Flash Says…

Pilates – it’s not just for hippies

Posted on: 2010-11-17

Every week a lovely lady comes to my house, relieves me of two purple notes, and spends an hour talking me through physical exercises which must look bizarre to passers by.

For months I have wanted to improve my fitness, but I needed someone who would be able to understand my joint hypermobility and co-ordination issues. I have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome which causes all kinds of problems, but mainly means that my joints are too bendy (some people think of it as being “double jointed”), my knees dislocate easily, and I have a lot of pain. I am naturally limited in many ways (for example, how far I can walk) but also have to be careful, even within my limitations, not to do myself damage or aggrevate the pain. Naturally, this makes it very difficult for me to get moving or tone up.

I wasn’t sure about Pilates to begin with. I’d read that it was the only form of exercise that “people like me” can do safely, so I asked my physiotherapist about it and she dismissively said that there was no point; basic Pilates would be similar to the kind of homework she was setting for me anyway. But when the physio department discharged me, I was left without guidance, and no way to exercise. Being overweight, and knowing I was quite unfit, this was something I wanted to tackle. Yet in my mind I associated Pilates with Yoga and other hippy type, faddish things. I had visions of people pretending to be a tree. Google didn’t reassure, informing me that the exercises had names such as “The Clam”, and that I’d have to do some kind of special breathing so that everything came from my “core”. Still, it seemed the only option available to me, so I spotted an advert in a nearby Vegan cafe, and made the call – to a friendly lady called Alison Bray.

The first thing my new tutor did was talk to me, learn about my impairment, and borrow my hypermobility for physios book. So she really wanted to help, rather than just take my money. She listened and learned. That was a good start.

Alison is slowly guiding me through exercises, and I’m enjoying the work. It’s much more cerebral than aerobics or going jogging – I’m having to remember how to breathe, and consider exactly which muscles to move, in a series of precise actions. I focus on relaxing my body and only engaging the few parts that are necessary for each movement. At first I found this hard – so many parts of my body wanted to join in! But now I’m getting familiar with muscles I hadn’t even realised existed.

Each week I mention any joints that are playing up, and we carefully work around them, but there are physical benefits for my condition too. For example, I usually wake up with pain across my lower back. Yet if I lie on the floor and run through a few pelvic lifts and some pelvic curls, it’s not long before I feel scrunching in that area – and then the pain is relieved as my bones move into the correct alignment. I know that the problem will return the next night – but at least I now have a way of shaking it out of myself.

The special Pilates way of breathing wasn’t so strange after all – given that I used to play trumpet I am aware of different breathing techniques, and I am reasonably strong around the middle since I have always enjoyed sit-ups. Once I understood what was necessary – how to harness the muscles in my centre so that they can stabilise me for other movements – everything made sense.

Unexpectedly, the most important part for me has been in training not my muscles but my brain. For example, I was asked to undertake an exercise where I moved my arms back, as if pushing on an invisible wall. The object of the exercise was not to work my arms, but my lats. Initially I thought “oh, that’s odd, I can feel something moving in my back!” Yet today when I was given a similar but harder exercise, I was able to relax my arms and to consciously tell my lat muscles that they were the part that had to move. And it worked. Two months ago, I’d never heard of a “lat”!

One of the symptoms of my condition is poor proprioception; if I was to try and run, I’d lollop around like a drunken elephant, and do myself damage in the process. But through Pilates, I am learning to instruct my muscle groups more specifically, and consciously, and to have better physical self-awareness. I think in the long run this is going to be very valuable. My brain is laying down pathways every time I repeat a movement. Slowly, I am taking control of my body.

It doesn’t matter how many aches and pains I feel before my tutor arrives, I always feel better after she’s been. Pilates is a calm, precise form of exercise and it seems to stabilise my joints without pushing things too far, and to work my muscles without overtiring them. Even better, time with Alison is an hour spent away from my computer, using my brain in another way so I can forget the world outside.

Pilates turns out not to be a hippy thing at all, but a wonderful way of harnessing your mind and body. If you’re looking for a safe, cerebral way to exercise, just find a tutor and give it a try. Pilates is changing me for the better, and I’d recommend it to anyone.

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2 Responses to "Pilates – it’s not just for hippies"

I too have EDS and do pilates with Alison! How fascinating to find your blog. Do you write regularly?

Bonnie

Hi Bonnie! I write as often as I can, the plan was weekly but it is often fortnightly… I try to never leave it as long as a month! Sometimes health gets in the way and makes it a bit longer than a fortnight.

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