From the Studio
Pilates and my Ankylosing Spondylitis
by Angeles Rios
I got into a regular practice of Pilates after seeing many practitioners — doctors, physical therapists, and chiropractors — none of whom seemed to have a clue on how to help me with my back pain, other than taking anti-inflammatory medication and painkillers. After 10 years of experiencing cluelessness and the side effects of taking such drugs, I was referred to a rheumatologist who finally diagnosed me with ankylosing spondylitis (a form of arthritis that primarily affects the spine, although other joints can become involved). After being diagnosed with AS, I was recommended to take a biologic drug that totally changed my life for the better.
Through this process, I had continued to practice Pilates and became a teacher in this empowering method. I kept practicing Pilates — especially what is called Pre-Pilates — because the system was adaptable to how I was feeling: from being in a flare to undergoing remission. For those of you who are not familiar with these terms, it meant going from a state where I could barely walk to being able to join friends to run and climb walls in a Dirty Girl Mud Run.
During my first private session in Pilates, my instructor focused on breath work and helped me understand how the pelvis and the rest of my body moved from my center. At the time, I brought her a tensed, stiff, and painful body. After practicing pelvic rocks, core work, and receiving cues on improving my body awareness and posture, I left many of my sessions feeling more energy and ease in movement — or what Joseph Pilates probably called “zest.”
However, some of these sessions did not lead me to better movement. During these sessions, I found simple transitional movements (i.e. rotating my body from supine to side-lying on the mat) to close-chained footwork made my pain worse. During these times, I would have to end the sessions early or focus on breath work. I viewed these unexplainable and yet humbling experiences as minor bumps on the road. As a former athlete in water polo, wrestling, and swimming, I was not going to give up on moving my body and getting stronger. I took these sessions as learning experiences on what not to do during different types of flares. Gradually over time and between such flares, I was rewarded for my resilience. I started to notice a steady progression in my core strength, body awareness, posture, and ease in movement.
Although with each flare, my progression negated some of the noted progress in my strength and connection to my body, I TRUSTED that my muscle memory would work itself out after the flare. I write TRUST in major capital letters because there were no resources for me to follow at the time. I didn’t have a clear diagnosis and even after this fact, there was not much research or many practitioners who I knew had positive experiences working with clients like me. I just knew from my gut that a lot of these sessions just made me feel better than other types of work. And what gold it is to feel an ounce better when I was so used to feeling terrible and exhausted on a daily basis.
As an important note, I started practicing Pilates in private sessions 5 years before being diagnosed with AS. I say this because as a Pilates practitioner, you may come across students who demonstrate conditions not fully supported by their healthcare system. I challenge you to encourage your students to keep communicating with their doctors, and to know that your Pilates tools, as well as your social support, can provide an invaluable therapeutic outlet for folks with AS and other chronic conditions.