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Pilates Transformations

by Mary Monroe on Jun 30, 2011

What does it take to transform a life? Sometimes it’s a Pilates class, a motivated student and an instructor who believes anything is possible.

In the world at large, real transformation doesn’t happen every day. In the world of Pilates, transformation is all in a day’s work—or play. Ask instructors about clients who have made dramatic changes through Pilates, and the stories pour in.

'Pilates transforms people from the inside out, depending on where they are when they walk in the door,' says Kimberly Corp, co-owner of Pilates on Fifth in New York City. 'Everyone needs different things. Sometimes it starts with ‘I feel better’ or ‘I sleep better.’ Clients themselves don’t always see it happening at first. We believe every body can be a Pilates body—this isn’t just for fit people. That misconception is still out there. You don’t have to be thin [either]; you can have injuries, or you can have a little extra meat on your bones, and Pilates still works!'

Lisa Hunsaker, who was classically trained by Power Pilates and is the owner of Turning Point Fitness in Westerville, Ohio, agrees: 'I’ve seen transformation in all kinds of people. This is such a safe method, no matter what your condition. We can adjust it to fit where you are. Whether you’re an athlete or an everyday person, Pilates is a foundation for a better life.' >>

Pilates instructors emphasize that transformations can happen quickly, but not overnight. 'The first thing I see is more body-mind awareness,' says Hunsaker. 'Clients take more notice of their posture, how they sit, how they stand. The second thing that happens is they actually start to change physically. The body accepts change when it’s ready. People often will see pants and waist size change before they notice weight change. I tell people you need five to 10 classes to get into it and start to see the connection. I quote Joseph Pilates and say, ‘In 10 sessions you will feel the difference, in 20 sessions you will see the difference, and in 30 sessions you’ll have a new body.’ I emphasize that they will be transformed from the inside out. Watching clients transform is so rewarding for us, but in the end the clients are the ones who do all the work. We’re just guides.'

Here is a sample of Pilates transformation success stories, with perspectives from both the instructors and their clients.

A Tough Cookie Beats Scoliosis

'I’ve seen so many transformations,' says Danielle Conner, who teaches Pilates at Premier Pilates and Yoga in Warren, New Jersey, and also does Pilates training with Cirque du Soleil performers. One of the most dramatic examples is Cathy Critelli, a client with severe scoliosis. 'When Cathy started, she had no mobility in her neck,' says Conner. 'You couldn’t see that she had a neck! Her shoulders were practically up in her eyes. There was a huge shoulder height difference. She was in constant pain.'

Explains Critelli herself: 'I also had three herniated disks that broke off into the nerves in my neck so I had to have a fusion. It limited the motion I had at the base of my neck. Then I got a frozen shoulder after surgery. I used to be very active, but now, whenever I exercised, I would injure my neck. I needed to find something that could get me back to an active lifestyle.'

Conner recalls that they started with basic abdominal work and then began doing chest lifts and training the trapezius and rhomboids. 'She did a private session once a week and also did at-home work that made a big difference. At first she couldn’t do anything, but soon her shoulders started to come down and her neck started to lose some tension. Then her hamstrings loosened. At one time she couldn’t do biceps curls because of the impact on her neck; now she can. She can even do oblique work with no pain. She can do head rolls and look side to side. Her shoulder discrepancy has lessened greatly. Now she’s in fantastic shape. She has freedom and flexibility in her vertebrae. Her neck doesn’t bother her, and she can sleep with a pillow again. It’s remarkable how far she’s come.'

No one agrees more enthusiastically than Critelli herself. 'Right away when I started Pilates, the results were 1,000 times better than I expected,' she says. 'Danielle taught me so much about my body. I realized I’d been blind to the effects of my scoliosis. My body was so out of balance. My right side was weak, and my left side was overcompensating, so I injured everything on my right side. I had that hump that you get from your body being so out of whack. Now you can hardly tell that I have scoliosis. I can walk on a treadmill and do elliptical training. I recommend Pilates to everybody. If I hadn’t found Pilates, I would have just been injuring myself over and over again.'

