People ask me frequently, what is Pilates like? Since I am not a Pilates instructor, I can only comment from my own view. So I have written here about my personal experience with Pilates. This is not about the history of Pilates or of the many benefits you can find in Pilates. Just like my previous blog on aerial yoga, this is not so much informative but rather about my personal encounter with Pilates and how it dramatically improved the quality of my life. (If you haven't yet read my blog entry; Aerial Yoga - Beyond the Mat, part 1 you can find it here by following this link)
To understand how Pilates helped me, you have to understand where I was in life just before I met Pilates.
For many years I have struggled with chronic back pain that I had always attributed to three traumatic injuries I sustained to my low back when I was in my twenties. With each injury the impact was such that the skin turned black from bruising. As I reached my thirties, the symptoms of these previous injuries surfaced in such a way that several times a year my back would go out, seemingly randomly or from the smallest movements. Each time this happened, walking was almost impossible for the first week. It would usually take an additional two weeks before I could move and function normally. Since this happened anywhere from 2 -4 times a year, that meant that for 6 - 12 weeks of each year I was not able to move easily or without pain. This is where I was last summer when my back went out just after becoming the owner of Just Breathe Yoga and Fitness Studio. Picture this; one day at the studio I was really struggling with back pain and the lack of mobility that came with it. I was hunched over and every step was a painful endeavor. Two new clients walked in the door and I had to hobble over to the front desk to greet them and answer their questions. Can you just imagine me trying to tell people the benefits of yoga when I couldn't even stand up straight?! This was a big problem not just in regards to my own lack mobility and suffering but it would definitely reflect negatively on the image of the studio if the owner couldn't even stand upright! Yes, it is very true that yoga gave me a lot of relief over the years, and because of yoga, I avoided being bedridden during these times. However, as much as I LOVE YOGA, I will admit that yoga was not able to fully cure the situation. I won't ever pretend that yoga is the cure-all for every ailment. I understand the multiple benefits yoga gives to the body and spirit but I also recognize the complexities of the human body and spirit. No one thing ever is going to give us everything that we need. I tried every possible cure from chiropractors to massage therapists, tens therapy, Icy Hot, Tiger Balm and every possible remedy within my budget. Some of these things brought relief for a little while, but nothing cured it. Several different yoga poses were able to increase my mobility but again I will say that I could not fully cure this condition through yoga.
During this time, a very kind and concerned yoga student, wishing to alleviate my pain, gifted me with a certificate for a massage. I don't know what happened in that massage and I don't want to place blame on the massage therapist because at the time I didn't feel that anything was hurting me during the massage. However, it became clear several hours after my massage that something had gone terribly wrong. The nerve pain down my leg became a hundred times more severe than it was before my massage. The pain was absolutely excruciating and in the following days and weeks the pain was so intense that it brought me to the verge of fainting. I've never experienced a situation like this, where pain could be so overwhelming that I would drop down to my knees because I could feel I was close to blacking out, and I recognized that a head injury from falling wasn't going to make this situation any better, so I avoided that danger by dropping to my knees when I felt like I was about to faint. I would come into child's pose until the feeling passed, then struggle to stand again. I was taking a dangerous amount of over-the-counter pain relievers just to be able to function. This went on for weeks and weeks with no hint of relief in sight. I wondered if this would just be my life now. Would I ever be able to move normally, without pain, again? I have so much sympathy for those who live with chronic pain, because I know how it saps a person's strength and how all activities revolve around managing the pain. Waking extra early just to have enough time to get dressed, which was a colossal endeavor. Declining invitations that required more than just very small amount of walking. My life was shrinking because of the limitations that came with being in a constant and tremendous amount of pain.
Life went on just like this for several months. I just couldn't accept that this was my forever situation and yet there seemed to be no solution on the horizon. Then I began to notice something. I started receiving signs from around me that kept mentioning "asking angels for help". Before I continue, you must understand this about me; angels is not a word that appears frequently in my vocabulary. Not debating their existence or non-existence but simply saying it was never something that resonated with me except for in holiday songs and children's stories. And yet I continued to receive messages from things I would read or from conversations with friends that said; because we have free will, Angels can't intercede without our request. It was strange enough to encounter this idea a few times, but when it kept popping up I started to take particular notice. I was repeatedly seeing the message that I needed to ask angels for help. So one evening in utter frustration and feeling like I had nothing left to lose, I gave in to these messages and said aloud that I was in a great deal of pain and I was requesting the help of angels. In truth it was a very half-hearted request because I didn't really believe that anything would come of this. But with the same message showing up again and again, I figured that I didn't really have anything to lose by making even a half-hearted request. The next day went on just like all of the weeks before with no change at all. When I went to sleep that night I sarcastically thought to myself thanks for all the help angels.
