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Pilates COREterly

Summer 2011

Pilates and …

Fighting Cancer, Finding a Career

By Tracy Krulik

In early 2008, six weeks after surgery to remove my spleen, the tail of my pancreas, and a golf ball-sized tumor that had taken up residence there, I was ready to get back to the gym. I trusted the trainer who had helped me rehab countless injuries through the years to now help me get back into shape, post-surgery. While I made it through that first workout stronger than I would have expected I couldn't feel the muscles on the left side of my abdomen at all. The abs on my right side burned like crazy, but the left—nothing.

I tried working out with my trainer a few more times, but the results were no better: no feeling on the left and pain on the right. Nothing was helping me activate those abdominal muscles. To be fair, my surgeon did leave me with a four-inch diagonal scar across my abdomen, but I still wanted my body back working at a hundred percent.

I had been incredibly sick for nine years before a doctor figured out that I had a tumor on my pancreas, and after I recovered from my surgery at age thirty-six, I felt seventeen again. The tumor had grown so slowly that we didn't realize how much energy it was sapping from me until it was gone. Suddenly I had a spring in my step, and I was doing handstands in scavenger hunts in Washington, D.C.—literally!

Not willing to allow my disease to hold me back any more, I asked around for ideas on how I could wake up my abs. Friends suggested that I try Pilates or yoga. Having tried neither before, I did some investigating and felt that Pilates was probably a better fit for me, given its faster pace.

I found a studio a couple miles from my home and instantly fell in love. In my childhood I was immersed in musical theater and ballet, and I had even danced professionally in my twenties until I became too ill to continue. Suddenly, through Pilates, the void that had formed when I stopped dancing was filled. I loved the mind-body connection of Pilates, and I was so happy to have a reason to point my ballerina toes once again.

That was about three and a half years ago. I've taken private or group apparatus and mat classes one to four times a week since then and in December decided to sign up for Balanced Body instructor training. I had no idea if I wanted to teach Pilates professionally; I just figured I would take my knowledge to the next level.

Immersing myself in Pilates helped me learn more about my body's imbalances. I was stunned to discover that when I rolled down, my left side fell fast, and when I rolled up, my left side dragged. One instructor observed that I had become so dependent on my right side that it looked as though I was heading in an eternal spiral in that direction.

The consensus among the medical community is that the muscles on my left have actually starting firing, but I can't feel them. So when I practice Pilates now, I focus my mind on my left abs—willing them to work—despite the fact that I feel nothing. By doing so, and with the help of fellow instructors watching to make sure that I'm moving evenly, I am getting closer and closer to muscular balance.

I also realized that now there was no question that I wanted to teach Pilates professionally

(continued above)

Out of the wisdom I've gleaned from mentors like my Balanced Body instructor trainer Nancy Sanchez, I now take the hard lessons I've learned from my imbalances to help my students develop their own “balanced bodies” and, in turn, hopefully reduce potential injuries. I began teaching by practicing with my husband and friends, and I quickly realized that even as an apprentice I could help others develop strong cores, proper posture, and overall healthier bodies.

My body remains a work in progress. I still have to will my left side to do its job, and certain exercises like Jackknife continue to torment me, but despite a bit of lingering weakness around my incision site, my core, abdomen, and back are stronger than ever. I'm happy to see that both hips now remain level when performing pelvic lifts, and I'm able to rise and lower without tilting on roll-ups and teasers (as long as I remain focused). With my newfound strength I'm hitting the ball harder than ever on the tennis court, and I am climbing longer and steeper hills on my bike.

You wouldn't know it by looking at me, but cancer still lives within me—we removed the primary tumor in 2007, but we could not remove metastases that had formed in my liver and chest. I have made a commitment to make my body as inhospitable as possible to cancer through a plant-based diet and exercise, and my work appears to be paying off. The tumors have not grown since we first found them almost four years ago.

One doctor at Johns Hopkins told me that he believes my "body is in balance," which is allowing my immune system to kill the cancer on its own. Could there ever be better validation of the work we do in the studio?