On the 3rd of September in 2018, I took a private Pilates class that would change my life forever. I had just given birth to my daughter four months prior to the class. Given the round-the-clock breastfeeding and constant carrying of my baby in my postpartum, I started to feel mild pain in my lower back muscles. Later I discovered that I had a small tear in my lower spine after doing a scan with a spine specialist. Although I managed to recover quickly and became symptom-free in a few weeks by working closely with a physiotherapist, I was still upset that my body was not as strong as it used to be.
Little did I know the real disaster had yet to come. In my eagerness to regain my pre-pregnancy strength so that I would be in the best position to take care of my daughter, I signed up for a weekly private Pilates class with an experienced instructor recommended by a friend. I’ve heard, time and again, that Pilates can be helpful for curing back pain and spine issues. Before my first class began, I explained my postpartum condition in detail to the instructor. She nodded constantly in response, signaling to me that she had processed and understood everything I was saying. She assured me that she has helped many people with back pain. I trusted her completely.
The class started. The very first set of exercises she asked me to do were repetitive sit-ups from a barrel. Rather than have my legs bent while performing these sit-ups, I was asked to keep my legs straight. She also pushed me to lean forward at the end of every sit-up such that my stomach was closer to my thighs. I later found out that these modifications added more strain to my lower back. I was exhausted, but still obediently obliged when she instructed me to perform more reps even though I was already pushing my limit.
The pain in my back became significantly pronounced over the week after my first class. I thought very hard about what I had done wrong but did not associate it with the Pilates class. The notion that someone who spoke so confidently about strengthening my spine could have damaged it unfortunately did not occur to me. Against better judgment, I returned the next week for another class with the same instructor. I informed her that my condition had deteriorated and that I did not know why. She assured me that my back would recover in no time after a few more classes with her.
We repeated what we did in the first class, only this time she pushed me even harder. I informed her immediately when I felt an obvious strain in my lower back while doing the sit-ups. She brushed it off, saying it’s common to feel strain when you exercise. She also explained that sit-ups train the upper back muscles and do not affect the lower back, which I later found out was untrue.
I emerged from this class feeling like my body was no longer mine. My body went on strike and my life has been turned upside down ever since. I was not able to sit down at all, not even for a few seconds, without feeling excruciating pain, after the class ended. My medical scans showed that the one of my spinal discs at the old injury site had ruptured, causing massive inflammation, a far cry from the state it was in prior to those classes. I now know that sit-ups cause a lot of strain to the lower spine and is not recommended for postpartum women whose cores tend to be weaker. This instructor not only modified the sit-ups so that they were more strenuous, but she also pushed me to go harder.
“I emerged from this class feeling like my body was no longer mine. My body went on strike and my life has been turned upside down ever since.”
It took me a few months to understand how serious the consequences of these two wrongly taught Pilates classes were. I was hoping that I would slowly recover in a few months by resting and doing the right rehab exercises. I was wrong. The excruciating back pain did not get any better for the first year after I took these classes. I barely left my house during this first year. Walking to a convenience store that was 15 minutes away was a challenge as it would make the pain flare up. My inability to sit down meant that I had to stand while eating and could not travel in any vehicle. Even lifting a water jar to pour myself a glass of water was a struggle because my spine could not bear the tiniest bit of stress. My heart broke every time I told my daughter I could not carry her whenever she begged me to. Most devastating of all, my plan to have a second baby was indefinitely delayed.
I would cry my eyes out every night because of the pain that prevented me from falling asleep. Two full years after that fateful day, I can still hardly sit down for a meal without experiencing pain. I have not enjoyed a pain-free day since the last Pilates class. The memory that someone who was supposed to know better pushed me to do something permanently damaging to my spine while assuring me it was good for me haunts me every day. My heart sinks at the thought that the same thing may happen - or perhaps has already happened - to someone else.
People say that injuries are unavoidable when you exercise, but I’m not sure if they understand some damage caused is permanent and some consequences will change your life forever. My recovery journey has been full of misery, despair and heartbreak. I’ve sought help from more than a dozen physiotherapists, functional trainers, sports doctors and so on - you name it, I’ve seen them all. A fair number of them worsened my already bad condition by making assumptions, adopting a one-size-fits-all approach, or even telling me things that were simply not true. At its worst, my spinal injury flared up so badly after a physiotherapy session that I had to be sent to the hospital in an emergency ambulance because my body had completely frozen and could not move at all. My overall health became badly affected as many parts of my body were deconditioned because the pain I suffered prevented me from moving much.
"People say that injuries are unavoidable when you exercise, but I’m not sure if they understand some damage caused is permanent and some consequences will change your life forever."
In today’s fitness world where the mainstream mantra is going beyond your limit, we’ve forgotten that our bodies were not built to be pushed to the edge everyday. Pain is not necessary for a productive workout; a lot of the time, it is a warning sign telling you to stop. It is still possible for us to be the fittest version of ourselves without breaking our bodies in the process. We need to learn to do the right exercises, the right way, at the right time.
I’ve had to equip myself with the right fitness knowledge to deal with my chronic pain. I’ve navigated the troves of misinformation both online and offline. I’ve also gotten to know many real fitness experts who are well-versed in their area of expertise and could really help many people like me and others who want to be fit and healthy but are not sure how. In my struggle to recover well, I have gained a significant amount of fitness knowledge on how to relieve pain, improve mobility and gain strength. I’ve also learnt how to tailor exercises to suit my body because I know how to listen to my own body now. I wish I had all this knowledge I have now two years ago. Our purpose of creating Sunnystep is to provide the best tools, knowledge and inspiration to help people move their bodies freely and happily; so that a tragedy like mine will never happen again.