‘Little’ miracles’ through Pilates

Rebecca Phillippo works with Body Wise Connection client Colleen Griffiths on the Reformer.

Body Wise Connection wraps an arm around people going through a difficult time, giving them some extra support and TLC.

It began with Joy Puleo’s friend Sandy, a breast cancer patient, telling her, “I feel like my body has abandoned me.” Puleo, a Pilates instructor who owns Body Wise Pilates Studio in Chappaqua, decided to help others going through this experience and in so doing honor her friend, who eventually passed away.

“Your world stops and circles around the big ‘C’ when you get the diagnosis,” she says. “There is fear and frustration.”

Puleo, who has a master’s degree in applied physiology from Columbia University, wanted to give breast cancer patients the opportunity to focus on the strength that their bodies still have during treatment and the healing process. Knowing the benefits of Pilates, she started the nonprofit Body Wise Connection in 2009 to promote healing through movement.

“Movement is the hallmark of health. When movement ceases, health suffers,” she says.

Joseph Pilates (1883-1967), who created a method of fitness that emphasizes the core muscles as a way to maintain proper posture, alignment and breathing , believed that through the “coordination of body, mind, and spirit … you purposefully acquire complete control of your own body.”

Puleo, who is the educational director of Body Wise Connection, saw this as a perfect match for women recovering from their cancer surgery and treatment.

Body Wise Connection is now open to all cancer patients. Once they are cleared by their physicians, they can receive 10 one-hour Pilates training sessions at no cost to them. Body Wise Connection is affiliated with and works out of the Cancer Treatment and Wellness Center at Northern Westchester Hospital in Mount Kisco, where it also offers a yoga class, and has also worked with the Dubin Breast Center at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan.

Puleo says these Body Wise Connection clients see “little miracles in their own bodies.” She feels great satisfaction having them leave with a renewed spirit. Among the Body Wise Connection success stories, Puleo is proud of Rebecca Phillippo, whose life changed after working with her.

“If there was ever going to be a silver lining in the cloud of my diagnosis, then meeting Joy Puleo was that for me,” says Phillippo, who was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 36 in April 2010. “Not only did the cancer diagnosis have a mental impact on me, but it had a physical impact, too.”

Cleared by her doctor after surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, she started the Body Wise Connection sessions in February of 2011.

“Pilates gave me confidence in my body. I could trust my body again and learn my new body, which wasn’t the same.”

Every client has different goals. Phillippo, an avid biker, was gearing up for a race and wanted to feel good enough to compete again.

“I was active throughout my treatment, and Pilates was the turning point to get fit again. Pilates really helped bring my strength back and continues to build my strength.”

Phillippo loved what Body Wise Connection did for her and wanted to give back.

“I started volunteering and helped plan their 2012 and 2013 Bike Wise fundraisers.”

The following year she was asked to join Body Wise’s board of directors. The board is in the midst of planning another community health-related fundraiser to be held in June.

Seeing the benefits that Pilates had for her physical, mental and emotional health, Phillipo, who owns a travel business, thought about becoming an instructor. She took a Pilates workshop with Puleo, who is a master trainer, and then went on to complete her training.

“Not only am I working for the nonprofit, but I am now running my own private Pilates practice.”

She works out of Puleo’s Body Wise Studio and sees Body Wise Connection clients there, too.

Phillippo clearly knows from experience what the Body Wise Connection clients are going through.

“The work we do is to bring some relief in a really scary time in their life.” And Phillippo is sensitive to the specific goals each client has. “Some have never exercised before, and some are very athletic like me. Everyone’s body heals differently.”

Phillippo and the other Body Wise Connection trainers, Kristen Briody and Doris Pasteleur-Hall, personalize the workout for each client and stage of recovery. Lorraine Phillips teaches the yoga class at the Cancer Treatment and Wellness Center.

“Treatment has a long-lasting effect on the body and knowing how to exercise properly with the limitations you may have is very important,” Phillippo says. She listens to the cancer survivors’ needs and keeps in mind the fear factor, too, as some clients are afraid to move.

“We try to progress if the client is ready. It’s up and down with treatment, and I know from my own experience that it is one step forward and two steps back.”

She is determined to help her clients believe in their bodies again. “The sessions are very private and a time for them to feel special when they leave.” Phillippo gets much satisfaction knowing that she is helping each client feel more confident and go about her everyday life, from performing household chores to physical activity. “I know it does good work, because I went through it.”

Sometimes being around other people who are going through this difficult time is not easy for someone who has just gone through it, which Phillippo acknowledges might’ve been a problem for her.

“I was surprised that I could handle it, maybe because the focus wasn’t on me. I am able to separate my own journey from theirs, which was helpful for me to get past my own diagnosis.”

Puleo has plans for the future of Body Wise Connection beyond the scope of Westchester.

“This is a very reproducible program. We have the core and infrastructure and developed a template. By connecting with other studios, we can reach thousands of people simultaneously across the country.”

Puleo says she sees it as an opportunity to create communities to work with hospitals and enrich everyone: “Moving the human body is a beautiful thing.”

For more, visit bodywiseconnection.org. 

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