Born and raised in NYC and a first generation Filipino-American, multi-talented and multi-faceted trainer Gail Rivas always knew the value of health, family and hard work. A tomboy who was obsessed with sports as a kid, she joined any game she could and was so disappointed when she couldn’t be on the basketball team AND cheerleading squad. (Result: She chose basketball AND volleyball, and became co-captain of the team…natch.)
As the daughter of a nurse, wellness was always a priority, and while her dad had a sweet-tooth, food at home was healthy with tons of fruit and veggies. But balance was always key, especially since her mother never wanted her children to be “so skinny a gust of wind could blow you away.” Blended together, these influences imprinted on Rivas, and she had the utmost respect for her parents’ diligence and dedication, as well as for the importance of maintaining health.
That love of wellness and movement has stuck with Rivas: Now teaching both online and in-person Pilates, yoga, cardio strength and personal training, she seems to touch all corners of the fitness universe. She has built a sturdy foundation of knowledge to uphold her work, gobbling up certifications in everything she can. Plus, as a Carbon 38 Team38 ambassador, she has stayed connected to the best in the biz and the most current developments.
Below, she shares some of her top tips and inside info on how to approach fitness during COVID, as well as her own lifestyle and wellness choices.
SBS: What is your professional background? What jobs led you to your work in fitness and Pilates?
GR: When I was in elementary school, we took this test and based on our answers, it told us what careers were most likely suited to us. I remember "librarian", "editor" and "teacher" being in my results, but I never thought much of it. I thought perhaps I'd grow up to be an English teacher or a gym coach, but I was open to other paths.
I was in the fashion industry for a while, but I didn't feel like it was taking me anywhere. So, I switched to working for a major publishing company because although I grew up a tomboy, I was also a huge nerd. When I wasn't playing sports, I was reading. I was in publishing for 22 years. I loved what I did and how my attention to detail and ability to work with various departments helped in my role.
I was always called to fitness, though. I had done some moonlighting over the years as a back-up dancer for some singing groups but could never tour because of my full-time job. I went to the gym often and took a lot of classes. At one point I wondered if I could teach those classes, especially after being in a class where an instructor wasn't doing much teaching. It killed me to see how this person wasn't helping people who obviously needed correcting and wasn't doing much in terms of coaching.
I knew I could do that person's job, do it better and make a difference, so I signed up, studied diligently and passed both the written and physical AFAA Group Fitness Instructor test.
From there, I auditioned to teach hip hop classes and was hired. My love of learning and wanting to be better at what I did led me to attending fitness conferences, finding mentors and acquiring more certifications (ACE, Pilates, TRX, Certified Functional Strength Coach, yoga, etc.) so I am now well-versed in a number of formats and movement.
For more than 10 years, I worked full-time in publishing and taught group fitness classes on the side. I also became a master trainer for a dance workout program. I traveled domestically and internationally as a teacher trainer and fitness conference presenter, all while helping to develop and refine the education materials we were using.
In 2018, I was laid off from my publishing job. I was sad (hard not to feel that way after working there for so long) but not surprised (there were massive layoffs that year) and slightly relieved. Teaching was where I found joy and at that point, I realized that fitness was my calling.
The test I took when I was in elementary school wasn't wrong: I didn't become a librarian, but I spent many years in the book industry. And yes, I became a teacher. Perhaps it wasn't the English teacher I thought I'd be, but I became a teacher, nonetheless.
SBS: What's your unique approach to each of the areas? What style of teacher are you?
GR: I've been as much a student as well as a teacher during the 15 years I've been in the fitness industry. Teaching a variety of formats has exposed me to many styles of teaching and movement, and I've learned that everything is connected. The breathwork and mind/body connection of Pilates and yoga can easily be applied to strength training and dance. What I've learned about assessment, corrective exercise and biomechanics of the body from strength and conditioning have definitely helped me in Pilates and yoga.
Presenting and teaching domestically as well as internationally has allowed me to work with different kinds of people of various ages, fitness levels and cultures. It has helped me be a more patient and understanding teacher.
What's unique about my approach to teaching is that, because of my background in various formats, my style is more open and flexible. Everyone has the capacity to be successful in a class, yet everyone comes in with different fitness backgrounds, past injuries, or overall goals. What I strive to be is the teacher that motivates them to be the best they can be and to do the best they can do for that day. I want to inspire them but also be inspired by them.
SBS: How has your COVID journey been? What were you doing before and how has it shifted, both professionally and personally?
GR: On Monday, March 16th, we received word that NYC gyms would be closing. I taught my last class and headed home with a game plan. The next day, I celebrated my daughter's birthday and also did some quick research on how to stay connected to my students while we were in quarantine. The day after that, I started teaching one to two classes a day, five days a week, keeping the same times that my students were already used to. I've continued to do that up to the present day.
