My Journey from Pain to the Transformative Power of Pilates

Imagine waGeneviève in St. Martiniting for the light to change, top-down on your convertible, and singing along with the radio on a gorgeous Tucson day. Something makes you look over, and you see a large construction truck coming at you nearly head-on. You’re blocked in by other cars and can’t avoid the collision.

That happened to me in 1992. It was frightening seeing that truck turning toward my driver’s side door down and knowing I couldn’t escape. There I sat, completely exposed, and instinctively, I grabbed the rosary hanging from the rear-view mirror (given to me by my grandfather, Giddee Paul, years ago) and began praying for safety, protection. The next thing I remember, blurry and dreamlike, was policemen and paramedics surrounding me, and then I passed out.

That accident happened just two months before my graduation from University of Arizona, leaving me with a long list of injuries: a herniated disc in my lower back, whiplash, severe increase in TMJ issues, bulging discs in my cervical and thoracic spine, chronic upper back and neck pain, a shoulder injury and terrible headaches. A professional actor and director, I had moved and danced my whole life, but now it was as though my body was betraying me. I’d request movement from it, and my body simply couldn’t do what I asked without causing terrible pain. If it hadn’t been for chiropractic treatments and weekly massage therapy, I probably would have been flat on my back. The regimen gave temporary relief, but I essentially lived in constant pain.

Fast forward one year. A four-way stop in Denver, Colorado on a snowy February day. I’m hit again. A pick-up truck plows into the passenger side of my car, causing me to slide on the icy road and spin head-on into a tree. Once again, I struggled to focus through the noise of officers and paramedics, but blacked out.

When I finally awakened in a hospital bed, a doctor and a policeman insisted that I was “one lucky lady.” I didn’t feel lucky at all. I felt scared, aching and disconnected from a body I’d always counted on, but one becoming more unfamiliar with each passing moment. I now had a litany of injuries: fractured cervical vertebrae at C 3-4, C 5-6, a dislocated rib and new shoulder injury, My TMJ problems intensified as did low back pain. At 25 years old, I felt completely debilitated.

The Best Laid Plans: The Life-Plan Derailed

The life I’d planned out carefully now seemed unattainable. I couldn’t exercise, dance, act, direct. Some days I couldn’t even drive a car. Forced to be sedentary, depression crept in, combining with constant pain to make even part-time work an endurance contest. I was thankful just to push through a day and even more so to sleep through a night which didn’t happen often during that time.

The accident threatened to completely derail the reason I’d moved to Denver, a directing internship with the National Theater Conservatory, an acting school at the Denver Center for Performing Arts. I’d planned to build on my undergraduate studies in acting, and directing, to use the internship as a stepping-stone to a graduate directing program. That life-plan brought me to Denver.

Determined to find pain relief and continue to pursue my dream, I tried every traditional approach, working with physical therapists, physiatrists and my internist. I also pursued chiropractic treatment, acupuncture and many other holistic, non-traditional approaches.

I wouldn’t be satisfied with just a magic bullet, I wanted a sense of normalcy.

Because of nerve compression from the neck injury, I had very little feeling in my  hand, and frequent tingling and burning in my left fingers. I couldn’t pick up so much as a glass of water much without dropping it. Many glasses and dishes were broken during those months. Although i still struggle with this condition today, I have much greater use of my hand and less tingling and numbness then i did twenty five years ago.

The medical recommendations were overwhelming. The neurologist: pain medication and a back surgery to relieve constant low back pain. Plus, a rib resection to alleviate nerve compression. TMJ specialists: jaw surgery on my right temporomandibular joint. The physiatrist injected steroids three times a week and encouraged continued physical therapy.

It’s almost comical now when I look back at the array of appliances and props. A neck brace to drive and really, just move around, a bite-like retainer for my TMJ, a lower back brace to help with stability and decrease  the pain, and special pillows and medications to sleep.

Finally, in the fall of 1995, I gave in and decided to take the path of surgery. The first: rib resection in hopes of decreasing neck pain and possibly regain the use of my left hand and fingers.

The Healing Path of Pilates

Before surgery, the physiatrist recommended the preparatory therapy of Pilates with Amy Anderson (A Living Art Centre), who specialized in Pilates rehabilitation. I’m forever grateful to Amy for introducing me to Pilates and setting me on the path of my pilates healing journey.

I walked into Amy’s studio, looking around the small room filled with strange balls, barrels, beds and other odd-looking equipment. We spent the first several hours together “learning to breathe” and with her gently guiding me through the practice of simply lifting and lowering my arms. Next sessions focused on turning my head slowly from side to side, more breathing and more engaging of abdominal muscles.

Within sixteen sessions and four months, I’d show up to my Pilates  sessions without a neck or back brace.

I had more feeling in my hand and fingers than in years. In a few short months, Amy helped me build strength, increase mobility,  have less pain and most importantly, begin to reclaim my body.

I was elated. Something other than surgery worked and I was making it happen! Re-energized and re-focused, I continued Pilates rehabilitation and moved on to Pilates conditioning for well over a year. In Boulder, I entered a “pre-pilates” training program at the Pilates Center (Amy Alpers and Rachel Segal), and continued to be impressed with the results and newfound body awareness.

