by Nicole from
Hi there! I’m Nicole – a movement educator and Pilates teacher. I work with hypermobile humans to improve quality of life through better movement. I have Thoracic Outlet Syndrome and my sweetheart has Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, so I’m intimately familiar with a number of symptoms of hypermobility – oh, the variety and complexity!
After many years of shoulder weakness and neck pain, I finally realized that my own hypermobile joints also needed a different approach to movement. Over the last 8 years of working with hypermobile clients (and my own body) I’ve honed a targeted approach to Pilates for Hypermobility. It integrates breath practice, body awareness, and progressive strength- and stability-building, reducing symptoms such as chronic pain, chronically ‘tight’ muscles, joint instability, and anxiety.
You might be saying – “Nicole, Pilates is not for ME. Pilates is only core work. Pilates is only for dancers. Pilates is about flexibility and I’m already freakin’ bendy enough! There’s no Pilates studio in my town. The Pilates equipment looks like a torture device!” Ok, maybe that last one is true 😉 But let’s BUST these Pilates for hypermobile humans myths and reveal the truth!
Pilates is about stretching and I’m already bendy enough!
Pilates is not about stretching. Many hypermobile bodies have chronically ‘tight’ muscles because the body is holding itself together for dear life! If your connective tissue is not doing its job, then your muscles are overworked and underpaid. (For a more in-depth explanation of the different between joint mobility and muscle flexibility, read Jess’ article on the subject here.)
Your brain may be reluctant to move your ‘tight’ muscles beyond a certain range of motion because a joint might destabilize or tissue might tear. This is your nervous system doing its best to keep you safe. Stretching can put more stress on already overstressed muscles – even if it feels good! (Although, I’m not telling you not to stretch; stretching is not always bad.)
Pilates can actually help the brain feel that the joints, muscles and connective tissues are safe – safe to lengthen, safe to contract, safe to move. Change in the body starts with change in the brain, we’ll talk about body awareness and proprioception in the next section!
I’m clumsy and get bruised easily so I can’t do Pilates moves
Did you know that the region of the brain that processes sensory information is often smaller in bendy bodies? Therefore, it is physiologically more difficult for some hypermobile humans to process sensory input . This can be challenging because your brain uses these sensations to create a map for collecting feedback on where your body is in space. This mapping includes information from exteroceptors on your skin and sense organs (information like touch, taste, smell, etc.). Your proprioceptors (also part of the brain’s mapping system) respond to force, load, and stiffness, and reside in your muscles, bones, ligaments, and joints – i.e., your connective tissues. If your connective tissues have issues, then your proprioception will be off. Reduced exteroception AND proprioception equals a double whammy!
Let’s take your feet as an example. The feet are very important for balance, but if your shoulders, hips, knees and feet aren’t communicating very well (think frequent dislocations or subluxations which create pain – a huge distraction for the brain!) then the only time your brain gets feedback about your feet is when you’re wearing shoes, or when you’re walking /putting load on them. Now combine this with poor sensory input from the skin on your feet and inaccurate proprioception, and you have yourself the perfect recipe for frequent stumbling and falling!
The awesome news is that Pilates can help the brain re-create its sensory map! We can find our sensory hotspots and use those to communicate better with our brains. We can slow our movement down to give our brains time to pick up on sensation. We can also use tools like resistance bands, balls, and weights for communication with the brain. In this way, we improve our body awareness and balance, and feel more confident moving through our day.
If I just improve my ‘core’ stability, I’ll be fine.
There is actually no such thing as ‘the core,” by which I mean, there is no set of ‘core’ muscles in your torso that operate independently of the other muscles in your trunk. In the past, we were taught that bracing or activating one certain muscle would ‘engage’ our core, or stabilize our back, but research has shown that the body doesn’t work like that.
Connective tissues (including tendons, fascia, bone, ligaments, joint capsules, and more!) and muscles which move and stabilize the spine and shoulders and hip joints, also hold and move your organs. The core is an idea, a global concept. Your core is actually everything between the top of your head and your pelvic floor! Stability and strength come from everything working together.
I don’t enjoy exercise because I’m always tired or anxious about getting hurt.
We most often get hurt when our minds are elsewhere during a movement, we’re tired, or we’re not aware of where our body is in space. Yes, you might get hurt, but probably not while doing Pilates – during class you’re focused, and doing movement that’s appropriate for your hypermobile body. Of course, you’re not going to be concentrating on how you’re moving every second of every day, BUT, the mindful movement you practice during your exercise session makes you stronger and therefore less likely to get hurt during everyday activities.
Chronic fatigue is very common in hypermobile humans due to co-morbidities such as POTS, ME, Fibromyalgia and many more. The most important thing is to set an expectation that the same movement will have a different effect on your body than on someone else’s. Some people are energized by certain exercise and some not. Finding the dose and type of movement that work for you is part of the movement journey. A good teacher will help you to find exercises that are right for your energy levels!
You need to buy special equipment to get the benefits of Pilates lessons
The reality is that in everyday life you won’t have specialized equipment or a teacher around to support you. Pilates certainly has some amazingly helpful equipment that you can use if you have access to a studio, but really, the secret sauce of Pilates is its movement principles!
The movement principles we focus on in Pilates for Hypermobility are:
– Proprioception or Body Awareness
Whether you do online or in-person classes, the goal is to integrate these principles so that you can move independently AND learn which movements feel beneficial and supportive for your particular body.
5 Myths Busted!
In the end, the efficacy of any exercise is all about its approach and concepts. Hypermobile bodies benefit from a different approach than other bodies, and Pilates principles fit that approach very neatly. Building strength and stability is challenging not only because you are trying to change patterns that your body and brain have used for many years, but also because fitness culture pushes a ‘no pain, no gain mentality, which simply does not work for bendy bodies. Hypermobile heroes are on a different movement journey, one for which the magic of Pilates can work wonders!
If you’re interested in learning more, please check out my website Sheldrake Pilates & Movement or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m also on Instagram @sheldrake.pilates.movement and have a YouTube channel: Pilates for Hypermobility.
I offer a free Discovery Call for anyone interested in Pilates – let’s chat and see what Pilates can do for you!
P.S – If you enjoyed this article then don’t forget to check out Jess’ recent guest blog about life with hypermobility and Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome on sheldrakepilates.com/blog!