Back in the seventies as a dancer working in New York City, I was advised to take up Pilates by the director of my dance company. The reason? I was behind the beat in all performances; lacking precision in my movement due to my hyper-mobile body languidly moving to a fast beat. I had always been proud of my flexibility and nourished it with daily stretching before and after class. With my bruised ego and threats that I would not be given any more dance parts, I took myself off to my first Pilates session in West 56th Street with Robert Fitzgerald. To this day I vividly remember that class, walking in to a room of famous dancers exercising on equipment which resembled a torture chamber. I felt very self conscious and found it particularly hard to do a even a simple roll up or roll over due to the one area that was stiff – my lower back.
That first year saw gradual changes. Going three times a week, I learnt to move from my centre which is now known as core stability whilst maintaining flow, breath, control and precision. Robert rarely changed the format of my routine. He was a task master insisting on correct placement, perfect alignment when executing each exercise which was often quite minimal in its range of movement. This targeted the deeper muscles that surround the joint, providing extra support to the over-stretchy connective tissue that I had in my ignorance, made worse by over stretching. As I became stronger, I progressed to the harder repertoire with bigger movements but still with that same sense of working from the centre. Emphasis was also placed on improving my proprioception (the ability to sense movement within the joints and joint position). I noticed that I had a lot more stamina in rehearsals and on stage could balance on one leg no matter what creative lighting the designer threw at us. It was great! Over the years, Pilates kept me going with knee and ankle injuries sustained from my dance career, enabling me to rehabilitate and re-pattern my dance technique so that I was not vulnerable to re-injury.
In the studio, we are seeing an increasing number of clients that are non-dancers who have hypermobility issues. It often brings pain, vulnerability to injury such as sprains and tendonitis and in extreme cases, is debilitating causing constant chronic pain. This is due to the body having too much collagen in the connective tissue that surrounds the joint making it unstable. One is usually predisposed to it genetically or as mentioned above, too much emphasis on stretching. The good news is that it diminishes with the ageing process.
There are different types of hypermobility – at the lesser end of the scale it is manageable and just requires more emphasis on strengthening the muscles around the joint, focusing on balance with good strong feet; a balanced class which Pilates provides. When there is pain around the joint then it is advisable to get a proper diagnosis from the doctor who will perform a series of tests i.e checking movements such as thumb to wrist. It would then be considered to be hypermobility syndrome and if extreme, Erlos Danlos syndrome. There are other symptoms that manifest with the latter.
Pilates has provided me with a foundation which has been invaluable with all my different daily activities. After climbing, cycling, long walks I have something to put both my body and mind back on track. My teachers all share this love and passion for the work. Some also have hypermobility issues of varying degrees and have their own stories. (Thank you to our client Anna for her story). I would also like to thank my first teacher Robert for starting me on my journey which continues to grow and never ceases to amaze me.
Anne-Marie Zulkahari, PYM Director