How Pilates Saved My Life

by Risa Sheppard

“You have a benign tumor in your right inner ear,” the doctor told me. “It’s called an Acoustic-Neuroma, a growth within your inner ear that presses against your brain, and you need to have it taken out.”

I had been feeling dizzy and nauseous. Something was wrong. Unaccustomed to feeling ill, the doctors had first shrugged it off. They wanted to send me to a dizziness specialist. I insisted on an MRI of my head.

I thought, If it’s not going to kill me, just take it out. I’ll be out of work a couple of weeks, and then I’m back. Little did I know how long the recuperation would actually last.

I was off work for three months. I know it could have been longer, had I not been committed to Pilates for more than 30 years. I also know that this changed my life, confirmed my path, and excited me to tell my story.

It was June 2006. I had expected a busy summer. A friend’s wedding was coming up, along with another Sheppard Method certification in August, and a lot of clients depended on me. I had no time for surgery! But, as the saying goes, life happens, when you’re busy making other plans. So, I “took care of business” and scheduled the operation.

The operation lasted seven hours, after which my brain started to swell. I was put on life support, which necessitated a second operation to install a shunt to drain the fluid from my brain. My scheduled five-day hospital stay stretched to three weeks.

I believe that the constant vigil held by my husband and father and the hope and encouragement offered by an amazing number of my own Pilates teachers, who came by regularly to stretch me out, helped to facilitate my healing process. To this day, I credit the use of Pilates for my physical and mental recovery, knowing it accelerated the healing process and allowed me to get back to work full time faster than the doctors had anticipated.

At home, I knew I had the power of mind to heal. I kept repeating, “Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better,” or as Winston Churchill once said, “The best way to get through hell is by putting one foot in front of each other.”

Some of my friends thought I would never work again. Others were afraid I would never speak well again. I proved them wrong.

I missed my studio. I woke up one morning thinking that if I didn’t go back to Pilates I would go insane. I remember a client saying to me, “Risa, I don’t care if you sit next to me and fall asleep, just come back and let me work.” I agreed to meet her the following week.

I’ll never forget when I walked back into the studio for the first time since the surgery: It felt like I came home.

I was weak at first and started slowly. However, Pilates came back to me—it was like riding a bike. It felt great to be working again. Every session I pushed myself a little more, and little by little, I added a new exercise movement. As my strength started to return, I became less foggy headed and more clear. With the help of my trainers, I was getting better everyday.

For a long time I had been on the opposite end of physical, occupational and speech therapies. A very important thing I learned during my own recovery process was the difference between being a good teacher and a great teacher. Good teachers know what they’re doing, but a great teacher truly loves what they’re doing and really cares for the people they treat.

Today, four years later, I am feeling and doing better than ever. I am able to teach others with a new sense of passion and method. I opened a second studio and continue to teach teacher certifications and seminars. I truly feel that if it had not been for Pilates, I wouldn’t have been able to get back to life this quickly and successfully.

The grace and control of Pilates has shown me that this is the best workout for the body, mind and spirit. No matter your age, ability or circumstances, Pilates can make it that much better. At 57, I feel like I am just beginning.

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