How Pilates Saved Me

Photo: Reverse plank/ leg pull ups. Photo by Ulleli Verbeke. Clothing by Ryan Berkeley Designs

I was not an athlete as a kid. People often ask me now what sports I played when I was young. The answer: none. (I did swim, but only summer league.) I had no hand-eye coordination, I hated all ball sports, there was nothing I hated more than running and I am not remotely competitive (In summer swim league, I got few ribbons, but I can always remember asking my time. I always wanted to do my best, but I wasn’t really worried about winning.) Those who don’t consider themselves athletes don’t always see me as a source of inspiration in my current state because they assume I did dance or gymnastics when I was younger. I begged for both, but did very little of either. When they learn this, they are usually surprised to know that I started exercise as an adult. I am marginally more graceful and less awkward then I was as a teen. Picture a baby giraffe dancing or running. That’s me.

I was still young when I discovered Pilates (25) and relatively young when I started yoga (35), but I went from a place of little to no strength, flexibility and coordination to feeling healthier at 43 than I did at 23.

I started to exercise in college. We had a great gym and I took kickboxing class and swam laps. I accidentally joined the intramural water polo team. I started mountain biking. I had skiing nearby, so I took advantage of that. I wasn’t “good” at any of it (except I am a decent skiier), but that didn’t matter. It fended off the “freshman fifteen,” and started me on a path to physical fitness.

I was always thin. My family is mostly thin and my mom cooked wholesome foods when I was a kid. I didn’t eat much fast food, soda, candy or processed foods, so my childhood set me up for success as an adult in terms of not battling obesity. However, thin does not always mean healthy. Thin with weak cardio-pulmonary strength, low strength, high fat to muscle ratio, poor flexibility, etc. is just unhealthy disguised in a thin body.

I had a lot of back pain as a teen. I was screened for scoliosis when I was 11-14 or whatever and nothing was ever detected. When I was about 17, I started having constant pain in my neck and back. My parents took me to the doctor and an x-ray revealed the classic S-curve of scoliosis. I had been seen my more than one nurse, pediatrician, PE teacher and school nurse. I don’t think they all missed it. Rather, I had a pretty big growth spurt between 16 and 18 and I think the curve happened then. In addition to the S-curve along my back, my neck was (is) lacking the curve it needs to support your skull. I was given therapeutic exercises, which I mostly didn’t do (but now I know would have had little impact anyway) and that was about it. Luckily, it was not so severe as to make me a candidate for surgery or even a Milwaukee brace. (There are MUCH better braces now. That one was awful!!) My mother took me to a couple of chiropractors with no success. One told me one leg was longer than the other and gave me a heel lift, but as it turns out, my legs are essentially the same length. The issue is the rotation of my hips causes one hip to be higher giving that illusion. One shoulder is also higher. I also went to a naturalist orthopedist who did some manipulation, but with no change to my pain.

I continued to have pain in college. I now know this was likely exacerbated by my pillows and beds.

However, I also know that unwittingly, my new found interest in exercise was probably helping me despite the fact that I was exercising for vanity’s sake, mostly. The kickboxing gave me great definition in my arms, but I now know it was also building strength in my core. I was swimming laps and playing water polo, which I now know were keeping me moving and helping my joints. They were also increasing my cardio-pulmonary health without the impact of running. I was doing some weight training, which I now know was building bone density and warding off osteoporosis, which may not be linked to scoliosis, but the deterioration of my spinal bones is exacerbated by scoliosis, so I certainly don’t want to make it worse. (The mountain biking and the crashes probably did more harm than good, but it was sooooo much fun!) I still hated running. Running had always caused pain in my back.

Nonetheless, when I graduated from college at 22, I had constant neck pain and throbbing headaches. After a shift waiting tables, my low back was in agony. A flyer at the local recreation center for a chiropractor piqued my interest. She was a chiropractor with a specialty in sports medicine. She was aghast by my physical state. She said my neck movement was what she would expect to see in someone more than twice my age and said that she had never seen someone y age that had not experienced the trauma of a car accident, gymnastic injury, etc. with the issues I had apart from my scoliosis. She didn’t claim she could fix my curve, but she at least helped with the neck pain and gave me some stretches. I found some relief.

I moved to California and was broke and uninsured, so I had no ability get treatment. A lot of my jobs on set had me standing on my feet all day. I was in almost constant pain, albeit dull pain. Most days I probably would have given it about a 5-7 out of 10. I also started getting pain in my left knee. Once I got insurance, I asked my primary care doctor about it and she suggested I take ibuprofen. (Everyday? Forever?) On really bad days, however, that’s what I did. I also found that smoking pot helped. I really never liked the feeling of being high and I only did it a handful of times, but it totally relaxed my neck!

When I was about 25 two things happened. 1.) I found a GREAT chiropractor who took a very medical approach, and 2.) I discovered Pilates. The chiropractor got me sleeping on a pillow to help correct the curve (or lack there of) in my neck, gave me custom orthotics for my shoes and started aggressively working on my back and neck. While he didn’t claim he could “cure” me, he did think he could make my situation better. It cost me a fortune. Luckily my parents paid for a portion.

I firmly believe that treatment helped, but I don’t think it saved me. Pilates saved me.

A nearby gym had an unbelievable membership special. As broke as I was, even I could find $17 a month. I had access to any of the locations, and two were nearby me. They had pools and a full schedule of classes.  I started randomly trying classes. I took a yoga class or two and remember enjoying them, but the high-energy person had little capacity or interest in the  introspection and chill pace of yoga. (I clearly never happened into a power yoga class!)