However .... the second day I received a text message from Summer, our Pilates Instructor, who knew of the painful situation I was enduring but knew nothing of my request to "angels", because why would I admit something that embarrassingly desperate to anyone? She was offering once again to give me some private instruction in Pilates. She had mentioned this to me previously but I neither had the time then nor believed my body could handle the exercises. Mostly, I was hesitant to trust anyone else with guidance or healing after the unfortunate massage incident, which is why I had not taken her up on her generous offer the first time. But when she texted me again, repeating her kind offer, this time I accepted. She wrote back to me saying that she "would be very happy to be my Pilates angel." Yes, that is no joke. She wrote "Pilates Angel" and I was shocked and admittedly humbled as I recalled my "thanks for nothing" attitude towards the Universe the day before. But that's not even the most amazing thing!! Wait until you hear what a difference Pilates has made in my life.
In the very first session I was surprised at how much my body was disconnected from Summer's instructions. All these many, many years of yoga and yet the ways she was instructing me to engage my muscles was something very new to me. At one point in that first session she told me that I had strong abdominal muscles but that I'm not engaging them properly. That might sound strange, but it felt very true, because at times during the session, I would hear her words of instruction and my mind would say, "ok, sure" and then my body would say, "I don't understand". This is what I mean when I mentioned above that my body felt disconnected from her instructions in that first session. Additionally, in Pilates it's so much more than just the abdominal muscles of the low belly. It feels like engaging all around the hips and all around the rib cage and a whole tapestry of muscles that I had never used all at the same time before. That might sound bizarre but that is the best way I can describe her instructions to me. When I saw her a few days later she asked if I had practiced and in truth I said no. I didn't practice at home because it was so different and new to me that by the time I got home I couldn't even really remember everything that we did! Also, I was still very unaware of the correct engagement of certain muscles. During the session Summer could look at me and tell right away which muscles I had disengaged but I did not yet have that same awareness so at that point practicing seemed useless due to my lack of understanding at the very beginning. It became clear to me that although I knew very well how to engage muscles in yoga poses, for reasons unknown I had not taken that knowledge into my everyday activities or even into simple things such as my standing posture. In other words, I could engage my core like crazy to hold crow pose in yoga and yet bending over to empty the dishwasher, or some other daily movement, somehow I habitually would not engage the muscles appropriately and these were the moments in the past that my back would go out. It seems odd even to write that, or to admit that I was quite disconnected from my body in everyday tasks, but this the best way I can explain what has been my true experience.
Gradually my understanding of core muscle engagement grew as I continued to attend Summer's class when possible, and also had a few more private sessions. In a private Pilates session, besides all of the exercises that can be done on the mat, she also had me on the "Barrel", the "Chair", which is only similar to an actual chair in that both can be sat upon. She also had me on the "Reformer", which I secretly refer to as; "The Machine" and always hear in my head that quote from The Princess Bride; "No one withstands The Machine"! But don't let that scare you off, because as intimidating as these other Pilates props might appear at first, upon experiencing them, it was easy to see the specific benefits of each one. Additionally, Summer's positive energy of confidence, kindness and encouragement seems to have a magical effect on clients. I am still investigating this phenomena, which appears to be some sort of Jedi mind trick, in that all of us in class happily follow her instructions, despite being well aware of how much effort and sweat will be given in following those instructions. It is some kind of innate trust in her immense knowledge combined with her obvious LOVE for Pilates that must contribute to this joyful obedience in her students.
There is a quote by Joseph Pilates that says,
"In 10 sessions you'll feel the difference, in 20 sessions you'll see the difference and in 30 sessions you'll have a whole new body"
At the time of writing this, I have had just a few private sessions with Summer and I have attended her classes a handful of times. I recognize that I have only begun to scratch the surface of the practices and benefits found in a Pilates practice. And in this short time, as I am at the very beginning of this Pilates adventure, I can honestly tell you that Pilates has already made such an incredible difference in my life. The pain I was experiencing last year has diminished all the way down to just a dull and almost forgotten ache that doesn't require the need for any over the counter pain medicine. When the pain was at its worst I was taking TRIPLE the recommended dose of ibuprofen. In the first weeks of doing Pilates that dose was reduced down to just one pill before bed as the pain seemed to increase at that time. Now it has been months since I have needed to take any pain reducing medicine for this situation. You should also understand what it means that I was even taking ibuprofen because I tend towards naturopathy and homeopathy, so the fact that I was gobbling up ibuprofen should really underscore the level of pain I was experiencing, and my intense gratitude that I am able to do without over-the-counter drugs now.
This is my personal story of Pilates, and how an angel showed me the way out of the worst pain I have ever experienced. At the time I began taking Pilates, a few other ladies at the studio also began taking private sessions. I've chatted with them about their sessions and found that our experiences were very similar in that we were all AMAZED at the subtle details and deep muscle engagement taught in Pilates. Several students remarked how their own back issues have lessened or resolved with Pilates training and another woman said that her Pilates training is helping her improve previous limitations in her shoulders.
I can't promise you that your experience will be identical to mine. But I know for sure that a Pilates Angel lifted me from a dark place and for that, I will always be most grateful to Summer and for the teachings of Pilates.
Have you taken Pilates? Can you relate to my experience? I would love to hear about it in the comments below.