“You are only as young as your spine is flexible” ~ Joseph Pilates
Yes, to Joseph Pilates, but ‘teenage me’ felt like a 90-year-old. Like many teenagers, I added to the physical and mental challenges of becoming a young woman, a constant and nagging lower back pain. It was a discomfort that distracted me from studying for important exams. This was a huge challenge for me and it stopped me from doing what I loved.
But my story is not unique – and there has been a positive outcome. My journey gave me Pilates and made me passionate about teaching it to teenagers.
Growing up with three siblings in Wales in the 1980s, I played hockey and netball and I enjoyed shot put and discus (which my three kids find hilarious). The idea of stretching, back then, didn’t even occur to me. And I’d never even heard of Pilates.
When the lower back pain started, I assumed it was all the sport, the school work and just being a teenager. I didn’t know how to fix it.
Fast forward my back pain and me into my late twenties. My sister convinced me to try reformer-based Pilates, so I went along and the instructor commented on my scoliosis. My what?
My backward S: scoliosis
My spine curved in a backward “S” – as in Sara. The scoliosis pinched in my lower left back and caused my shoulders to wing. I was shocked by this diagnosis but quickly found that through weekly Pilates sessions, the pain subsided and I became stronger. These sessions were my sanctuary.
But at the time, I was pursuing a career in the law, and I spent most of the day sitting. The long hours stopped me from continuing my Pilates sessions and my back pain returned. I even remember driving to my friend’s house and having to turn back in tears because I couldn’t feel my foot on the pedal. I should have heeded the warning signs, but work was demanding: I rarely had time to eat lunch, let alone see a physio or go to Pilates.
A friend (to whom I am eternally grateful) suggested I see a neurosurgeon and it was he who diagnosed a bulging disc and a trapped nerve. He made it clear that this could only be corrected with a surgical discectomy. This would involve shaving off a section of the disc to release pressure on the nerve running behind it.
In an effort to avoid back surgery, I took a month off work and tried physiotherapy, chiropractic care, Pilates once a week and twice-weekly gym sessions with a trainer. Nothing worked. I had left it too long. After two months of painkillers, I elected to have surgery.
The disc was so entwined with the nerves running down my leg that the surgery took 4 times longer than expected. Thankfully, I only lost 10% of my disc.
Pilates to the rescue
Rehab is a long and scary journey. I didn’t know if the surgery would work, but I knew I had to give myself the best chance by committing to my body. I started gently with my top 5 Pilates exercises:
- heel slides
- bent knee fall out
- quadruped hold with opposite arm taps
- dying bug
- stability ball seated knee lifts
Although the exercises were simple, my focus was on consistent functional movement. After 6 weeks of daily exercises, I felt more confident in my spine’s ability to hold me upright. From then on, my love for Pilates deepened; it enabled me to manage my body, manage my pain and feel better. I even carried three children through pregnancy without pain.
After my second child, I had a lightbulb moment- why be a lawyer when I could be a Pilates teacher? I was a little late to the party (being in my mid-30s), but in 2006, after two years of comprehensive training, I opened my own studio, the House of Pilates. I am truly blessed to have a job I love and I’ve enjoyed seeing all of my face-to-face clients returning after lockdown.
Pilates for teenagers
My own teenage back pain motivates me daily to give growing teens tools they can use to find balance and combat their pain, whether that’s physical pain or mental/emotional stressors. During lockdown, I decided to produce a bespoke online mat course for teens and I’m currently teaching teens weekly on the reformer from my studio, called Next Generation Pilates. I also offer local schools a series of Pilates classes that can be incorporated into the curriculum as part of the enrichment/wellness programs.
In the next issue, I’ll share the trends I’ve noticed when teaching teens, common pitfalls when structuring a teen class, and my top 5 Pilates exercises for physical and mental health.