollen fingers, and creaky joints.

“Nobody has any grasp of how physically taxing bartending is,” Polas says. As an occupational Pilates instructor, Polas has long been disabused of the notion of bartenders as rock stars or sex gods—or at the very least, people with easy jobs. “They’re athletes,” Polas says.

They move behind the bar at lightning speed, bending to pick up glasses, scooping ice, and shaking cocktails, while fielding requests from strangers. Their bodies, however, are untrained for the work. Strained backs and torn rotator cuffs are commonplace.

While she was working in Denver, Polas trained dancers, performance artists, and sometimes law students. She also was diagnosed with Celiac disease, and began chatting with bartenders and chefs about her dietary restrictions. Through her growing network of connections, she met a professional dancer who also managed a local bar. Polas began working with him on dance-related movement issues, but he kept coming back with more problems.

She couldn’t figure it out. But one night, Polas was sitting at her client’s bar, watching him pour drinks, and realized: it was how he was moving behind the bar, not onstage, that was causing his problems.

Polas redirected her work to focus on his patterns behind the bar. The effect was so immediate that soon she was training his whole team. Word spread. Polas relocated to New York, and through a friend, she met Ben Carlotto, the vice president of trade marketing and advocacy for Royal Dutch Distillers. His company had introduced Rutte gin to the U.S. last July; with part of the money from its launch, Carlotto brought Polas on to host a 12-week series of Pilates and wellness workshops this spring for a dozen New York City bartenders.

Polas demonstrating the use of stabilization muscles to a New York bartender. (Marcia Polas)

Sure, it was a marketing thing, Carlotto says. But for many bartenders, it’s career-saving. “I see so many guys working 14 hours behind the bar, moving incorrectly, and it’s killing them,” Carlotto says. “People develop so many bad habits that they just keep repeating.”

To break them, Polas starts her clients slow, on the floor. She has them practice breathing, and take note of where their fascia—or connective tissue—is tight. Learning how to relax it, Polas says, is crucial, and she encourages clients to practice at home or while commuting on the subway. In her classes, bartenders learn to move in ways that don’t aggravate their joints. While many of them at first had a harder time getting off the floor than Polas’ 84-year-old mother, she says that by the fifth week, they’d moved on to more typical Pilates exercises.

Classes like Polas’s are part of a sea change in the hospitality industry toward a greater awareness of the body’s role in all of it. Grub Street noted that among bartenders and kitchen staff, there’s a growing conversation around mental and physical health; in addition to Pilates, meditation and yoga are becoming supplemental mainstays. It’s about preserving one’s body, but also one’s sanity. “When you’re on your feet all night and don’t have the physicality to support yourself, the hospitality element goes out the window,” Carlotto says.

Cultivating a strong mind-body connection is not only beneficial to service industry workers: it’s also proved helpful for first responders.

Shannon McQuaide launched FireFlex yoga at the fire department in San Jose, California around two and a half years ago. Since then, it’s expanded to six different fire stations and reached over 100 firefighters and policemen. “Most fire departments and police departments are tuned into the physical demands of the profession,” McQuaide says. The psychological toll, however, is a whole other matter.

McQuaide grew up with a firefighter father, but she says he didn’t bring home too much of his suffering. It was all about camaraderie with the guys, and “lifting weights and eating meat,” McQuaide says. One she got involved with yoga around 20 years ago, she began to wonder if the meditative practice might break through the tough exterior of the notoriously demanding career.

Firefighters in one of McQuaide’s yoga classes. (David Hill)

In her first class with the firefighters in San Jose, McQuaide led them through an intense vinyasa practice, thinking that if the workout was difficult, they’d be less likely to reject it. But over time, her slower, more meditative classes grew in popularity. “Their mind has to be ready for peak performance at all times,” McQuaide says. Just a few moments of deep breathing in between calls, she adds, has helped firefighters remain relaxed and collected going into their next assignment.

Both McQuaide and Polas feel that there’s a push against keeping personal needs under wraps in these industries. While both of their programs are small, they’re expanding gradually across their respective regions; McQuaide, when CityLab spoke to her, was en route to meet with fire departments in Marin County, and Polas is fielding requests from bartenders in New York and Pittsburgh.

The tips that Polas and McQuaide bring to their clients are not complicated, but they make a difference. “The primary message I try to spread,” Polas says, “is that it shouldn’t hurt to do your job.”

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