One day I popped into something called Pilates. I had never heard of Pilates, so I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I don’t remember clearly that class almost 20 years ago, but something resonated with me. I remember within a few classes feeling quite “good” at it, which was new to me in athletic endeavors. It felt like it was doing something good to my body, but didn’t involve jumping around or catching, throwing or hitting balls. It had the physical aspect of yoga without the confusing and boring (to me at that time) mental aspect of yoga. And it was available for free multiple times a week at my gyms.

I became a regular of both Claire and Christina’s classes. Christina had a dance background and had one style of teaching. Claire was a Pilates purist and had a different style. Claire had studied under Renata Kryzanowski, who was a protege of Joseph Pilates, so she taught a very pure style of classic Pilates. I thrived in their classes and here is what happened:

  • I increased flexibility in my hamstrings, which reduces low back pain;
  • I increased strength and flexibility in my low back, which reduces pain;
  • I increased strength in my abdominal muscles, which supports the spine and improves posture while reducing pain;
  • I eliminated excess fat in my abdominal area, which improves organ health
  • I strengthened the muscles in my upper back and shoulder while opening them up, which improves posture and reduces upper back pain;
  • I increased the strength in my neck muscles, which decreases neck pain

About a year or so after I started taking these classes 3-4 times a week, I was asked on more than one occasion if I was a dancer because of my posture. Throughout my teen years, my mother told me to stand up straight, pull my stomach in, pull my shoulders back, etc. I had mastered the grungy, emo, slumpy teen in flannel look at age 18. Now at age 25, I was standing taller, straighter and more gracefully.

My tummy was already pretty flat, but now it was toned. My pain dramatically diminished.

I fully believe that the therapeutic devices and treatment I got at the chiropractor helped, but that was not sustainable. I needed an affordable way to affect my own health for life and no doctor can do that. I needed to do that myself.

I religiously continued attending classes. Because Claire, in particular, taught such a classic style, each class was pretty similar. Therefore, when I joined the Peace Corps and was far from any gym, I could practice Pilates in my home. Something amazing also happened. I found I could run pain free. I think this was in large part due to the orthopedics, which helped my have a more even gait, but I also think that my new-found core strength meant that my body was supported while it ran. I started running a few miles a few times a week in the setting sun in my little desert village.

When I left Peace Corps, I continued my practice, and in London found a teacher that had yoga and Pilates fusion classes, which I fell in love with. It was a strain for me, financially, but well worth it because my neck and back pain were minimal. The pain was never zero, but daily it was and is in the 1-2 range. I have no doubt that the orthotics and the pillow helped, but my Pilates practice was the key. My abs and back were strong; my back was flexible; and my other muscles limber. I had the length and strength Pilates advertises! I sat at a desk all day and I waited tables at night, but I still only had minimal pain most days.

Now, Pilates is a part of my life forever. I still take great pride in my tight tummy, but more than that, I am happy that my posture is good and my back is healthy. In a way, the fact that I had pain when I was young was a blessing. I sought out a way to improve my quality of life and found it. Had I not experienced pain till I was 50, maybe it would have been harder to find relief.

I still go to chiropractors, but they all tell me that the work I have done on my own and the strength of my core is a huge reason why I am not in worse shape than I am. My curve does not seem to have gotten worse and the degeneration in my neck seems to have slowed, if not stopped. I know I will have pain as my body ages. We all do, but I know that this condition makes it worse. However, I refuse to just let that pain take me I refuse to rely on daily pain medication.

As a teacher, it gives me great joy when a previously “unflexible” client can finally bend all the way down! I love it when a client finds their stomach again after years. I have had more than one client with chronic neck pain tell me that after a few months of regular practice, it was suddenly gone. Sure, many of us want to look good, but we all should want to feel good and for some people, Pilates may help us get there now and as we continue to age and our spine continues to be impacted by the forces of gravity.

I began teaching yoga and Pilates when I was 37, unexpectedly. Later, it became half my income. I ran workshops on using yoga and Pilates for a healthy back and always had incredible feedback from people who felt empowered after the workshop to take their back health into their own hands. Pilates helped my with my specific back issue, but its focus on the core can help with many back issues and, even better, it can help prevent them from happening at all!

No type of exercise, treatment or anything else is one-size-fits-all. We all need to find the one that calls to us. For me, I learned belatedly, I probably should have done more dance and movement as a kid, but hey, that time is passed. Now, as an adult, I feel younger and stronger than I thought a 43-year old would and I am happy anytime I can bring the gift of Pilates to someone who can use it.

Would I be dead without Pilates? Not likely, but would I feel like I wanted to die because of the pain? Quite possibly. No one should live in chronic pain, and I believe there are many things to try before just numbing it with drugs. For me Pilates and later, yoga were these things.

I have some videos posted on You Tube that are either yoga, Pilates or a fusion of both (because they complement one another beautifully) and, of course, there are many other online teachers, gyms and studios. If you go to a class and don’t like it, try another! The importance of the personality and teaching style of the teacher cannot be understated. Find one YOU connect with and you are more likely to continue. Good luck finding the healthiest version of you!!!

I wish you a long, healthy and pain-free life!

Beginner Pilates session

Intermediate Pilates session

Advanced Pilates session

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