'Cathy is a tough cookie,' says Conner. 'She’s funny, she’s a survivor, and she gets really excited when she makes progress. The reward is seeing the progress in clients. It’s so fulfilling. As a professional dancer, I love performing, but I can tell you that seeing one of your clients make the kind of progress Cathy has made is more fulfilling than any solo in any show I’ve ever done.'

85 Pounds Lighter After Pilates

Erin Myers is a Balanced Body® Pilates instructor and teacher trainer in Nashville, Tennessee, who works with a number of obese and morbidly obese clients. 'It’s always a joy to work with clients who struggle with their weight, because I know they are taking such a huge step in their lives,' Myers says. '[They’re] hands down the most rewarding kind of clients I work with. Whether people are injured or obese, Pilates is a safe place for them to start, and it catapults them into the rest of the exercise world.'

Myers began working with Alison Ryan 5 years ago. 'I was amazed she got through the front door of the studio. She had so much self-doubt. We needed to boost her confidence in her own strength, which in turn built her self-esteem. Ultimately, she has been a gem to work with. She’s come so far, but I don’t think she would have stuck to it without Pilates, because she would have gotten hurt or discouraged.'

'When your doctor tells you that you’re morbidly obese and you’re faced with, ‘What do I do?’ it can be overwhelming,' says Ryan. 'I was 320 pounds. The weight was a sure sign of things to come—such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.'

Ryan did Pilates training three times a week and also started walking with her dogs and eating a healthier diet. Today she has lost 85 pounds. 'I’m still losing. I want to lose a total of at least 140 pounds, and I believe I will. Pilates has changed my body in a way that I’m so pleased with. It was hard for me to connect with my body before, but now I can do all sorts of sports and activities. Pilates clears my mind and has helped me let go of a lot of stress. Even though I’ve lost a lot of weight, I don’t have a lot of sagging skin—I think Pilates helped with that, too.'

Ryan says the nonjudgmental environment of the Pilates studio was a big plus. 'When you’re heavy, you know when people are judging you. It happens everywhere you go. But I didn’t find that here. At first, I felt like the elephant in the room, but Erin encouraged me to just pay attention to myself. She said half the battle is just showing up, and once she gave me that pep talk, I felt comfortable. It took me awhile to get serious about losing weight, but that’s real life. This is not The Biggest Loser. It takes time to find the tools that work for you. Pilates was it for me.'

Ryan is so enthusiastic about the pivotal role Pilates has played in her weight loss that she has created a blog to share her story, 'My First Love: Exercise That Changed My Life' (

'Now I celebrate not just my weight loss but my mental transformation: confidence, self-worth, vigor, passion, a thirst for life!' she says. 'It really is transformational; it’s not like I’m drinking the Kool-Aid. Pilates overfloweth with positive benefits! I think if more people tried it, this would be at the top of their to-do lists.'

An Olympic Transformation

Connie Borho, a Peak Pilates® level III teacher trainer, has been working with U.S. Olympic pair skaters Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig for over 3 years. 'They credit placing 10th overall in the [Vancouver Winter] Olympics in large part to their Pilates practice, which helped them work toward more symmetry, core control and extension,' says Borho. She is the owner of Balance Pilates & Yoga Centers in Bradenton, Florida.

Evora and Ladwig finished 10th at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver and then capped off their breakthrough season by finishing ninth overall at the World Championships in Italy. They started doing Pilates once a week with Borho as part of their overall training. 'Basically, they come to relearn movement with the new perspective that comes with Pilates,' says Borho. 'For example, they have learned where the movement is anchored when they do a leg extension. They’ve learned to draw back to the powerhouse of their core as they extend. In some cases, they have found out that they don’t need flexibility as much as they need the knowledge of where in the body the movement originates.'

