How Pilates helped my near-broken body
Mary Beth Young, owner and instructor at The Pilates Advantage believes Pilates is a lifelong discipline. Here, she leads fellow instructors Heather Gilman and Donna Coviello through the Mermaid exercise.
Spin classes, 10K races, and half iron man events are hyped as activities to get into great shape and attain new heights of physical fitness. But what if the spirit is willing but the joints are not? What if every time you attempt any physical activity old injuries flare up or new ones occur?
This past winter I was feeling very sorry for myself. My days of running 12 miles with ease, swimming hard for an hour, and embracing high-impact aerobics were long-since over. After years of abuse, the cartilage in my knees was worn down to barely a whisper, and my orthopedist said the dreaded words: “bone on bone.” Around the same time, I learned that I also had undiagnosed scoliosis, and the slow creep of osteoarthritis was taking up residence in my joints. I was a wreck. While rationally I recognized that I was no longer young (sob!), I wasn’t quite ready to be put out to pasture either. I still wanted to be able to hike, bike, swim, dance, and get into a canoe without uttering profanities.
I had to do something. But what? I’d read about Joseph Pilates and how as a hospital orderly he’d developed his body-conditioning system, to help rehabilitate injured soldiers after WWI. Maybe the practice could help me…
I called Mary Beth Young, owner of The Pilates Advantage on Danbury Road, and explained my plight. I asked her if she thought she could help me to heal. “Absolutely!” she replied without hesitation. Young, who has devoted the last two decades of her life to learning, practicing, and perfecting the art of Pilates so that she can instruct others, knows a lot about body mechanics.
“It all starts with the feet. If the feet are off—supinated or pronated—that puts stress on the knees, hips, and spine,” she explained. She had me lie down on the Pilates Reformer, a long elevated platform with an assortment of ropes, springs, pulleys, and moving parts. She expertly adjusted my feet on the bar and helped move my body into alignment: shoulders down, neck relaxed, pelvis balanced, spine straight, and abdominals engaged. “There!” she said, “You’re in perfect alignment!”
“You’ve got to be kidding!” I exclaimed. “I feel totally twisted up.” Young whipped out her iPhone and took a picture. Much to my amazement, I was completely straight. Clearly, I had a lot of bodywork to do.
I began going to the studio two to three times a week, and worked with all four instructors (Heather, Donna, Jo Ellen, and Mary Beth). First, I started with one-on-one private classes. Once I developed greater confidence and understanding of the exercises, I added the faster-paced group Reformer sessions, as well as the Arc Barrel and Piloga mat classes. As the weeks went by I could feel my core strengthening and my posture improving. The chronic pain in my upper back from unconsciously sitting twisted up at my desk diminished significantly as I learned how to sit properly.
Sessions were personalized and targeted to my specific needs. I had noticed other women and men coming and going from the studio and wondered if they had experienced the same success with Pilates.
Carolyn Carlson was suffering from chronic sciatica and in constant pain. Nothing helped. Finally her trainer urged her to try Pilates. “My first goal was to strengthen my back and not be in pain,” says Carlson. “My second goal was to lose weight. It’s been two years and I’ve lost 24 pounds. I’m no longer in constant pain. Now I’m lean and my core is very strong. When I went visited my old trainer she said, ‘Oh my God! You look like a new person,’ and frankly, I feel like a new person. I couldn’t have done it without Pilates.”
Michele Klink had been pushing herself hard, trying to tone her belly and lose those annoying ten pounds that plague us all. She endured punishing 90-minute workouts at a local gym that left her drenched in sweat, but didn’t net results. A year ago, she decided to try Pilates and is now a convert to the practice. “I’m strong and pain free The number on the scale hasn’t changed but my body has. Now I feel confident about the way I look and feel in clothes.”
My foray into Pilates has taught me that alignment and form are everything. The old spiritual “Dem Bones” about the footbone being connected to the anklebone and so on, is 100% correct. Everything is connected, and developing greater body awareness, proper breathing, and core strength is the key to physical success.
While I won’t be running any marathons and will likely need a knee replacement in the future, there can be no question that I am stronger now, and better aligned. With regular Pilates training I am confident that I’ll bounce back from surgery much faster.Whatever your fitness level—elite athlete or injured couch potato—everyone can benefit from the practice of Pilates.
One of the most common misconceptions about Pilates is that it’s easy. It should be both mentally and physically challenging and if it isn’t, consider finding another instructor.
Just because someone looks fit and healthy doesn’t mean they know their stuff. Find out if your instructor has trained with a reputable Pilates school, ask how long they’ve been teaching, and make sure they are both body aware and willing to make physical corrections during your session.
Though there are a series of specific routines and exercises created by Joseph Pilates, they should never be done by rote. When you work with an instructor, everything should be personalized to your body’s needs.
Will you look like a runway model after committing to a regular Pilates routine? Unlikely. But because Pilates moves you from the inside out, and corrects the alignment of your legs, arms, spine you can expect to have a stronger core, increased flexibility and stability, a straighter back, and greater body awareness.
Pilates also lengthens and strengthens your muscles, which is why many dancers and boxers have been devotees of the practice for decades.