Over the last 15 years Body Harmonics has offered specialized mat-based exercise for people with neurological disorders, namely Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson’s. Currently, we offer three classes each week at different levels. Once class, called Neuro-Active, includes resistance-based sequences using the Pilates Springboard machine. We have deliberately kept the program intimate and word of mouth is how many of our original participants arrived at our door. Today though, our program is well known to health care professionals looking for safe and effective programming for people with neurological challenges.
Talk about a loyal client base! Our “neuro” participants as they call themselves, miss classes rarely, if ever. Many of these devoted fans have been coming for 8+ years and some since the program’s inception. What’s the secret sauce to the program? First is an unwavering belief in the healing power of movement. Underpinning that is a systematic yet intuitive approach to exercise that is meant to serve and the capabilities of every body.
Support and connection: so much more than just Pilates
The first distinguishing feature of our neuro classes is the people who attend and how they care for each other. Open only to those living with a neurological condition, we see a deep sense of community in these groups. It doesn’t matter if you are a veteran of the program or a total newbie… there is a palpable feeling of support and connection amongst the participants. They show up early to chat in the reception area and they stay after class to enjoy tea and coffee in the café downstairs. A main reason for choosing our Dupont location was that Wheel Trans could pull up to the front door of the building.
What we didn’t factor in was the Faema café effect. The café would become a weekly meeting place very quickly, sometimes with eight to ten people around a table. We attribute a good portion of our neuro program success to all the socializing that happens after class!
What exercises do we do with neurological clients?
As far as actual exercise, we emphasize a neutral lumbar spine. We also advocate and teach spine mobility, but with an emphasis on neutral alignment in the lumbar region to minimize the potentially harmful effect of flexion on vulnerable bones, at risk for fracture. This is not to say that every person with a neurological condition lives with fragile bones but as a body weakens or rigidifies, staying in a neutral lumbar spine alignment keeps people safe and comfortable.
The mechanics of walking are integrated into every class too. The rationale behind this is that neurological disorders often lead to a compromised gait pattern that leaves a person vulnerable as they walk. People are afraid of falling and often rely heavily on external devices like walkers or canes to stay steady. We work to strengthen postural reflexes throughout the body and target the body’s balance centers with lots of work on feet and eyes. And, we consistently work to build appropriate support and mobility at all of the body’s major joints. Physically this translates to people being more upright for periods of time and feeling stronger. Mentally, they feel more confident and sure-footed. of key joints and build strength in the muscles that move us forward in space and aid in balance while standing and walking.
Cueing in neurological Pilates classes
How we instruct our “neuro” classes is key to making them work for the people who attend. Instructions are always deliberate and chosen specifically to engage the conscious brain before and during movement. This technique encourages neural pathways to strengthen and is key to neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to figure out new ways to do things.* The focus on helping people connect brain to body is how we work with the concept of neuroplasticity. Sometimes teachers use images for movements or muscles. Or, they may ask participants to visualize muscles contracting or lengthening. Or… and the list goes on. They point is, that by connecting brain to body, by actually thinking about what could be happening, the neural pathways for movement get stronger.
Class design considerations
The design of the class is also key. By drawing from the science of how to build a strong functional body, to respecting the capabilities of all the participants, linking exercises together in a deliberate sequence is always top of mind. Exercise sequences have different outcomes depending on the week. And, every movement has a purpose on its own and as part of the entire class. It is the design of the class that leads people to feeling so able-bodied at the end of an hour.
Adding resistance to neurological classes
One last comment about our Neuro-Active class… we bandied around the idea of offering such a class for a while. Then we tried out a few exercises in the neuro mat classes. The results were too profound to ignore. Because the springs provide resistance that is supportive and challenging, people are able to move longer and with more ease. It is almost like the springs help guide people as they engage and strengthen their muscles. If you are reading this and contemplating teaching this type of program – do not hesitate! Here are a few participant comments about working with the springs:
“I feel so much better after the class. I want to do this everyday.”
“I could hardly stand before I came, now I have so much energy
standing feels easy.”
“I can’t miss this class! It keeps me going.”
Who attends our neurological classes?
On our current schedule, classes are appropriate for people who are ambulatory, able to get up and down from a mat without extra assistance and move independently. Many participants use a walking aid, have challenges with their balance, cognition, co-ordination and/or mobility. So, the people we serve come with a wide variety of challenges and levels of ability.
Ultimately, we created this program for people to move as freely as possible, in a safe way that would leave them feeling well. We knew building functional strength would make daily living better. And, we understood the degenerative nature of many neurological conditions. Finding the possibilities for movement regardless of a person’s ability was and always will be our focus and that is the real secret sauce behind this program’s success.
To learn more please contact: [email protected]
* (Neuroplasticity, also known as brain plasticity, is an umbrella term that describes lasting change to the brain throughout an animal’s life course. The term gained prominence in the latter half of the 20th century, when new research showed many aspects of the brain remain changeable (or “plastic”) even into adulthood.)