When a competition is near, Borho works with the skaters on the moves they will need to perform, which vary from year to year. 'One year they’ll need to do a turn in the opposite direction from the year before, so we have to rebalance their bodies to turn left instead of right,' Borho says. 'Communication is important. They show me a problem, and I show them how to create a solution. When they’re on a rest cycle, we do less mechanics of motion and more fundamentals and flexibility.'

Ladwig’s training challenges are different from Evora’s; he has to be strong enough to lift, throw and catch. 'We work on his center line, on shoulder stabilization and on drawing power from his core rather than from arm strength,' says Borho. 'When he’s catching her, he can be off balance if he’s not pushing his legs down and pulling his abs in.'

'I knew Pilates worked on the core, but we were still surprised at how much it has helped with our skating,' says Evora. 'Just understanding more about how our muscles work, learning to work from the core, not to arch my lower back—these basics have really helped us.

'Pilates has made us much more aware of our bodies. It helps in opening my body so I can continue to learn to do new, difficult positions. Many of the movements we do on the ice are uneven, working one side of the body much more than the other. So Pilates balances [the body] out and helps our flexibility and range of motion on both sides.'

From Fearful to Triathlete

Kimberly Searl owns Mind Body Balance in Monroe, Michigan. One of her recent transformation success stories belongs to Virginia Carner, who went from an 'everyday' client to a triathlete.

'Virginia started out wanting to just get toned and stronger,' says Searl. 'She told us she had done one leg of a triathlon in a family competition, and she wondered if she could do the whole thing some day. She liked Pilates right away, but she was scared. She had a lot of fear of movement. Pilates helped her conquer that. She learned about alignment and how to breathe and move efficiently.'

Carner recalls that she got interested in Pilates when her best friend started doing it to get ready for her wedding. 'She did Pilates for 6 months, and I saw the huge transformation in her body and her strength,' says Carner. 'I was amazed at how much she changed. I had done a lot of cardio work before, especially swimming. I had tried Pilates DVDs a few times, and now I know why I didn’t enjoy them—because I didn’t know what I was doing! I decided to give Pilates a try, but to be honest, I wasn’t convinced it would be beneficial.'

Carner began training three times a week. 'When I first started, I was surprised at how difficult it was,' she says. 'But I started to notice a difference right from the beginning. I got stronger, more flexible, and my body changed. I decided that I would like to do a whole triathlon—not just the swimming part. But I was extremely far from that goal. I didn’t even own a bike. I had no confidence. I knew it was going to be a huge task. Kimberly is the one who encouraged me.'

Carner competed in her first triathlon last June and did another one soon after. 'I couldn’t have done it without Pilates,' she says. 'I could tell in my first triathlon that I could run farther and faster than I had before Pilates. I met my time goals in the first triathlon and exceeded them the second time. I was surprised—I shocked myself! In general, I’m not an extremely confident person, and I get very nervous about trying new things. I thought of every excuse possible. In fact, a tornado went through our area the night before, and I was praying that they’d cancel the triathlon! I never would have done it without Kim and Pilates. It’s one of those things you think you would like to do—it’s on your list, but it just stays on the list if you don’t have help.'

Searl was at both triathlons, cheering her client on. 'She texted me all morning,' Carner recalls. 'She volunteered and helped out on the course. I was amazed. She very much cares about her clients; it’s not just a job for her.'

Leaving Pain Behind

Carolyn Burke came to Lisa Hunsaker, owner of Turning Point Fitness, Westerville, Ohio, with excruciating pain in her lower back. The pain was so severe that Burke often could not stand. 'I would be hunched over walking, and I had shooting pain in my legs,' says Burke. 'Sometimes I couldn’t even walk because I was in so much pain—and I have a very high pain tolerance! Every night I had to lie with a heating pad under my back just so I could fall asleep. I couldn’t exercise any more, and I was miserable.'

