Pilates is having a ‘moment’ right now, but what is it about this exercise so many people enjoy and could it be right for you?
For most of my adult life, my exercise of choice has been yoga. After that first class, nervously attended with friends, I fell in love with its quiet and intentional nature. I continued to attend classes, eventually making the switch to at-home practice, following videos online that suited my mood.
This all changed last year. After a second bout of covid, I started the year feeling fatigued and achy. Not quite putting two and two together, I figured I was feeling this way because I wasn’t moving enough and embarked on a challenge to move every day for the month of January. As the month went on, the movement became harder, whether it was a walk, a weight session or yoga. I vividly remember one yoga practice ending in tears, everything hurt.
This was a wake-up call, and I promptly made a doctor's appointment. After several months of tests, chasing up and eventually seeing a rheumatologist I was told the fatigue was likely covid related, and the joint pain was due to lack of ‘tone’ because I was, in their words, ‘a bit floppy’. What they meant was that I was a little hypermobile, which can cause joint pain.
I was recommended to try both swimming (as it’s gentle on the joints) and Pilates (to strengthen the joints). I asked about yoga and was told it wasn’t the best choice for me, right now. Yoga encourages stretching, and while this is a good thing, if you’re hypermobile, you need to be cautious. For now, the rheumatologist advised me to stop yoga in favour of Pilates.
To be honest, the very idea of exercising at the time felt laughable, as the fatigue wiped me out every time I tried. Thankfully, whilst on a holiday in Arizona, the fatigue lifted (a combination of enjoying true rest and the desert air perhaps?) and the painkillers prescribed by my rheumatologist were helping.
When I got home, I felt able to start exercising, so I checked out swim times at my local pool and booked some private lessons with a Pilates teacher. I decided to work with a teacher one-on-one to start as I was a beginner, and with my joint pain, I wanted to go slow and have the full attention of my teacher. This worked out really well, I got to know the basics of Pilates, the underlying theory and gained confidence.
Slowly, things started to improve. After about six weeks I felt confident enough to stop private lessons and signed up to a group beginners class. The class was an evening class, and the low lighting and soft mats made me exhale every time I walked in. While Pilates doesn’t have the spiritual associations and history of yoga, it does have the same sense of mindfulness. You are encouraged to notice how the muscles and bones align and move, breathing deeply as you engage your core and build both strength and flexibility.
“Pilates is a mind and body exercise which means that your mind and body have to work together performing a series of exercises,” physiotherapist and Pilates instructor Zoe Rex explains.
“These exercises work on breathing, flexibility and strength while bringing your attention to how you are moving. How we move is really important for pain free, efficient movement and being aware of our movements is the first stage.”
One day in class, about six months after starting both swimming and Pilates, our teacher asked us to rest in child’s pose, a position both yoga and Pilates share. As I moved into the familiar position I felt my body sink with relief. This was how my body used to feel. I had a greater range of movement, and even the teacher noticed, commenting on how much I’d improved since my first class.
I could have cried at that moment, honestly. After almost a year of not feeling at home in my body, dealing with pain and fatigue, I felt I was finding my way. My health has not been the same since covid and nor has my body. I don’t think I’ll ever quite get back to how I was before, and that’s OK. I’m finding something new.
Why is Pilates so popular right now?
I started Pilates purely because my rheumatologist recommended it, but it’s clear that Pilates has become a trendy exercise lately. I do wonder if the pandemic’s effect on our work life has a role to play here. Many of the doctors I spoke to asked about my working from home situation, commenting that more and more people are sitting in less than ideal set-ups and not moving enough during the day, leading to joint pain.
Pilates can help here, allowing us to strengthen our joints, increase range of movement and improve posture. All of the things that may be hindered by days spent at a desk.
Building our strength from the inside out is also something I think many of us are craving. I could be reading too much into this, but the last few years have made things feel fragile and uncertain. Perhaps there’s an appeal for us building a sense of inner strength, both physically and mentally.
Whatever it is that’s fuelling the interest, as with all trends it’s important to figure out if it's right for you before following the crowd.
Is Pilates the right exercise for you?
Pilates is a really inclusive practice, meaning people of all ages and abilities can try it, with modifications available to dial down (or up!) the intensity of a move. Pilates might be right for you if you’re dealing with body pain, as it strengthens the areas that support our skeleton. It’s often recommended for those struggling with back pain for this reason too, just be sure to tell your instructor about any injuries or conditions so they can advise on modifications.
While there is a sense of mindfulness and peace to be found in Pilates, there is less emphasis on spirituality than yoga, and sadly no savasana (the quiet relaxation session at the end of most yoga practices). So if these are elements you’re particularly looking for, you may prefer yoga.
If you’re intrigued by Pilates, there are different types you can explore, such as reformer (which uses a reformer Pilates machine) and mat-work (which is done on a mat, with props). My recommendation? Do a little research and give it a go. If you can, work with a teacher in person to start, so they can guide you into the right positions and explain more about Pilates. You might then decide to do it at home, join a class or work one-on-one with a teacher.
I still have a lot of love for yoga, and as my joints are strengthening and I’m learning more about being hypermobile, I hope to bring it back into my routine. But this time it will be alongside swimming and Pilates. I hope you find what works for you too.
If you’re looking for a Pilates teacher, a yoga teacher, or even a physiotherapist to help with joint pain, you can visit Therapy Directory.