Prior to Covid-19 taking over our lives, I had been hustling all over the city, teaching anywhere from two to five classes a day. While I don't teach as many classes now, I am still quite busy with helping my children with their remote schooling and just trying to keep ourselves afloat financially (like so many, my husband was laid off due to Covid) and mentally.
It's been a crazy year of constant ups and downs, filled with anxiety and helplessness. Teaching has definitely been a bright spot. I can honestly say that my students have helped me as much as I've helped them.
What this year has taught me is that I am resilient and resourceful. I did not hesitate to start offering online classes to serve my students, nor did I hesitate to make sure I was receiving payment for those classes. I've also tried to challenge myself to completing two goals I've been struggling to accomplish pre-Covid: learning French (practicing with Duolingo every day) and finishing up in creating my website (still a work in progress). While I miss in-person learning, I have taken advantage of the various online courses and seminars that have been made available.
SBS: What are a few key practices for COVID time?
GR: This year has been emotionally challenging for everyone. We may not be thriving the way we want to, but we are surviving. Making sure we are taking care of ourselves physically, emotionally and spiritually is crucial for our overall well-being, not just to prevent Covid-19, but to stay sane.
We need to allow for change, mistakes, disappointments and setbacks, and be grateful for the small wins, our loved ones and our health. Taking time to make sure we're eating right, getting enough sleep, getting proper exercise, and staying connected with our friends and family is crucial, now more than ever.
SBS: What's your own practice? How has it changed?
GR: Everything I tell my students in class are things I say to myself as well. We control what we can control. This was something I believed in pre-Covid, but now as well. I may not be busy running all over town to teach like before, but the days are still busy, and that’s all in a modest NYC apartment with a family that doesn't allow a lot of space or time to do everything I might like to do. While I would love to take this time to take other classes for myself, sometimes I'm happy with small blocks of time to get in a quick workout, a bit of meditation or a catnap.
SBS: What advice would you give to new practitioners in each area?
GR: Teach with empathy and kindness. Everyone is going through a lot right now. Understand that they're coming to class looking to escape and to feel better. Help them by taking them on a journey where they can put the madness of the world behind them and feel empowered by what they can control.
For some new teachers, unless you have a background that has prepared you for teaching virtually, online training is a whole new skill to learn. If teaching is something you truly love, find a way to do that. Learn how to set up your ‘studio’ (lighting, music, music licensing, sound, space). Practice how you might coach, cue and correct: Do you need to mirror your students? Are you articulating your cues sufficiently so that students don't have to have their eyes glued to the screen all the time? Know how to make sure you're protected (liability insurance that includes online teaching, being aware of your students’ injuries) and paid (important!). Find mentors, ask questions, seek out information about what's going on in the industry, and stay informed.
SBS: What tips/advice would you give to clients doing strength training or Pilates for the first time via virtual gatherings?
GR: I would encourage them to be patient with themselves and the process. Reach out to your teacher beforehand if you have any questions or concerns. Turn your camera on so the teacher can see you and help guide you while you work. Being able to see other students also gives you a feeling of being in a community. As with in-person classes, if your first experience doesn't work for you, perhaps give it a second try or try another teacher or format until you find something and someone who matches what you're looking for.
SBS: What's your approach to nutrition?
GR: I've always believed in moderation, not deprivation. Food is life. It doesn't just literally give us life, but in sharing meals with friends and family and trying new foods, it helps us enjoy life.
Keep healthy foods handy and in sight. If you have foods that aren't as healthy, you'll be tempted to eat them. That being said, if you have a craving for something like chocolate, have it and savor it, but try not to overindulge. And if you do, try not to beat yourself up over it. Eat better the next day.
Like exercise, sleep, etc., be mindful of what you're eating. Try to eat less packaged and processed foods. Try to eat more fresh food, and organic, if possible. Pay attention to how certain foods make you feel (bloated, sluggish, energized, satisfied). Your body will give you feedback with what's good for you or not. Listen to your body.
The best, zaniest part of being Gail:
I'm a Virgo so I can be a picky, nagging worrywort (with the best intentions).
Gail’s SBS Mantra: Be Bright. I like to radiate the positive energy I want to receive from others.
Gail’s NYC Faves:
Healthy Restaurant: Chez Rivas, our home kitchen!
Splurge Restaurant: We're parents with two kids. Anytime we go out to eat, it's a splurge!
Yoga Studio: Yoga Vida
Fitness Studio: Surfset NYC and Hit House
Fun Activities: Surfing, reading, spending time at the beach, watching sunsets, cuddling my husband and kids, laughing with friends
Calming Activity: Sitting on the beach listening to the crashing of waves