Are you in therapy to recover from a bad experience, and wish you could see more progress faster? Well then, welcome to the third post of this blog series about different ways to boost the effectiveness of trauma therapy. I am interviewing professionals in the Boulder, CO area who provide services that experts recommend to help you optimize your recovery from trauma.
I’m delighted to introduce Arianna Stout, a Pilates instructor in Boulder who teaches from her own private studio and also through the Boulder Parks and Rec Pilates program. This interview was especially fun for me, because I have done Pilates for many years, most recently with Arianna. It was actually during a Pilates session with Arianna that I had the brainstorm for this interview series! As I was working in that session, I noticed that Pilates often creates for me an experience that is just the type of healing experience that I am always striving to help my clients find. So, let’s get started!
What is Pilates? What is a Pilates session like?
Peg: Hi Arianna! Thanks so much for joining me. Let’s jump right in and starting with a description of what Pilates is. Pretend you’re describing it to someone who is brand new to it.
Arianna: Pilates was developed by Joseph Pilates, in the 1920s and 30s. He was not very healthy as a kid, and ended up devoting his whole life to improving his strength. The method he eventually developed was originally called “Contrology”, because he saw it as using the mind to control the muscles. His big focus was on core muscles, and how they are related to the breath and alignment of the spine. He was passionate about having a system where people breathe better. And then he was fascinated with the question of what the whole body needs to do in order to breathe better.
Today Pilates is a series of exercises intended to develop control, precision, breath, and alignment. The goal is for the body to be in perfect function. It is a whole-body, core-based, smart movement form that balances the body. By really centering and making the breath pattern healthy, the skeletal alignment can come into a place where everything functions better. The organs have room to work properly, and breathing is optimized so every cell is stimulated and can clean itself out.
Peg: Thanks for that explanation. Maybe we should also talk about the Pilates reformer, because that is a big part of Pilates exercises. Aside from the mat series, which is all done on the mat, like yoga.
Arianna: The reformer was Joe Pilate’s first baby. He originally designed it from hospital cots, using the cot springs. A modern Pilates reformer has a frame and a horizontal flat platform - known as the carriage - that rolls back and forth on the frame. It's attached to the frame using springs, which can be adjusted to have different levels of resistance for different people and exercises. In the exercises, you sometimes sit, sometimes lay down, sometimes stand on the carriage, and move by pushing on the footbar or pulling on the straps with feet or hands, or a variety of other movements. The reformer provides specific types of support and feedback to the body.
Peg: One thing I want to point out for people not familiar with Pilates is that the movements in a beginning Pilates session are not difficult movements. I remember in my first session being on my back and moving my knees to my chest and thinking, “Well this is super easy.” Then, as you stay with it you start to learn that you can make the same movement from different muscles than you were originally using. And in more advanced classes, you learn that you can make movements that you wouldn’t have thought you could, if you use the right muscles.
Arianna: Yes, this other form of intelligence that is in the body starts to come forward. For some things you need to not think it through logically. You just need to surrender to movement. To feel your body and let it move in a way that will do what you’re trying to do. Pilates has lots of sneaky little things that get you to make that transition.
Peg: Sometimes when I try to describe how Pilates is different than yoga, I’ll point out that in Pilates you don’t stay with any one movement for very long, and you don’t ever stop moving for long. In yoga sometimes you hold poses long enough that it can feel tedious or painful. Which I know can be very beneficial in a lot of ways. But I just wanted to point out that difference.
How Pilates Helps Resolve Trauma
Calming the nervous system
Peg: You mentioned how important breathing is in Pilates. I am always looking for tools my clients can use to regulate their nervous systems. And the most basic one, which I always start with, is simple deep breathing. But I find, that people are usually looking for a bigger intervention. It’s so easy to miss what some deep breaths bring you: a little settling of the nervous system, a subtle increase in being grounded, and the ability to think a little more clearly. So having a practice like this that is so focused on the breath, is very helpful to create the opportunity to notice that.
Arianna: Here’s a little joke. Qi is the Chinese word for energy. So I say “breath is Qi.” Because breath is energy. It is life. And it is this thing that all other health revolves around.
That’s a poignant point about trauma too. Breath is one of the first things that we lock down on, unconsciously using rapid shallow breathing, when we’re in trauma.
