Pilates: A Tool for Personal Empowerment

Pilates has not cured me of all my pain. But more than any other practice, it has cured me of the helplessness associated with pain. I’ve been growing in appreciation of how my own body is my greatest personal resource, not simply a source of pain.

I’ve been interested in Pilates for a couple years, though intimidated by full-length mat classes because I’ve had areas of weakness and injury. I’ve recovered from an eating disorder, but also been left with areas of muscle imbalance and overuse injury due to my work as a musician (viola and violin). Somehow my story also turned in to one of chronic upper back pain. But being curious about the Pilates principles of mind-body coordination and the focus on integrated movement, I found a book that felt like it spoke to my beginner understanding and allowed for gentle modifications. After some fundamental practice on my own, I started taking private lessons to ensure my form was okay and learn more. It coincided with a time when I really felt I needed new and positive body experiences and feelings of power in my life.

For my injuries, I appreciate that Pilates is integrative and helps recruit core muscles. Because of chronic shoulder and scapular problems, I had to quit the symphony orchestra I had played in for many years. Physical therapy helped minimally because I was working with strengthening a small set of muscles, but not the deeper movement patterns. I just had to cut my hours no matter what. But to continue to play some and enjoy music, I appreciate the Pilates approach. My body isn’t separated into parts (on some level, I’ve always known that I’m not playing violin with my hands but with my whole body). And unlike the most popular forms of yoga, I never feel strain on my hyper mobile joints. Now my shoulder blades magically lay against my ribs, like they are supposed to. I don’t even remember having to pay much attention to my rhomboids. These things just started to literally fall into place.

Aside from the muscular and joint issues, my spirit felt pretty wounded last year when I made the decision to quit the symphony. For the long term health of my shoulder, and being able to focus on my teaching, this was the right decision. But without the symphony and all the body, mind, and soul that went into propping up a viola and playing a Tchaikovsky symphony, I needed a new integrative way to nerd out. I also needed a way to move beyond feeling so powerless and a way to commit to getting stronger in spite of feeling like my purpose for being strong had been lost. So I had to invest in some form of body rehab that felt somewhat complex and interesting within itself. I started the Pilates lessons last summer and it was a perfect fit for these needs. The instructor was able to meet me at my level and help me safely challenge myself. It was a way to not give up on my body, but honor it and take it along on a new adventure. It was really a way to quit a large portion of my work as a musician and keep myself embodied.

I don’t want to perfectly control my body. I just want to know that I have choices and many creative ways to act. I’ve finally wanted to make friends with my body and get to know it better. I want to find where that “flow” state exists outside of music, where it exists within me even when I’m quiet. I don’t want to be afraid of my own vulnerabilities or my own power.

Because it can be slow, and is so focused on precision and somatic awareness, Pilates also helps nurture a patient response toward my pain and my body. Along the same lines, it also helps with my tendency towards low-level panic attacks. Pilates has allowed me to “slow down” without passively stopping. In a slow and mindful way, Pilates allows me to make choices and direct some energy. If I’m sluggish, it helps restore alertness and vitality. If I’m feeling a little panicked, it can help regulate that energy. It seems to be a useful neutralizer for my own autonomic nervous system, which has struggled to find a grounding sort of balance. Now I can sense the compression feelings that come with panic, go right to my mat with some resistance props, and feel relief in minutes. In some deep way I don’t totally understand, it serves as a safe outlet for some of my own indescribable protective, “fight-or-flight” energy. Like music, it keeps me in the present moment, but with fluidity from this moment to the next. It’s a good place to be.

I am currently doing a few private sessions as preparation for joining a reformer class. I told my first instructor that if a weight lifting machine and the ocean had a baby, it would be the Reformer. I love the combination of support and resistance. It is never hard on my back. With the lighter spring arrangement, it is challenging but leaves me feeling better at the end of the session.

Since my pain isn’t simply postural or strength-related, improving my core strength hasn’t cured everything. My back muscles still spasms sometimes, and it can be pretty painful. But Pilates practice has made my whole body more strong and resilient, so the cycle of pain-fatigue-pain in my upper back has been subdued.

Finally, I want to add my wish that more people could learn of the deeper benefits of Pilates. If it were not marketed too much towards vanity, physical appearance, and diet in some spheres (like getting nice abs or a great booty), I wonder if it might get more of the attention it deserves as a somatic awareness and strengthening discipline that can lead to deeper feelings of power. Obviously Pilates has good rehabilitative potential and I know it is used in some physical therapy settings. Unfortunately I cannot afford many classes, as I am sure is the case for many people. With a broader view of the power of Pilates, the instruction and equipment might more often be found in physical therapy settings where insurance can help those who struggle with injury or pain, and perhaps more often within regular community gyms and YMCAs (with certified teachers available). These settings are often more accessible in small and mid-size communities and more affordable for many people.

For me, the greatest benefit of Pilates has nothing to do with what my body looks like (though nice legs is a byproduct I’m okay with). So far the greatest benefit would be that Pilates has offered a sense of power when I was feeling powerless, and that is really important in managing or moving beyond any challenge. My body has not betrayed me. Instead, even in spite of losing my spot in the symphony, I still feel whole and now even more empowered to move forward in my life. Pilates continues to remind me of my own deeper resources and vitality.

Author: Lori Carlson
Location: Wisconsin, USA

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3 Comments to “Pilates: A Tool for Personal Empowerment”

  1. Blaha zdenek says:

    p.s. I had a Chiari Malformation, type 1, recently (my MRI was one week after my story was published here) diagnosed through MRI. I don’t know much about it yet (meet with neurosurgeon next week). Basically, in non brain-science terms, the very back of my brain is squished into a too-small space and disruption in spinal fluid flow has been creating a constellation of problems, including my chronic pain. Pilates can’t cure a Chiari Malformation (would need brain surgery and I’m hoping I can avoid that route!). But everything I’ve sensed was accurate. The movements don’t put uncomfortable pressure on my spine or neck (I usually opt to support my head) and the low-resistance movement is helpful for my symptoms. No matter what, I have to take very good care of myself. Pilates helps me feel strong, agile, calm, and a little less compressed. Looking forward to more Reformer work.

    • Blaha zdenek says:

      Hello! It is such a relief to read your article. such a beautiful piece of art. I have been diagnosed with Chiari Malformation as well, just a couple of weeks ago and finally I have a proof that I have not been crazy in telling my family that I had constant backpain and headache! At least I know why. I started doing pilates yesterday, my goodness,good classes are so expensive. But I have decided to have a go at least a month as I need something to help me to manage the pain. How are you now? What did neurosurgeon tell you? I would appreciate if you could share it with me, as I am desperate. Thank you.

  2. This is pure heart and truth speaking. Absolutely pure. Thank you Lori.

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