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Dina Does It All

(Interview by Paul Smith from the Fall 2006 Issue of Fit To Print)

To list all of Dina SantaMaria’s certifications would probably require the addition of at least another full page to this newsletter. She is involved in so much here at Fitness Incentive: Spin, Yoga, Pilates, Aerobics Instruction, Group Exercise, Personal Training…a long list that would seem to require more than one Dina just to keep up with it all. Even after our recent conversation – a rather breathless hour or more, and don’t ask me where she found the time – it felt as though I’d barely scratched the surface. How does she do it? Well, being possessed of the equivalent energy of two (or more) fit people helps, and is partly why there sometimes seems to be any number of Dina replicas. Remarkably, though, there is only one Dina, and she is one of a kind.

PS: How long have you been with Fitness Incentive?
DS: About three years.

PS: How did it occur that you came to work here?
DS: I used to be a member when the gym was located on Grove Place, back when I was 16 years old. Subsequently, I worked in Manhattan for many years, during which time I didn’t work out there anymore. Later, I was a member of and teaching Spin at another local gym, where Eileen (who runs the FitKids program here at Fitness Incentive) was also teaching. She said, “You have to come and teach at Fitness Incentive.” I considered it, though, at the time, I was still working full-time in the computer business and wasn’t necessarily interested in taking on more. Finally she convinced me, and I came and auditioned for Iris and began working, at first helping with the FitKids program because I have several certifications that allow me to work with children – mostly Yoga and Pilates. I didn’t immediately get on the Spin schedule because it was full, though she really wanted to get me into that program. My schedule at the time wouldn’t allow it. I then began teaching Pilates. Short answer: Eileen Jacinth. She basically brought me over here.

PS: Talk a bit about your intro to the fitness business generally.
DS: As I said, I was in the computer business. I was a consultant and assistant programmer for nine years and also ran my own computer consulting business for five years. I was also teaching Spin during this time, in the mornings. I would teach and then go to work. At last, though, I reached the point where I desired a break from the computer business.

PS: The burn-out level must have been severe…
DS: It was – it was a little crazy. So my thought was to work in the fitness industry, but only part-time, to take it easy for a while. Well, the part-time thing didn’t last very long! I just kept going and going, and it got bigger and bigger…

PS: Have you always been interested in fitness?
DS: Yes. I started young. My older sister used to work out, and we’d do yoga at home a lot, along with my mom, beginning when I was about ten years old. I continued to work out with my sister and eventually joined Fitness Incentive when I was about 16 or so. The sister-in-law of my then-boyfriend – who is now my husband – dragged me there. By 18, I was teaching aerobics.

PS: You began when still quite young.
DS: I’ve just always been into fitness. I’m not from an athletic background. I hated gym class and never played any sports, but yoga has always been a big part of my life. I’ve loved it since I was a kid, and I drifted in and out of it until I got involved in the philosophical end in addition to the physical.

When Dina discusses yoga, she speaks with such passion and conviction that it is impossible not to be inspired. Having been exposed to yoga myself as a child (does anyone remember “Yoga For Health” on local television weekday mornings in the ’60’s?), listening to an expert discuss the depth and profundity that yoga encompasses was a real eye-opener. It would be a disservice to the volume and quality of the information she delivered during our talk to offer an abridged, condensed version here. It will have to suffice to say that her ideas and insights seemed to emerge from her very pores, and one was left with the impression of windows opening into a wonderfully nourishing world – one that addresses the needs of the mind, the body, and the spirit.

PS: As a yoga instructor here at Fitness Incentive, how much of its depth do you touch upon?
DS: Most people who approach yoga in a gym atmosphere do so with the idea that they are going to stretch, relax, and get more flexible…but as has been said, there are many additional aspects. One feature of our program is what we call the “focus of the month.” This focus – non-violence, as an example – allows us to gently introduce and integrate the philosophical dimension into our sessions. The instructors can provide this introduction in any number of ways – a simple method might include the reading of a brief descriptive passage at the end of a session. There is never any pressure or preaching. We simply want people to know that yoga has more to offer, and most people are intrigued and want to learn more. They ask for information or for reading recommendations.

PS: Given your love of yoga and your involvement in so many different things here at Fitness Incentive, I’ll ask what gives you the most satisfaction.
DS: That, as I think about it, is a really hard question! Yoga means a great deal to me personally, but Pilates has changed both my life and my yoga practice. I was involved in an auto accident some time ago and had nerve and disk issues in my back. I was in conventional therapy for 15 months. They wanted to give me injections in addition to the water therapy and traction, and I don’t and didn’t then, like taking so much as a Tylenol. So, at the time, I increased my yoga practice to try to strengthen my core. Then, I discovered Pilates. I quickly became immersed and knew I had to learn more and share it with others. Pilates is what brought me back – it changed my body from the inside out. And as I mentioned, it also changed my yoga practice. What I learned from Pilates – the awareness of and connection with my body – was able to bring back to yoga to the point where now each one compliments the other. I love when people “get it.”