During my year at the Pilates Center, my low back pain disappeared completely. The Pilates regimen prevented the need for surgery. I was realizing the body’s ability to heal and it’s innate knowingness of how to self-correct. Slowly i learned  how to listen to its wisdom, allowing the universe of information and energy to flow. I came to believe firmly in the transformation that can come when we allow the body’s natural healing process to occur and make the time and space to truly listen to our bodies.

The Foundation of a New Life Path

A lifelong passion for learning and understanding more deeply, drove me. In 1996, I met Ron Fletcher, a master teacher of body contrology, a master teacher of movement and dance for over fifty years. He came to the “work” after his own injuries while working as a professional dancer. His unique style of incorporating modern dance technique, percussive breathing (focused breathing using sound and rhythm) with the core of Joseph Pilates’ teachings, spoke to the artist and dancer still thriving within me. Of course, I related to his healing journey and charismatic teaching style as well. Ron was very kind to me and i remember many conversations before and after workshops with Ron where he worked with me on specific pieces and movements to help me have a greater understanding of my body and Pilates. He also shared personal stories about his experience with Joseph and Clara Pilates.  He taught me so much. It felt only natural for me to apply to his company and training program. For the next decade, my life followed an energizing, focused path of national workshops, seminars and conferences with Ron Fletcher and his master teachers.

In 1998 I opened my first Pilates studio in Denver’s Capitol Hill. With much help and physical labor from my husband Robert, we converted first an apartment and later a condo into a small, private Pilates studio. I had the pleasure during those years to work with many athletes, actors and dancers in Denver community, and loved it!

After much prayer and meditation, I decided in 2000 to move home to Tucson, Arizona and open a Pilates and Movement studio here. I had been away for school, work and “life” a long time and wanted to be closer to my parents. Modeled on the amazing instruction I’d experienced, my approach was to offer customized Pilates and Movement programs and personal attention focused on the whole person. My vision was to create a zen-like environment with views of the desert and Catalina mountains in a peaceful space. Today, the Tucson Pilates studio still offers this same environment. I’ve added Movement and Wellness seminars; small group classes from beginning level up to those suitable for instructors, and frequently present off-site workshops, as well. It has been and continues to be incredibly rewarding. I am grateful to my loyal clients, family and the Tucson community.

As for my own health, Pilates healed my back, arm and neck, but I continue to suffer from TMJ “lock jaw,” headaches and ongoing upper back pain. The TMJ specialist I work with guides me with gentle jaw exercises, an appliance and joint injections to decrease inflammation and increase range of motion. Each time we meet, I’m a little more hopeful about my body’s ability to heal and repair.

My Upper Back pain is managed through massage, pilates, meditation and a focus on maintaining a balanced lifestyle.

I share this because it’s important for us to remember that the healing journey is ongoing. It’s a test of patience, discipline and the willingness to be in the present moment. I remind myself constantly that it is a process and as I encourage others to be gentle with themselves, I try to give myself the same gift.

When I remind my clients to breathe, I also remind myself.

The Body as Teacher: What I’ve Learned

The human body is a terrific teacher; a miraculous, complex multidimensional marvel that most of us know very little about. In our Western world that spends so much time focused externally on the material world and identified with the mind, it’s important to consistently stop , find moments of stillness and silence , and trust the body’s intuition and wisdom.  For me,  I do this through daily meditation, pranayama breathing, time in nature and by consistently moving my body in ways that allow for me to be more fully present with my breath and  grounded in my body.

I’m continually reminded that simply “thinking things through” or strong determination can force an outcome; however, it might not be the wisest one. In fact, from a spiritual perspective, thinking it through and making things happen by sheer will are the least effective ways to encourage healing and transformation.  I’ve heard Deepak (Dr. Chopra) often refer to this as “ego-efforting”.

Although I’m twenty two years into the practice of Pilates, and recognize the numerous benefits of Pilates, I continue to be most inspired by the body’s ability to change, heal and transform.

My own transformation through movement and passion for holistic medicine informs my teaching as well as the way I live and move in the world. It gives me great pleasure to share this with hundreds of clients and students, whether individually, in groups or in retreat settings.  The powerful combination of Pilates with the timeless wisdom of Ayurveda offers a comprehensive and creative set of tools for healing as well as practices to maintain the quality of one’s life.

It’s inspiring and rewarding to see clients empowered, confident and awakened to the experience of vibrant health as they experience the external changes of better posture, flexibility, a strong core, improved balance, defined muscles and increased grace of movement. On a deeper level, the benefits of relaxation and sound sleep help to decrease anxiety and stress, promoting over all health and well-being.

A piece of movement or any moment in time, connected to our breath, integrated in our body, is a beautiful thing, not to be wasted,  and a profound way to experience our creative and infinite selves.

“An Unexpected Cure: My Journey from Pain to the Transformative Power of Pilates” by Geneviève Nedder, also posted as “A Pilates Cure.”