Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series about Pilates and MS.
When I was diagnosed with MS in December 2013, my most visible symptom was a waltzing shuffle that was slowly changing my once-purposeful gait into a wobble (leading some co-workers to believe I was drinking on the job). Like spring flowers, other symptoms blossomed soon enough. At the time, my doctors had prescribed physical therapy sessions. I tried very hard not to cry after driving home alone from one such session.
I would not describe myself as a fitness fanatic. But after I quit smoking in the mid-’90s, I had become addicted to the endorphin high from running, and the clarity and focus it fostered. Freelance writing often provides the perfect schedule for runners (write in the early morning, run around 11 a.m., come home, shower, eat and then work the rest of the day). I was very active, running, playing tennis, hiking and biking and — almost accidentally — staying fit.
But the physical therapy I was taking included a series of timed, or counted, exercises. Meaning it felt like I was being measured on how long it took before I could not complete the exercise. Inadvertently it emphasized to me what I no longer could do, reinforcing what I had lost and, worse, was losing, rather than reminding me of how much I had left.
Frustrated, I returned to my physiatrist, an energetic former gymnast who understood my need to remain physically engaged in life. Conventional physical therapy wasn’t the solution. “Why don’t you see if you can find a personal trainer who understands MS clients?” she asked. I couldn’t Google fast enough.
My search stalled pretty quickly; much of what I found were group sessions that emphasized general movement and mobility. I still had a great deal of capacity left, and didn’t feel I would get enough of a challenge from them. Then I found a Pilates instructor who was trained to work with clients who had MS, Parkinson’s disease and other neurologic issues.
And then my life — and my MS — took a turn for the better.
Joseph Pilates, the gentleman who created the resistance-based exercises, equipment and routines, was born in Germany in 1883. Small and sickly as a child and picked on by the bigger kids, Pilates became determined to overcome his disadvantages, and by the age of 14 was posing as a model for anatomy charts and made a living as professional boxer. Pilates was teaching self-defense to Scotland Yard police when World War I broke out, and he was imprisoned in England’s Isle of Man along with other German nationals as “enemy aliens.”
Determined to stay fit while in prison, Pilates fastened bed springs to the footboards and headboards of the prisoners’ beds and created resistance-based exercises so his fellow inmates also could stay more physically (and emotionally) fit. Pilates’ focus was strengthening users’ cores and balance as the foundation of strength and capacity — of critical importance to many with MS. These crude prototypes became the forerunners of the equipment used in contemporary Pilates around the world.
I continue to attend biweekly Pilates sessions with specially-trained instructors. Though there are innumerable routines, all require a sharp mental focus (not unlike golf, tennis, running, billiards, etc.). I have found Pilates to be extraordinarily challenging and physically rewarding. While it doesn’t provide an endorphin high, I frequently get lost in the pursuit of doing the exercises properly, which creates a very beneficial type of mindfulness, and for those 55 minutes I often forget that I have MS.
I didn’t know about Pilates’ imprisonment or the origin of the practice when I began, yet only in the weirdly-perfect way that MS is, it all makes sense now. MS is slowly imprisoning the physical me, as it keeps creating more challenges for how I physically move through my world and my life.
Besides taking Pilates instruction, I have created a home workout routine for emphasizing resistance so I can build strength and balance through it. Like Pilates, I’m trying to learn how to make this gradual imprisonment not just tolerable, but somehow amenable and perhaps in some ways, beneficial.
Chances are very good that I won’t be posing for an anatomy chart any time soon. After all, Pilates may be a great form of exercise, but it’s not a miracle worker. Yet there are moments during my sessions, and after on the drive home, when I feel really strong and fit and somehow just a little bit more free.
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