Burke’s physician diagnosed her with spondylolisthesis, in which a vertebra slips out of place and compresses the spinal nerves. Physical therapy did not resolve the problem or end the debilitating pain. Burke began private sessions with Hunsaker twice a week, eventually moving into a tower class with just one private session. As the pain lessened, she added Zumba® classes and finally TRX® and Xtend Barre®. 'Now she does it all!' says Hunsaker. 'The Pilates foundation allowed her to take other classes that were higher impact and more diverse. By the end of a year, she was pain-free and had even lost 25 pounds, just through healthy eating—not dieting—and exercise. She’s very dedicated and makes the journey to the studio even though she lives 30 minutes away. Her flexibility has improved. There was unevenness in her hips from inflammation, and that evened out. She’s very strong now and has a great mind-body connection. More importantly, she likes [to work out]—it’s not a forced thing. If you don’t like it, you’re not going to do it. It took a year; it didn’t happen overnight—there’s no such thing. But Carolyn never complained once.'

'Pilates has allowed me to live pain-free and be extremely physically active at the same time,' says Burke. 'I had no knowledge of Pilates when I started. A physical therapist recommended it to me. I was open-minded because I thought any help at all would be a godsend. I was at such a point of desperation. The only choices I had were to go back to my orthopedic surgeon and have a vertebrae fusion or take more pain medication for the rest of my life. I didn’t think that I could get rid of the pain; I just wanted to reduce it and feel a little bit whole again.

'I know I started feeling better when I could do Zumba, and that was only a few months after I started Pilates. It’s given me my life back—I truly believe that. I was afraid I was going to be debilitated for the rest of my life, but now I’m pain-free. I tell everyone who has lower-back pain to do Pilates. It’s a miracle worker.'

A Survivor’s Story

Kimberly and Katherine Corp, co-owners of Pilates on Fifth studio in New York City, say one of their most remarkable current clients is breast cancer survivor Tobey Nelson, who came to the studio while she was undergoing radiation treatment. 'While Pilates can’t help someone with a negative mindset, it can do wonders for someone with a positive mindset, and that’s what Tobey has,' says Katherine. ‘'She stops us every time she sees us and tells us the difference Pilates has made and how amazed her doctors are at her strength and stamina. Now her doctors want to talk to us and refer people because they see her success.'

'This week I finished my 6-month mammogram checkup, and I am so grateful to be cancer-free,' says Nelson. 'A year ago in May when I was diagnosed with an early stage of cancer in my right breast, it totally freaked me out, although I was grateful that it was caught early. When I found out I needed radiation every day for 7 weeks, my mind immediately went to Pilates, which I had done in the past, because it made me feel strong and because of its meditative powers. I looked for a studio near me and dragged myself there every other day.'

Nelson’s instructor Christen had worked with other breast cancer survivors, and she devised programs for Tobey’s limited range of motion from two lumpectomies. 'I would have radiation, go to Pilates and then go home to rest,' she recalls. 'The
radiation wiped me out, but the Pilates workouts had restorative powers. Everyone was so supportive, caring and sincere. The studio is on the top floor with a skylight, so even the environment was positive and calmly energetic. It wasn’t like exercise; it was definitely a mind-body experience for me.'

Adds Nelson: 'The hardest part was being exhausted and trying to keep up with my family. I attribute a lot of my ability to have a relatively normal life to my Pilates workout. Today, I am a healthy, strong person with all my range of motion, and I can play tennis and golf again. I’ve told my doctors to refer their patients [to a Pilates instructor], and I tell women to get an annual mammogram and find a place to do Pilates. The scariest thing for most cancer patients is the unknown, especially the period of time between discovery and identification of treatment—that’s living hell. I wish I had kept Pilates as an ongoing part of my life earlier because it would have helped me breathe through the horror and fear.'

Nelson’s experience has made her an advocate for Pilates for conditions beyond breast cancer. 'Pilates could be so helpful for anyone who is challenged physically or mentally,' she says. 'For example, I think of our veterans who come back home with so many difficulties. Pilates could be so useful for both physical and mental strengthening. It’s such a powerful form of exercise.'



IDEA Fitness Journal, Volume 8, Issue 7

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About the Author

Mary Monroe IDEA Author/Presenter

Mary Monroe is a freelance writer in the Los Angeles area.