Releasing stuck tension in mind and body
Peg: The thing that makes an experience traumatic, from a mental perspective, is that it overwhelms your nervous system’s ability to cope with it. And one of the most overwhelming experiences is to be helpless when something bad is happening. Usually if something big and scary is happening, and you have some control over it, you tend to not end up as traumatized afterwards.
Arianna: I have read that that’s because when we don’t have control, often the fight or flight response can’t be acted out. The person gets physically and mentally prepared to deal with something, but then they are prevented from taking the actions they prepared for.
Peg: Right. Peter Levine talks about animals in the wild who escape from a life threatening encounter. Once they are safe, they will literally shake off the trauma, by physically shaking themselves. They are completing the physical action that their bodies have prepared for. People don’t tend to do that for a lot of reasons.
Arianna: I see in people’s bodies that they get stuck, and their body is essentially replaying that fight or flight response with any stress factor that comes their way, no matter how mild. Anatomically, physically, I see that in the psoas, the deepest pelvic spinal muscle. It’s the primary muscle that contracts in the fight or flight response, to prepare you to run or fight. If you get stuck there, and the psoas stays contracted, it completely alters everything that happens in the body physiologically. This is where I overstep my training as a Pilates instructor, and start talking from my observations and reading and other sources. But I see it all the time. By working with the psoas and releasing it, that’s where we start to see changes on every level physiologically.
Peg: Because the psoas is literally maybe the most core of the core muscles, right?
Arianna: And it’s attached to the spine. So anything that’s happening with the psoas is communicating through the very center of us. Over time, hormonal flow is blocked, and structural patterns are changed, etc. So by opening things up again and releasing that, every bodily function can come back into a place that is more natural and more released. Then the mental recovery will be really supported by that.
Reconnecting the whole body and mind
Arianna: Early on when I started teaching Pilates, I noticed that in certain bodies, the top of the body and the bottom of the body didn’t seem like the same person. Later I learned that that’s a common thing that shows up after trauma. It’s like the person gets cut off at their center. So, I’ve seen time and time again how beautifully this work reunites the top and bottom of the body. And that’s the definition of being centered. To feel the whole body integrated. That’s what Pilates is all about. Bringing enough energy and presence to one’s center that a person can occupy and be aware of their whole body.
Peg: Yes, and in addition to the top and bottom of the body being separated, often after horrible physical experiences people’s mind and body become separated. Which means that you are no longer fully aware of what’s going on in your body. That’s one of the things that I’m always trying to work on as a therapist. Recovering from trauma is so much about tuning back in to what you are experiencing in your body.
Arianna: I’ve worked with survivors of many types of trauma, including survivors of car accidents, head injuries, sexual trauma and other violence. Of course, it shows up differently in every person, but there are similar patterns. There is a tendency for people to want to do anything to prevent themselves from being aware of feelings in the body related to their trauma. Sometimes people completely depart from sensory awareness.
One of the things that I’ve seen is that through a smart movement form – and it can be any smart movement form – a person can reclaim their strength and their presence. Because they find a way to be in their body and have control over what’s happening. And when they are cued to use their breath, they start actually breathing again.
Lets go back to the reformer. One thing about the reformer is that as the instructor, I don’t need to have my hands on students. They can be completely independent, and yet they can have support. Under their feet, under their head, under their back. That support from the reformer equipment gives so much feedback. People can then move, expand and contract. Essentially students end up doing the function of breath, with their whole bodies, via the reformer equipment that is supporting them. I think any position somebody can be in where they can feel support, and accept support, can have such profound effects.
Peg: Literally grounding.
Arianna: Yes. That’s where I’ve seen so much benefit. The equipment safely gives back some of the sensory system that has become so out of whack from trauma. And I can say, “Feel this. Feel your palms. Feel the space behind your heart.” But I don’t need to touch someone who doesn’t want to be touched, to make those points.
Peg: One of the things that I love about Pilates is that in every class, there is some instruction that I’m given that is very tiny, but makes a big difference in how I move or what I feel. And because of the instruction, I have to consider, “Am I doing it that way? Or another slightly different way?” I continually find these slight adjustments that feel so much better, or give me so much more power, or change the stretch to where I really need it. I love learning that detail. It’s like finally having an instruction manual for movement of the body.
Arianna: In that way, Pilates promotes self awareness and independence. To learn to be aware of different parts of the body during every movement is so empowering. To be able to occupy our whole body and have sensory information making it through to our awareness from our whole body. In Pilates we often talk about how we are meant to take in so much information from the contact of our feet with the uneven ground. But in the modern world, we rarely feel the ground with our feet. That’s why we always do Pilates without shoes on.