PS: So, speaking in terms of favorites doesn’t really apply.
DS: I really can’t pick a favorite because, to me, everything intertwines and interlaces. Still, the basis for everything is my Pilates and yogic beliefs and the Pilates core. Everything comes from your core – your center, or powerhouse, and that’s how I connect everything I do.
I can say this: Spin is unquestionably my favorite cardio activity. I don’t particularly like cardio, and you won’t often see me on a treadmill. But with Spin, I feel there is a more substantial body connection. You can take yourself to different levels in a Spin class, with the music and the energy from the other people.

PS: You get a lot of personal satisfaction from being an instructor – a greater level of satisfaction than perhaps your work in the computer industry generated.
DS: Absolutely. My students will often thank me, but they have no idea how much they give me. It’s a cliché, but if I didn’t have bills to pay, I’d do this for free. I say it all the time: “I’m so lucky, so blessed, and so appreciative that I’m able to do what I do.” To share what I’ve learned and to touch people’s lives and at the same time receive from them the same benefits ten-fold – it’s a gift. It makes me feel so proud, and in a way maternal, to see how far some of the people I instruct have come. I feel like a proud mama! They’ll say, “We owe it to you!” and I reply, “No. You owe it to yourselves. You are the ones doing the work – I’m just the coach.”

PS: Each of Fitness Incentive’s trainers and instructors that I’ve spoken to has said essentially the same thing – that they feel like they get as much or more from their clients as they give. I don’t know whether it’s the industry generally.
DS: Maybe, but it’s especially true here, thanks to Cor and Ken. Cor’s spirit can be felt throughout Fitness Incentive. Their energy and innate goodness are what draw like-minded people to Fitness Incentive. They’ve attracted so many good, caring people. I can only speak for myself, but virtually the entire staff has a passion for what we do. We’re lucky. This is a special place.

PS: What role does diet play in your approach to fitness?
Ds: Ethics are the basis of my dietary choices, and they have little to do with fat or such. I’ll eat a loaf of Italian bread dipped in olive oil if there are no animal products. I don’t count calories, I’m fortunate genetically, and I do avoid hydrogenated oils and other poisons like that, but I became vegan due to ethical considerations, and the health benefits are like a bonus. If there’s an animal product or by-product in it, it does not go into my body. It’s a big part of my lifestyle and has been for a long time…ten years or more.

While Dina doesn’t come from an athletic background, she has been extremely active in non-competitive exercise all her life. The impression one receives when speaking to her about this is that for Dina, fitness, and exercise are not jobs or hobbies; they are not undertaken merely to lose weight or add bulk. She pursues the kinds of activities that address the needs of both the mind and the body and replace the negative and destructive with the positive and beneficial. Her choices are driven not so much by habit or discipline as by a desire to embrace a particular way of life.

PS: Any special projects or objectives on the horizon?
DS: For me personally, I think I pretty much have what I want in terms of certifications…they must be kept current, of course, and I recently received Resistance Training Specialist certification along with Nicola, Heidi, and Monica. Constant learning and continuing education are givens in this industry, so there is always that dimension. I’ve also spoken to Cor about offering Pilates Training Certification here at Fitness Incentive.

PS: You mean the training of trainers?
DS: Exactly. I’m very picky about how Pilates is taught and in maintaining close ties to the original method that Joseph Pilates created, but with the knowledge of the bio-mechanical changes we have come to know.

PS: Can you supply an example?
DS: Originally, Joseph Pilates taught that a flat spine was the healthiest – “spineflat”- meaning no curves, the idea being that babies are born with no curves in the spine. We know today how important the curves in the spine are to maintain, working as shock absorbers, and so forth. They are there for a reason. Some Pilates instructors out there still believe in a “flat spine,” but the basis of Pilates today, as officially endorsed and accepted, is a “neutral” natural spine, where the natural curvatures are maintained.
One thing I’d love to see for the Pilates program is a dedicated space to house it. Right now, the space is shared by two other programs, and while the Pilates program has grown impressively since its active management began in September, the potential for additional growth is very significant.

PS: And the outlook for expansion is quite good…
DS: It would have a great impact, both for the Pilates and Yoga programs, allowing for more equipment and more sessions, including more private instruction. These programs are at or near the limit in terms of growth, given the current constraints imposed by spacing concerns. We must even occasionally turn away interested clients, so there seems little doubt that the consumer interest is there.
I’d also like to offer blended or hybrid programs that, for example, combine Pilates and cardio or Yoga and reformer. The possibilities are almost limitless.

PS: Any closing thoughts?
DS: I guess I could finish by saying that if I spend 10 minutes, 20 minutes, or an hour with someone, I want that person to walk out of the room with the best gift they can have: awareness. If you are not aware of something, you can’t do anything about it, so awareness is and always must be the first and most lasting step in any progress.

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