Scoliosis – How Pilates Helped Me, by our Guest Blogger: Georgia Katsabanis

Where It All Began

I will never forget the day when I discovered an imbalance in my postural alignment that would significantly change my life. I was 14 at the time, out shopping with my mother for a dress to wear to my elementary school graduation. Excited to model the first dress I put on, I exited the change room in high spirits and looked at myself in the mirror. My mother, standing behind me to admire the dress, didn’t quite have the reaction I expected. Instead of glowing over the beauty of the dress, or how it flattered my body, she told me to stand up straight. “Stand up straight” I thought. Confused at her remark, I told her that I was standing up straight and asked her what she thought of the dress. Silence. The next thing I knew, my mother was tracing my spinal cord and running her fingers over my right shoulder blade. Again, I asked her what she thought of the dress. “Georgia, bend forward for a second”, my mother replied. At this point, I started to worry, as these types of responses and actions weren’t typical of my mother. “Mom, what’s going on? Why are you so concerned with my back? Can’t we just focus on the dress?” My mother either didn’t hear me, or was choosing not to respond. Instead, she asked me to turn to the side to get a side view of my body, and asked me if I had been experiencing any sort of back pain. I told her I had no sort of back pain and felt normal, as I had always felt.

Curious with her questions, I asked her again why she was so concerned with my back. This time she responded and told me that my right shoulder and shoulder blade appeared to be seated higher than my left, and my spine appeared as though it had a defined curve. At this point, I recall feeling really worried. Hearing that some part of you doesn’t look normal, especially as a 14 year old girl living in a generation that has heightened demands on self image, is quite disconcerting.

Little did I know at the time that this one shopping experience would pave the road to numerous medical appointments, a life altering surgery, and an endless love for Pilates.

 My Scoliosis

Shortly after my elementary school graduation, I sought medical attention to my back, and was diagnosed with scoliosis. My spinal curvature at the time was 30 degrees and despite having to wear a custom made brace to prevent the curve from progressing, the curve progressed to 52 degrees by the time I was 15 years old.

All throughout my scoliosis, I was a very active girl – I danced ballet, played soccer, and was on my high schools track & field and field hockey teams. I essentially functioned and lived my life in a way that any healthy and active 15 year old girl would. It became my reality though that the only solution to prevent the curve from progressing more and affecting my health was to undergo surgery. The thought of surgery troubled me for many reasons; I worried that the loss of flexibility and range of movement I would inevitably experience as a result of the surgery would impede with my ability to dance and play sports the way I was able pre-surgery. The thought of having chronic back pain in the rehabilitative phase of my surgery also made me feel anxious as I wasn’t sure how much the pain would interfere with my life.  There were so many unknowns at this point in my life that I almost didn’t know what to think.

Road to Recovery

The road to recovery post-surgery was not an easy journey and was met with several hurdles. I had loss of flexibility in my range of upper back movement and experienced regular back pain and muscle stiffness. I tried to jump back into the routine of my “normal life” by playing field hockey two months after surgery, but given the decrease in my range of movement, I was not able to play the full season.

One day my Aunt recommended going to a Pilates instructor who was currently teaching Pilates with a stability ball. At the time, I had never heard of Pilates, but thought I would give it a try as my Aunt is a woman who is quite active and she explained to my mom and I that Pilates was a form of physiotherapy targeted at core strengthening, the back, and mobility. Little did I know at the time that my Aunt’s recommendation would be key in leading me on the path to my Pilates profession.

Every week, my mom and I would load up the car with our two stability balls and drive about 40 minutes out of town to attend the Pilates stability ball classes. My mom and I quite enjoyed these classes as they were fun, challenging, and kept us both physically active. After 12 weeks however, the program ended and the new availability of the classes did not align with my high school agenda.

Eager to keep active and rebuild my back strength, I paired up with a personal trainer and attended a local gym. This was a temporary fix as I later learned that I was not effectively strengthening core muscles that had been weakened from my surgery, resulting in the over compensation of some muscles, increased body strain, and the risk for greater injury in the long-term.

During my graduate studies and early career, the pain became more pronounced to the point where daily activities would not be as enjoyable. I would often have to lie down for short periods of time or take frequent rests when driving long distances. The pain was met with such discomfort that I stopped certain activities that I enjoyed pre-surgery such as running and ballet.

Stronger Through Pilates

There came a point in my life where I was determined to stop accepting the pain as part of who I was and to do something about it. After extensively researching physical exercises and workouts, I was led back to Pilates, specifically Pilates on the mat.

Pilates on the mat was a lot different from Pilates on the stability ball as the mat is the primary prop for support rather than having the comfort of a ball. Given my decrease in flexibility and range of back movement, Pilates on the mat came as a challenge to me at first. I was determined to keep at it though and to not become discouraged. After a consistent commitment to Pilates, I saw gradual improvements and changes in my body and I knew that there was something different about the Pilates approach. I was in less pain on a daily basis and my body’s overall physique started to change as it became stronger, less tense, and more toned. These changes had an effect on my overall well-being, as with less pain, came increased moods. I felt more energized and secure in my body.

The strength I developed through Pilates became ever so apparent and useful in different areas of my life. I was able to edge back into running and complete it with greater ease and control using breathing techniques acquired from the Pilates exercises, meaning that I had developed a stronger core. Driving for long distances no longer resulted in back spasms, and sitting at my work desk for several hours a day is an activity that can now be done comfortably. My posture feels more balanced through the development of stronger abdominal muscles and from training my muscles and joints to work as an integrated system for optimal movement.

My flexibility has also dramatically improved to the point where I am now able to do some foundational exercises that I previously had difficulty completing (i.e. rolling like a ball, roll up) with no limitations or barriers. This is huge progress for me as I never thought that I would be able to regain a range of mobility that allows me to do these types of exercises without modifications.

As I became more familiar and attuned with the Pilates practice, I started to branch off into different Pilates practices to expand my personal scope of practice – Pilates Barre, Pilates Reformer. Branching off into different practices and feeling the improvements in my body, I have become hooked on Pilates to the point where I cannot go a week without a least one class or I don’t feel completely myself.

To this day, I can proudly say that I rarely experience a day where my back is in pain (even on rainy days!). Although there are areas of my body that I am working on regularly to improve, I will never stop being amazed at the therapeutic and rehabilitative abilities of Pilates. My experiences with Pilates reaffirm my personal belief that there are truly no limitations to what the body can achieve!

About the Author

Georgia Katsabanis completed her Pilates teacher training certification through Body Harmonics this past summer in Vancouver, BC at Pacific Spirit Pilates. Inspired by the endless scope of potential that Pilates has for rehabilitation, Georgia is currently expanding upon her mat training by completing her certification as a Post Rehabilitative Exercise Specialist through Body Harmonics. In pursuing ongoing education as well as keeping extremely active in her personal Pilates practice – Pilates Reformer, Pilates Mat, Pilates Barre – Georgia has the intent to return to Vancouver to further develop her Pilates passion into a second career. The difference that Pilates has made in Georgia’s life is her source of motivation to help people achieve stronger more balanced bodies in which they can move with ease and live healthier lives.