Having survived 3½ years of the most intense and ultra-rigorous training regime to qualify to be a Special Forces Soldier, I would have imagined I knew everything there was to know about physical training and body awareness. Pushing boundaries became a way of life and self-discipline an unquestioned commitment.
After 6 deployments to Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan, my life took a disastrous turn for the worse, when I was shot. A bullet tore through my left thigh and exited through the gluteus, severing 90% of my sciatic nerve. (The sciatic nerve is the longest and widest single nerve in the human body, going from the lower back to the foot. It supplies nearly the whole of the skin of the leg, the muscles of the back of the thigh, and those of the leg and foot.) After surgery, the doctors were far from positive and said it was likely that my left leg would be permanently paralyzed, as the remaining 10% of the nerve was not functioning. I was given a 2-year window of time for possible improvement of nerve regeneration, and so began my grueling journey of rehabilitation.
As I saw those next 2 long years draw to an end, I entered into the darkest places imaginable. Having exhausted every hope of treatment ranging from physiotherapy, osteopathy, massage, acupuncture, chiropractic, hypnotism as well as alternative medications, walking was still a struggle and the excruciating pain of weight bearing on my left foot was the equivalent of standing on 10 razor blades. The physios suddenly diagnosed a mysterious and unexplainable leg length discrepancy of 1½cm and I was seriously considering amputation as a last form of pain relief. The realization hit me that this chronic pain and complete disassociation with my left leg could be my only way of existence from this day forth.
It was that summer that I heard about The Royal Danish Ballet Foundation’s initiative to train wounded soldiers in Pilates, and my life as I knew it changed forever.
I was instantly drawn to the adrenaline high of the intense focus and flow of the Pilates environment. I was equally horrified at the complete total inability I had to connect my body as a ‘whole unit.’ I had only experienced working on isolating the training of muscles in order to obtain strength, and to suddenly see my body as ‘one force,’ stabilizing, supporting, coordinating and connecting, was the most overwhelming and empowering realization. I was blown away by the instructor’s ability to read my posture and gait patterns. She constantly altered my training program and reinvented material adaptable to my personal injury, while fine-tuning the path forward and the experience of movement in the most fundamental and functional ways possible.
After only a year of training, my so called “leg length discrepancy” was eliminated and my compensatory patterns had subsided. My complete body awareness and motivation led me to reconnect to my left leg and learn to not only accept it, but also work with it not against it, which was a revelation in my road to recovery. I saw a new “whole” person in the mirror looking back at me. My lower back pain had diminished, and I managed to go from training in running shoes to bare feet. My instructors and I trusted in each other to test the neurological waters so to speak. They gently introduced different textures and surfaces for me to stand on, initially non-weight bearing. Against all medical odds, we were therefore able to control the “pain volume” if you like, to reconnect the brain and the high sensitivity in the sole of my foot.
One of the key elements to my new-found self was revealed through breathing. One would expect with my elite training in diving and swimming within the Navy, that my techniques in breathing would have been an obvious resource that I could have put to good use during my initial rehab. However, when I look back and ask myself that very question, I realize that my mind was so overpowered by the intense pain I experienced on a daily basis, not to mention the frustrations and inabilities to function as I once did, that my breathing had almost gone into ‘shut down mode.’
Four years on, I experience a total mind/body connection and can translate that into my daily activities. I have just begun studying psychology and use breathing techniques to allow concentration, to obtain full open mindedness, and to relieve frustration if I am unable to do things as fast or as well as I did before my accident. My breath can quite simply tell me if I am in the most optimal position to experience movement correctly. It’s as if alarm bells sound if the breathing and movement doesn’t flow in a familiar way.
Pilates has given me the gift of experiencing movement as a source of pleasure and competence rather than pain, and without it I would be a different person than I am today.
Name: Jonas Mikael
Age: 29 yrs
Location: Copenhagen, Denmark
Occupation: Special Forces Soldier in the Danish Army since 2003