Why Pilates Was The One Thing That Finally Healed My Lifelong Injury
As a young dancer, I was dancing up to eight hours a day. I was determined and hardworking—fully dedicated to an art I loved.
The only problem? I had pain in my hip that was preventing me from lifting my left leg into a full extension. The pain became stiffness that gave me a limp when I walked, and the stiffness turned into loss of feeling in that leg. That was just the first in a series of injuries that forced me to take time off from dancing.
I decided to take math, physics, and anatomy classes at nearby colleges in those non-dancing stretches as a backup plan in case I didn’t recover. Sometimes I danced through the injuries—like when I stress-fractured my ankle and still finished a Nutcracker season, or when I tore my rotator cuff performing in Prague and went right back into rehearsals. I wasn't proud of it, but I loved dancing so much that I didn't feel like I had a choice.
It wasn't that I was neglecting my body, either, or ignoring pain. I went to doctors and physical therapists and did their exercises, but nothing helped. The surgeries they recommended seemed extreme and misdirected. The exercises were not truly addressing the issues, and doctor after doctor gave me apologetic looks but no solutions.
Then I found Pilates.
And I’m talking about when I really found Pilates. I had done mat classes in college and even had a few private Pilates apparatus sessions at Houston Ballet Academy, but I wasn’t being corrected, and the programs weren’t being customized to fix my imbalances.
When I came to New York and began studying with Merce Cunningham, I discovered a new way of Pilates that transformed not only my body but my life. This type of Pilates addressed my skeletal alignment. It addressed the fascia that organized and held my muscles in a way that prevented their full and efficient function so my muscles could start working together. It taught me how to use my joints properly and worked my body in all planes of motion as opposed to the repetitive movement I performed while dancing.
This type of Pilates affirmed that a healthy body needs a proper balance between stability and mobility. It’s not just about strength. More specifically, it addressed the intrinsic musculature of the spine and the joints that keep them moving mechanically well with healthy alignment, which is essential for healing and preventing injury.
This thoughtful, new way of moving rewired my quad and rectus abdominis and pec dominant tendencies and got me into my deep core (transversus abdominis, multifidus, diaphragm, pelvic floor), hamstrings, and intrinsic muscles of the hip and shoulder and feet.
An added benefit of retraining my body to access intrinsic muscles to stabilize instead of big muscles is that it positively changed my physical shape—making my thighs slimmer, my waist narrower, and my neck longer.
Pilates also taught me to breathe again.
I had started to hold my breath as a dancer and was having stomach pain and less energy as a result. Learning to breathe improved these things but also became an amazing, essential life tool for managing life’s challenges. I healed my shoulder injury with slow, steady realignment and re-patterning work, while also addressing the misalignments in my spine that were related to that shoulder dysfunction and causing my hip pain.
We worked on the mechanics of my ankle joint to keep away that post-break pain and taught my body to connect this new proper movement into the rhythms of the leg and back into my injured hip. As it turned out, it was all related.
I became voraciously interested in the physics of the body and studied everything I could find, sought out anyone with interesting information. In the process of restoring my body, I found openness in places I had locked up with emotion. I forever began to walk through the world with more presence, openness, and bravery.
Learning to ground into my feet and articulate through them as I walked similarly had results in how I found comfort in scary moments.
To my surprise, my dancing improved dramatically.
I was at the end of my career, but I was performing full-time and dancing better than I ever thought possible.
It was a great way to go out, as I knew that my passion for Pilates and intelligent training was leading me into a different career. I wanted to bring this amazing work to the many, many people who needed it. What I could not have known at that point is how fascinated I would be with all this work years later and how continuously thrilling I would find the latest research on anatomy and biomechanics.
Years later as a Pilates instructor, watching my clients get strong, fit, healthy, pain-free, beautiful, and graceful is also eternally rewarding—and I personally have stayed fit and healthy from Pilates. It replaced dancing as my primary fitness routine, and I have found it an essential tool to have to keep me healthy through every challenge life throws my way. I feel healthier and stronger every year.
Love Erika's story? Read up on how slowing down made internationally known yoga instructor Kathryn Budig invincible.