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Empowering Bodies with Cancer through Pilates

There are times when our bodies feel like they no longer belong to us. For some it might be after an injury or accident where our body no longer “is like it used to be.” For others (like me) maybe we felt this way when we were pregnant, where your body changes drastically as it is building another human being. Still, there is another group of people who may experience this loss of control over their body because of a diagnosis. This is the group that this article will focus on – the body who has been diagnosed with cancer and how Pilates helps.

As Pilates practitioners, we can appreciate the inherent value of the various movements of the Pilates repertoire. There is something almost hypnotizing about going through a series of movements, on the mat or on a piece of apparatus, that connects our body and mind – the epitome of control.

Two years ago, I had an idea to create a class for people who were either currently on, or who had survived, their cancer journey. I wanted to offer a safe, supportive environment for people to come and move in ways that helped them to feel like they could begin to have some control over their body.

Where to start? I was confident in my ability to teach Pilates – that was not an issue. But, how could I teach Pilates with confidence to a body that was in a specific stage of cancer, with a treatment plan that included drugs that I could not pronounce, with specifics complications posed by chemotherapy, radiation, or surgeries? The week after I started to work with this idea, an email arrived promoting a course offered by the Cancer Exercise Training Institute. I jumped at the opportunity and after 6 months (and LOTS of learning), I was a Certified Cancer Exercise Specialist. Even though the exercises in our course were heavily based on movements from the personal training world, I had more than enough knowledge to start developing this new class!

What’s in a Name?

Empower – make (someone) stronger and more confident, especially in controlling their life and claiming their rights.

I chose to call this class empower. I wanted to be able to give my clients one hour a week where movement was their medicine. We decided that empower would be a free class since many people have to stop working for a lengthy amount of time while they are going through their treatment. I made a contact at the Cancer Clinic in my city so that I could start to educate key stakeholders on the empower class that was going to be launched.

Class Components

Here is the recipe of our empower class:

  1. Check in with bodies – get verbal feedback on how clients’ bodies are doing (note: some of my clients will chat with me in private before class if there is something that they need to share)
  2. Standing posture scan – developing the understanding that for optimal muscular activation in standing posture, we should have 60% of our weight into our heels and 40% across the widest part of the foot with the toes facing straight ahead.
  3. Diaphragmatic Breathing – those who can make it down to their mats will do their breathing supine, others will remain standing or sit on their mats or in a chair. We do A LOT of breathing to oxygenate the trillions of cells in our bodies. Often many newer clients will get light-headed from the large amounts of oxygen that they are taking into their body but over the course of a few weeks that starts to dissipate. One of the key messages I share with the group in this section is how the simple act of controlled diaphragmatic breathing can elicit a sense of relaxed control. It is amazing how the nervous system responds as the rhythm of the breath takes over.
  4. Spinal Movements – this section must be personalized and you must be familiar with each new client’s intake forms as some may have disc issues or osteoporosis in addition to the cancer their body is fighting. Depending on each client’s situation, we may use a lot of props or variations in this section. Each client begins to understand, after just a few classes, what they need to be most successful as we flex, extend, side bend and rotate their spine.
  5. Functional Movements – in this section (with the help of an affixed ballet barre), we do a lot of squatting to build the patterning of the basic sitting action – what is needed to get down and up from a toilet or chair. We also use the barre for the ‘Hanging Series’ that we learned from the Nutritious Movement concepts from Katy Bowman. We use the magic circle to work on upper body posture (protraction and retraction of the scapulae, isometric stretch for the neck, etc.). We also have implemented some of the Archetypal Postures from Dr. Philip Beach. (If you are not familiar with the work of Katy Bowman and Philip Beach, I encourage you to take some time to explore it – it will be well worth it).

This class started with 2 clients in January and we now have a full class of 15 clients and are looking to expand our offerings this fall.

Unexpected Outcomes

When I went into this project, I expected that we could create an opportunity to expose bodies to the wonderful world of Pilates. I knew these bodies would feel better because of it. Here is what I did not expect:

  • To meet a client who has dealt with 7 different cancer diagnoses and yet she is the most cheerful lady
  • To teach a class where our youngest client is 28 and our oldest is 82 and yet, once we start our class, the differences melt away into the similarities that they are all there for one purpose – to move
  • To have clients to plan their treatments around their class. One client found that when she did a treatment the day after our class, she felt a lot less sick.
  • To be a part of the strongest sense of community that I have ever experienced – the welcoming of new clients by the veterans is priceless to watch.

It is truly a privilege to work with those on the cancer journey helping them to harness the power of Pilates as a foundation for healthful movement. In a very short time, this class has also become the “food for my soul” as I realized that I get far more from the people in this class than I give to them.

Jana Danielson - Founder - Metta District

Jana Danielson is the owner of Lead Pilates, Cycle & Fitness and Lead Integrated Health Therapies in Saskatoon, SK Canada, Jana has worked to create unique business devoted to providing clients with the latest trends in health and fitness and therapies including Chiropractic, Physiotherapy and Massage Therapy.

Jana is dedicated to an all around healthy lifestyle and shares this passion with her team and clients.

Jana went from teaching Pilates out her basement studio to opening a studio in 2010 to just this past summer, expanding her Pilates studio to launch a unique organization that integrates multiple movement therapies under one roof.

Jana completed her Bachelor of Commerce and Masters in Business Administration Degrees at the University of Saskatchewan. Jana worked as a Business Consultant before making a career change into the wonderful world of Pilates. She was certified thorough the Pilates Core Integration Program in 2008 and since then has completed certifications through Physical Mind, is PMA Certified and in 2013 joined Balanced Body as a Faculty Member. She is also a CoreAlign Master Instructor.

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