Finding Pilates: Or How I Negotiated My Way Back to Health & Fitness

" You shall gain but you shall pay with sweat, blood, and vomit".

                 Paul Tsatsouline, Chairman of Strongfit and founder of the modern kettlebell movement

Really? Sweat, blood, and vomit? Are you kidding me? I thought that was indicative of poor health, illness, disease...have I gotten this whole health/fitness thing all wrong? Am I on the wrong path?

Wait -let's go back a bit-pause on this journey to wellness and breathe! Just breathe! Am I missing something? Where does Pilates fit in with the SBV (sweat, blood, vomit) philosophy? Does it? If not, why not?  

About Pilates

So here's what I thought I knew about Pilates. I think I tried it once in some small group thing back in the eighties and pretty much came to the conclusion that it was just about breathing...and clearly I couldn't get my "breathing in" and my "breathing out" synced up correctly... (how would I ever get my then overweight body into shape just by breathing?) And it was sooooo slow....where was the beat, the music, the action? Surely to goodness, this whole breathing thing (and whatever else was involved-I forget) couldn't be benefitting me at all. Now that I think about it, I had this first (and last) experience with Pilates about the same time as the leotard clad, perpetually chirpy TV phenomenon "The 20 minute workout". Anyway, let's just say, my first impression of Pilates in the eighties was not inspiring.

Flash forward to the more recent (2012-2016) past and what I thought I knew then about Pilates. It was definitely a favorite of celebrities-think Gwyneth and Jennifer- two people with whom I have less than nothing in common! Also think about lithe, flexible, whip-thin, young, oh so young dancers or former dancers. And the commonalities with them...you guessed it, less than nothing.

So here's my question? How could/would Pilates help me?

 

About me

Sure! I guess I'm unique- at least as far as all those self-help books, the leather-bound, fancy shmancy journals with quote embossed covers and Disney movies are concerned! I'm sure there's a lovely Oscar-nominated song in there somewhere. But honestly, I'm really not. I'm just a "woman of a certain age"- a member of the most influential demographic in history- the first of the baby boomers- beset by fairly typical complaints for my cohort- a chronic illness complete with chronic symptoms, a recent, serious back surgery, daily aches and pains, a former bout with severe depression...and yet, and yet, an abidingly, positive outlook and belief that I could find a way to health, and, to quote the TV commercials for insurance companies, "Live my best possible life." The question was and is; "How"?

 

Forcing Fitness

Giving up Zumba, because of my ever increasing back problems, was pretty traumatic for me...I knew I was really going to miss the rhythms, the music, the dancing, the sweating, the other women (and occasional guy) who didn't really seem any more coordinated than me, the laughter, and the friendships. But I had to accept that; "It is what it is"! And then, I guess, there was always the local corporate fitness club where I could kind of disappear, with little direction, no encouragement, bewildering machines, endless and punitive contracts, and the backdrop of pumped up, groaning and grunting behemoths who glanced at my 10lb. weight load with mild to moderate disdain. It clearly wasn't doing it for me- or my body-or my back-or my spirit.

So what else was there?

I began to search out the latest fitness trends, the sure things, the fast tracks to wellness and conditioning. And here's what I found...many of the latest trends seemed to have a lot in common. They all seemed so determined to punish, force, scream, cajole, and beat your body into fitness or, at the very least, submission. Spin, extreme weight training, boot camps, kettle bell, Ironman-or is it men, extreme marathons, and others that I just don't know anything about, all seemed to define themselves using the metrics that Mr. Tsatsouline favors-sweat, blood, vomit (seriously?) and how about exhaustion? Hmmmm!

I kept thinking;"I guess my body really is my enemy" and I need to fight it, until I win!

Gee whiz! My body was already angry with me and betraying me in so many ways, I just couldn't see any upside in forcing it into fitness. But what to do? I had to do something, or else I would rather easily give up and take to my bed on a daily basis- beset by guilt, pain, and self loathing.

 

The turning point

The turning point came quite suddenly and rather unexpectedly. About a year ago, I was at an appointment with my soon to be spinal surgeon (did an amazing job by the way) and he suggested that during the 8 month wait before my scheduled surgery, I take up Pilates in order to strengthen my core (whatever/wherever that is). I might possibly have an easier recovery, and maybe, just maybe, forestall even more significant surgery in the future! What???? An orthopedic surgeon suggesting Pilates? That's like your car mechanic suggesting you ease up on the gas! But what the heck? Maybe I could learn to breathe in and breathe out correctly. It was sure worth a try.

 

What I learned about Pilates

So I signed up for Pilates. At two different studios in two different countries-Florida (okay I'm a snowbird too) before the surgery and Toronto after the surgery. A combination of group classes, semi-private, and eventually, private lessons-once or twice a week.

And boy did I learn a lot. I learned that Pilates is, at its core (get it?) a kinder, gentler, approach to health. I learned that gains are made inch by inch, muscle by muscle, by coaxing my body, encouraging it, negotiating with it, praising it, cuing it (my personal motto; "Relax your ass, damn it"- think sit bones and tail bone), accommodating its differences and limitations (think props and pillows and wedges and bolsters, and adjustments- think "squishy balls"- and giving up occasionally)! It's about the mind/ body connection and getting the most obscure muscle (Glute Mede ???) to listen to what my mind is telling it. It's about making the connection and really feeling the smallest muscle, eventually, "Get it"! Mostly, it's about progress, slow, steady, noticeable progress...in my walk, my posture, my core, my pelvic floor, my pain level, my spirit, my determination. It's about me-kindness, motivation, and learning to actually love (well, that may be an exaggeration-okay "like") my body again.

 

Gratitude & Learning 

Mostly it's about gratitude & learning- I'm grateful for learning that my body is not my enemy. I'm grateful that, on many fronts, we can negotiate a truce. I'm grateful for learning that my body is trying its best-just like me. I'm grateful that, whatever Pilates I did before my surgery, was so successful that the surgeon only had to put 2 rods and 4 screws in to stabilize my fragile spine- that I'm a success story. I'm grateful that I'm learning to listen, really listen to my body- that it often has something important to tell me. I'm grateful that I'm walking in the sunshine with a relaxed butt. I'm grateful that the women I've met at Pilates are not all those gorgeous lithe ballerina types-many of them seem just like me. I'm grateful that my teachers are so kind, so encouraging, so flexible in their approach (think this cue; "Let your sit bones blossom like a flower), and so unceasingly patient.

Mostly I'm grateful that I found Pilates and that I learned there is no need to fight my body.  Slowly but surely, I am learning to negotiate with it. Together, we'll keep coaxing it back to health and fitness.

 

Karen Liberman

 Note: My studio (the best there is, I think) is Body Mason at 901 Yonge St. bodymason.ca

My teachers are the incomparable Meghan Cafferky and Emma-Kate Millar