When I was diagnosed with MS in December 2013, my most visible symptom was a waltzing shuffle that was slowly changing my 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 for me. And driving home alone after one such session I was trying very hard not to cry.
I would not describe myself as a fitness fanatic, but after I quit smoking in the mid-90s I had become addicted to running’s endorphin high 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 that I was taking included a series of timed or counted exercises meant — it seemed — to measure how long it took before I could not successfully complete the exercise. Inadvertently it emphasized to me what I could no longer 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 could find 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 those sessions. Then I found a Pilates instructor who was trained to work with MS, Parkinson’s and other clients with 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 foot-and head-boards of the prisoner’s beds and created resistance-based exercises so his fellow inmates might also stay more physically (and emotionally) fit. Pilates’ focus was strengthening users’ core and balance as the foundation of strength and capacity — all 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 the endorphin high, I frequently get lost in the pursuit of doing the exercises properly, which in turn creates a very beneficial type of mindfulness and for 55 minutes I often forget that I have MS at all.
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 now all makes sense to me. 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 maybe even in some ways, even beneficial.
Chances are very good that I won’t be posing for any anatomy charts any time soon. Pilates may be a great form of exercise but it’s not a miracle worker, at least not like that. Yet there are moments during my sessions and after, on the drive home, when I feel really strong and fit and just a little bit free.
(This post was originally published at MS News Today).