by Gabriella Schneider, author of BeyondtheBite4Life.com
Living with chronic Lyme Disease is a total toss up. There are many days where the mere thought of getting out of bed expends all of the “energy” I saved up from my last night’s rest. Yet much like the right doctors, treatment, diet, and lifestyle, movement is an essential part of healing. That being said, chronic Lyme produces a fatigue unlike any other, making the simple act of getting through a day a very weary task. It could be described as being over a MAC truck, not just once, but over and over again. However, despite these symptoms that plague my body, I have found great joy in Pilates, using it as not only as a way to strengthen my mental and physical being, but also for pain and stress management.
As a former athlete, I love simply thinking about the day that I will once again be able to play sports and workout. Yet due to innumerable complications from an untreated Borrelia Burgdorferi infection in my body since a young age, my body has been brought to the lowest of lows throughout my early teen years. While I am a bit stronger now thanks to various treatments and protocols, there are many months in my past where I could not get out of bed, off the couch, walk across the room, or simply brush my hair. Obviously, busting my butt at the gym was not in the books. Even small movements that we humans tend to take for granted, such as doing a single jumping jack or skipping, were completely impossible due to lack of strength. However, I was determined to start somehow, though not just anywhere, but somewhere that I knew my body could build upon and benefit from. As someone who enjoyed Pilates pre-chronic Lyme, I chose to go back to my roots, making this “somehow, somewhere,” Pilates.
Daily Realities of Living with Lyme
Many Lyme patients like myself have what is termed “fibromyalgia pain” throughout their joints, bones, and muscles. They are what I call “clunky,” snapping and cracking at even the smallest of movements. When I get up, more than likely my knees and hip will crack, as Lyme causes inevitable stiffness. However, with Pilates I am able to combat this condition. Whether on the mat or on the reformer, the fluid movements help increase blood flow, oxygen into my cells, while also jump-starting my lymph system, a place where Lyme spirochetes like to hide out. It may only be 10 minutes, or maybe even a hour, but regardless of the exact number of minutes doing Pilates, the various exercises encompassed in leave my body at ease, with less pain, and on a good day, maybe with even a little bit of pink in my cheeks.
One of the biggest pitfalls of exerting oneself too much with chronic Lyme, is that I will pay for it for days afterward. This can be anything from simply shopping for 15 minutes too long with a friend, or spontaneously taking a shower instead of a bath. Because of this, “working out” so to speak, is something that occurs rather far and few between. Aside from the muscular and bone strength that it takes to exercise, physical movement can easily spike one’s cortisol levels. Raising this stress hormone can be beneficial, when done in limitation, however, when stress hormones stay raised, they will disrupt one’s circadian rhythm, fatigue one’s adrenals, and overall weaken the body. This is something that those healing from Lyme simply cannot risk, and if anything, aim to avoid completely. That being said, simply living with a chronic illness causes one’s internal stress to naturally be higher. However, I have been able to use Pilates to reduce the oxidative stress caused by resulting effects of chronic Lyme in my body. Unlike most other forms of exercise that are highly based off of cardio, Pilates allows me to heal by releasing tension that I may not even be aware of. It has also allowed me to build muscle mass, which has been key in regaining lost weight that chronic infections cause.
A favorite aspect of Pilates aside from it’s actual benefits on my body, is that it can be done in the privacy of my own home, or in a group setting. Ultimately, I do Pilates to benefit my body, not to beat it into the ground. It is my way of reconnecting, taking a step back from the world, and ultimately doing my body a favor. For this reason, I love doing Pilates by myself, with some music playing in the background. However, now that I am a bit stronger, I find great enjoyment in class settings. The key is to find an instructor that lets me be in control of my session, whether it be going at my own pace or putting whatever resistance on the Pilates reformer that I see fit. Overall, finding these qualities in a group class is fantastic, and is something I always strive to find. Pilates shouldn’t be a stress, and having an unconventional instructor that allows you to do what is best for your body is truly music to a Lyme patient’s ears. If you are an instructor who is not entirely sure how to handle an individual with chronic Lyme Disease, I can personally attest that all we really need is someone who listens and will give us the flexibility we need to get through a class.
Starting with the Mat
The mat is where I began Pilates before my days with chronic Lyme, and because of where I currently live, is what I do on a daily basis. However, for the past year I thoroughly enjoyed the reformer. When it is hard to feel strong, the reformer can act as great, extra support. It is also easier for me to find deep stretches for my hips, legs, and low back.
While I have become a bit biased in my love for the reformer, I have no choice but to get back to the mat. This is a great place to start if you are new to Pilates, regardless of if you have a chronic illness or not. It helps you really tune in with your body and learn how to not flex and strain unnecessary muscles in your back and hips. However, I tend to carry a lot of tension in my upper back, which makes stretching out these parts of my body before going into abdominal work very important. I also have to focus on taking sufficient amount of breaks in between exercises, as this helps me stay in my core and not strain my neck.
Despite how strong my arms have become from Pilates, I also have to be careful with exercises that put extra pressure on my wrists, such as side bends and twists. I’ve never really used props in my Pilates, as they simply have not been available. When I am feeling up to it, they can be quite fun. However, if I am feeling extra under the weather, they are slightly overwhelming and usually good to simply avoid.
Overall, a good class for me is one that I do not feel completely wiped afterwards, though honestly, there is not an exact exercise, position, or apparatus that I necessarily find most helpful for my body. When living with Lyme, one never can truly predict what their body may be like when they wake up. It truly just depends on the day.
The Pilates Healing Journey – the How-To
I would say for those with a chronic illness that are beginning Pilates, start with the very basics, and don’t necessarily feel like you must push yourself to “feel the burn.”
As for the instructors, beginning with basic breathing exercises is a good place to start if your client deals with chronic Lyme. Typically, we as patients are grasping for any bit of strength that our bones will give, so simply doing exercises that are focused more on stretching and breathing can be quite liberating. Truly, you can never take it slow enough, allowing your client to tell you “when” they can handle more complexity or intensity. In the end, communication between the instructor and client is the key.
Just like all of the treatments I have sought for healing from chronic Lyme Disease, Pilates has, is, and will continue to be an important aspect of my journey to regain health. It is an avenue that I simply would not be where I am without. Despite the various symptoms that I still deal with on a daily basis, I am able to use Pilates as a way to both steady and strengthen my body. It allows me to combat pain, stress, and overall have fun. While it may be intimidating to try at first, especially if you suffer from health complications, Pilates is truly a powerful tool that promotes healing for all.
From the author:
Hello, my name is Gabriella, a teen overcoming chronic Lyme Disease through a Paleo diet and lifestyle. I love cooking and serving food to others, creating my own recipes that fit into my healing protocols, and overall learning everything I can about the human body. This has also caused a deep passion for Pilates and other mind body practices. At my blog, Beyond the Bite, I share personal health experiences, daily doses of encouragement, hope for those battling chronic Lyme like myself, as well as the variety of Paleo and Autoimmune Protocol friendly recipes that I create.