Peg: And the first exercise in any session is footwork, where you put your feet in a sequence of different positions and then move your whole body from those different kinds of grounded positions. So you start off by thoroughly exploring being grounded. Literally.
Arianna: Yes, and that support and groundedness then helps people feel safe enough to notice their strength and feel more present. If somebody’s body is physically guarded, if their head is always thinking and trying to be alert, they can’t be very present.
Peg: I think that’s related to a piece that I work on with my clients, usually a bit later in our work. Our sense of self gets so disrupted by trauma that people feel like they don’t know who they are anymore. So in therapy we try to help people get in touch with who they are again. I don’t think you can have a sense of yourself if you aren’t present. If you are always one step in the future, or reliving something that is already over. When you are finally able to be fully present in the current moment, though, that’s when you can start to feel and recognize yourself again.
Arianna’s Style of Pilates Instruction
Peg: Tell me a little bit about how you see your particular style as an instructor of Pilates.
Arianna: First of all, I want to say that some of what I’ve said here is outside of the scope of my training as a Pilates instructor. Because I’ve taught Pilates for so long, though, and because I have an interest in every way that Pilates affects bodies, I have a lot of thoughts about this that come more from a place of observing bodies and movement patterns for a very long time.
Peg: I understand. After a while, I’m sure that you’ve developed your own wisdom outside of the training that you’ve received.
Arianna: Right. Exactly. And I borrow from everything that I can possibly read, to understand the things that I see. I’m hungry for that.
Peg: I can tell that you are. One of the things I really appreciate about the way that you teach is that there’s depth to it. There always seems to be background to the things that you tell us in class.
Arianna: Well, I certainly want to come from that place. And it’s constantly evolving. And yet the basics always hold true, as well.
I’m also really interested in alignment, in terms of both structure and thought. I feel like they feed each other. I’m very interested in anything that allows the body to function more perfectly, so we are more efficient and we feel better, and our movement is more beautiful for it. I am a dancer and so I do have that wish for movements to be beautiful, both aesthetically and functionally. I also feel like I’m an educator. I want to impart whatever I know to help people move and breath better.
Peg: I’ve noticed that you frequently give us more information than just how to do the movement. For example, you’ll often say things like, “If you do it this way, then you’re going to end up engaging those muscles which will prevent this movement that gives you this benefit, and also you’ll find that your breath will be more shallow.” Or something like that. So then we can test doing it this way and that way, and you’re always right! We learn a lot about how everything is connected.
Arianna: Some might say that you don’t need any of those details. That you can just trust the work.
Peg: I think different styles fit with different people. And also sometimes it’s great to be taught by different teachers and get multiple perspectives and different instructions on the same movement.
How to get started
Peg: Let’s talk about helping someone start Pilates who may be trying to recover from trauma and is finding it hard to try new things What do you think is the easiest possible way to start?
Arianna: I don’t know if there’s one answer. One person may need to disappear into a group and not be focused on. Another person might need to be cradled.
Peg: True. So I guess it’s good that there are group classes one can take and also private sessions. I know you teach classes through Boulder Parks and Rec. Do you also have your own studio? Do you offer private lessons?
Arianna: Yes, I have a studio in my home with two pieces of reformer equipment, so I can work with up to 2 people at a time. And I can also do private sessions through Boulder Parks and Rec.
Peg: Great! As someone who has done Pilates through Parks and Rec for a while, I do generally recommend those programs as an affordable way to get started. There are some drop in classes there, and also you can sign up for a series of classes every winter, spring (two sessions – before and after spring break), summer and fall. Classes are offered at all three of the rec centers in town.
With some of the other activities I’ve included in this series, I’ve offered to meet people before the first class, and then go together. That way if it feels bad to go alone, you don’t have to do it! I’d be happy to do that again here for any of the drop in Pilates classes that Boulder Parks and Rec offers.
Conclusion & Contact Info
Peg: Thank you Arianna! It was really fun to talk with you.
For anyone who would like to reach out to Arianna for more information or to schedule a private session, you can contact her through Boulder Parks and Rec.
Also, please contact me if you are interested in having me attend your first Pilates drop in class with you, to provide support!
Was this interview helpful to you in your journey to heal or help others heal? Is there anyone else you would like me to interview, or additional information you’d like to see in these posts? Please add a comment below!