Inspiring stories: How Pilates gave me a new lease of life

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JW8B1164_Web_BeinnMuirI was 17, sat at the doctor’s office when he said: “You might want to re-think your career choice”. I was about to start my professional dance training and this man was sitting there telling me that I should just drop everything I worked for since I was 7. I was mortified. The first diagnosis of my back pain was spondylolisthesis and at the time it was manifesting itself in intermittent, agonising pain in the lower back. I couldn’t just stop dancing – it was my identity, and my whole life and personality were built around it. I ignored the advice of the doctor, and my mum, and decided to go on my dance training programme anyway.

I thought I’ll just dance for as long as I can. My stubbornness paid off, or so I thought, and graduated from dance school. I returned home and begun teaching and dancing in a company. But the back pain became worse and worse, I found I had to take more and more time off. At 23 I decided I had to stop dancing, for my own sake, and whilst I was still young and had a chance to change careers and re-train. I wanted to find a way to stay within the arts so I chose to study arts management. The first 3 years were really hard, I was trying to figure out how to live without being a dancer anymore, how could I live without being in a studio moving, teaching, training and rehearsing? I had to find a new identity. Being in an office, in ‘formal’ clothes, doing 9-5 felt really alien to me and I really didn’t fit in. I was like a fish out of water but I stuck with it because that’s all I had. So my life as an arts manager begun.

Photo credit Ben Muir

Until one morning I woke up unable to walk. I didn’t panic, as though I was expecting this to happen one day. I hobbled to work thinking it shall pass. By midday, I was in the doctor’s office being given a referral for an MRI. The new diagnosis was even more horrific than the previous one: nerve stenosis, sciatica, disc degeneration in 3 areas, bone marrow change.

All I could think of was paralysis, crutches, wheelchair, chronic pain, I won’t be able to move again. The doctor suggested surgery but the risks outweighed the benefits, I ‘might’ be able to walk after the surgery, ‘if’ it goes well, I was told. I did what I do best, I ignored the doctor’s advice.

When I refused surgery, the doctor mentioned that Pilates might help. Without much thought I found the nearest Pilates studio and signed up for classes. I felt at home, Pilates was all about movement and learning how to control your body. I was so relieved and excited to have found something that allowed me to move whilst it was doing my back good.

The pain incidents would reoccur every 6 months, I would hobble around, I would need help to get around and the episodes would last for about 1 month at a time. But I stuck to my Pilates because it was either that or surgery. Gradually, and over 2 years, I noticed that the horrible back incidents weren’t happening anymore and I had days when I almost forgot I had back pain.

Pilates had given me the biggest gift: I was able to enjoy movement again and it kept my back pain at bay. Then if dawned on me…why I’m I spending all my energy and efforts being at a desk job? Teaching, moving and being in a studio was my life and I finally realised that I could be getting my life back with Pilates. I could help other people, like me, to move again freely without pain and conquer their fears about their back conditions. I wanted to share my experience with the world and show to people that they can manage their back pain and that Pilates worked!

I signed up for the Body Control Pilates teacher training course and haven’t looked back since. At 34, I am now a full-time Pilates teacher with a specialist qualification in low back pain and I spend my days helping people regain control of their bodies, relieve their back pain and feel empowered by the Pilates method. It was a long, but necessary journey, one of persistence, stubbornness and a lot of reflection but now I feel I have returned home.

If I was to share any advice with those who have back pain is this: There is no recipe. You have to mix and match and find what works for you. Your back pain is probably not just structural but could also be psychosomatic, or down to lifestyle. Sitting at a desk for long hours, stress, money worries, de-hydration are just a few factors that can change how you experience back pain.

Over the years I’ve found what works for me. I do Pilates 3-5 days a week, I see the osteopath every couple of months and I do mediation every day. I don’t smoke and I eat as healthily as possible. I know that if I don’t exercise/move for a week then my back pain will resurface.

You are responsible for your own wellbeing. The best thing I did was take responsibility for my recovery. Don’t get me wrong, I needed help and got for help from professionals (physios, Pilates teachers), but ultimately I had to put the effort in. When you get given exercises to do at home, do them! Look at how you sit or stand in your everyday life and see if you can improve that. Become more aware of how you lift heavy objects and how your back reacts when you are stressed.

Keep a ‘pain’ diary. It sounds awful but it’s a very positive thing. I don’t do it anymore because I’ve lived with my back conditions long enough to know what triggers what. At the beginning, keep note of when your back pain increases and try and observe if you have done anything differently or out of the ordinary that day or the days preceding it. Also note how long it took for the pain to ease off. Over time you will see a picture emerge of the patterns and what triggers your back pain. That way you will know what you need to change.

Pilates gave me a new lease of life and I hope it can do the same for other people too. This article was contributed by Pilates teacher Melanie Christou. Join Melanie on her upcoming Nourish Your Body & Soul Retreat in Sitges, Spain and check out our feature on Pilates Retreats in stunning locations.