How Pilates Changed My Life…And My MS, Part Two: Mariska Breland Practices What She Teaches

Like so many people with MS, Mariska Breland remembers the disease’s onset as a combination of strange, seemingly disparate maladies that included tingling in her left thigh, numb feet, skin that felt “too thick” around her toes, foot drop and double vision. One left her speechless.

Mariska Breland. Photo courtesy Maliska Breland

“I was at work and all of a sudden I couldn’t speak,” she remembers. “It was really short, two minutes or something like that, but I realized I was unable to form words properly.”

It was 2002 and Breland, then 27, was ultimately diagnosed with relapse remitting multiple sclerosis. The diagnosis and symptoms shook her. “That was a major hit for me,” she says.

Fitness and exercise had long been an integral part of her life. “I was always somebody who liked working out,” she says. “I wasn’t a super-athletic person but I liked doing movement activities. And I was really into playing tennis. It was the sport I played in high school, never played in college, but it was my sport and the one that I really, really loved.”

The blow, she says, left her down — but not out. “If anyone had to describe me in one word it would be ‘determined.’ ”

Determined to maintain as much of her fitness- and lifestyle-regime as possible, Breland asked her doctors for recommendations. Some told her not to bother.  “At that time some people were actually anti-exercise,” she says. Others suggested she try yoga or Pilates.

Breland was one step ahead of the recommendation; prior to her diagnosis she had become “obsessed” with yoga and experimented with Pilates. The experiment did not go well. “I ended up getting a Pilates DVD and I hated it,” she says with a laugh. “It was awful.”

But Breland says she discovered yoga and Pilates helped reduce the numbness and tingling she felt. Gradually Breland transitioned from yoga to Pilates and earned accreditation as a PMA® (Pilates Method Alliance) Certified Pilates Teacher and Continuing Education Provider.  She taught her first Pilates class in 2003 — one year after her MS diagnosis.

In 2010 she opened Fuse Pilates in Washington, D.C. As part of Breland’s comprehensive Pilates certification she completed a year-long research project on Pilates for MS patients, which she expanded into an in-depth multi-day Pilates for MS advanced teacher training. She has now led 44 classes (my original Pilates instructor, Tobie Hall, was part of Breland’s second class).

Mariska Breland instructs a client using a Magic Circle. Photo courtesy Mariska Breland

Breland calls Pilates “special” in comparison to other types of fitness modalities for three specific reasons. First, she says, Pilates focuses on strength, flexibility and balance in almost every exercise, benefitting nearly everyone with neurologic conditions. Flexibility work takes joints through the range of dynamic motion movement, but does so in a way that won’t aggravate spasticity. Work on the Reformer, a machine frequently used in Pilates exercises, works the vestibular system which improves balance.

Second, Breland says, is that the core work done in Pilates can decrease the risk of falling. After developing liver complications Breland underwent two abdominal surgeries, erasing the core strengthening work she’d been doing for years. “I went from having really great  abdominal strength to to having none,” she says. “I remember tripping, I was walking with my husband, and I couldn’t get my feet under me. And I could see for myself that if you don’t have a really strong core, you would have terrible balance.”

Mariska Breland doing a foot inversion exercise with foam roller. Photo courtesy Mariska Breland

The third reason Pilates is meaningful to the MS population, Breland says, is that it is so easily modified to accommodate changing levels of ability associated with the disease’s progression.  “You take away the limitation so they can succeed at something, rather than looking at someone and saying ‘We can’t do this because you have this weakness here.’ ”

Pilates, Breland says, isn’t a panacea. But it always helps. “When you feel like your leg is not working as an example, I know if I could get on a Reformer or hook a spring to my leg, or something like that, even if it’s a small amount of movement, it just sort of reconnects your brain and your body in the conversation,” she says.

“I do have some days where I don’t feel like I have MS because I don’t feel like it’s limiting my movement, sort of like the same feeling you got from your workout back in the day,” she says. “You’re so focused on what you’re doing and you sort of feel normal,” she says. “And any chance you get where you feel a little bit normal is nice.”

Find out more about Mariska Breland, sign up for her newsletter or find Pilates for Neurological Conditions Trained Teachers around many parts of the world here!

Don’t miss the final installment of this series which will focus on low-cost Pilates and resistance exercise you can do at home!

This column was originally posted at MS News Today!

Take No Prisoner: How Pilates Changed My Life…and My MS

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).