How a Broken Collarbone Taught Me So Much

A Pilates Instructor Gets Many Lessons in Healing

core exercise
(c)Tina Hicks

An injury can sideline your life or become one of your greatest teachers. When Pilates instructor and equestrian Tina Hicks broke her collarbone at the beginning of an advanced Pilates teacher-training, she went for the deeper lessons. With the help of her instructor, Wendy LeBlanc-Arbuckle, Tina embarked on a journey of healing through alignment, movement and awareness that would challenge some conventional medical practice and lead her to a new way of teaching Pilates. Here, in her own words, Tina shares the story:

Most of us know someone who has broken a collarbone, or perhaps you've experienced this yourself. It's the most commonly broken bone in the body for the general population. If you participate in certain hobbies (like biking or riding horses) there's an even higher likelihood that an accident is going to net you a broken collarbone. And that's exactly what happened to me in February 2011 while horseback riding with a friend. As a life-long rider I have been fortunate to have escaped serious injury in previous falls - until this time, when I came off and in an instant had a broken right clavicle (collarbone).

Thus began an interesting six-month journey from break to full recovery. I chose to see this as an opportunity to listen and learn from my body rather than bemoan the fact that I was injured. What came out of that was an awareness of the importance of a pause in our movement and in our lives; learning to listen to my intuition and my body's deeper intelligence with regard to advice from the medical community; and how the deeper strength I already possessed from Pilates would still be there when I was able to function normally again.

The accident happened while I was in Austin, TX, as part of the year-long Balanced Body Passing the Torch Mentor Program with Wendy LeBlanc-Arbuckle, at the Pilates Center of Austin. Surgery wasn't considered necessary at that point, so I was given a sling and painkillers and stayed in Austin for the week of training as planned.

Clearly my experience for this week would be a bit different than I had envisioned!

The pain killers numbed the pain but didn't facilitate any relaxation of the body or mind. I had the feeling that I couldn't take a deep enough breath, not only from the pain of the break but also from my ribs feeling locked down. Pain is an interesting companion, as it affects the whole person so deeply. There's the physical sensation of pain; there's the manifestation in the body in response to it by bracing, folding in, guarding; there's increased heart rate, blood pressure and metabolism as the body deals with it from the inside out; and, perhaps most important of all, the lack of sleep. There's this sense that it's always with you, following you around, waiting in the corner for you to forget and take a deep breath or move too quickly. And so much of this is transparent to you until you are out of pain.

Adding to that, my body became tense with every breath and movement in an effort to stabilize the area and minimize pain. It was an odd sensation - almost as if I were wearing a corset. Which is exactly what I was wearing only on the inside - that corset was the fascia's reaction to this trauma, and it was severely limiting the movement of my ribs.

Wendy used a technique she developed that combines a specific breath pattern with a gentle swaying of the ribs to release that fascial corset. The relief in my body was immediately obvious to me and those watching. It literally felt as if the broken area had fallen back in alignment! This was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

Without that release, I could feel how even after the break healed, residual tension would remain and spread throughout my body. This would create imbalances, injuries and posture changes in seemingly unrelated areas of the body. Unfortunately this part of whole-body healing is not taken into consideration in the traditional medical community.

A couple weeks after returning home to Alabama I needed surgery. So three and a half weeks post-break a rod was inserted to further stabilize the collarbone. Eight weeks later the rod was removed.

My right arm was in a sling or otherwise immobilized for a total of 12 weeks during this process. Some of that time I was able to use my lower arm, as long as the upper arm was kept close to the body. However much of that time my arm was in a traditional sling - right angle at the elbow, arm across the body.

What I came to learn through Wendy and her staff is that, in this situation, it's very easy for the shoulder to internally abduct and the medial border of the scapula to wing. This happens due to the internal rotation of the humerus when the hand is held palm down in a sling. However, if the hand is placed in a palm up position the humerus is externally rotated. Which places the scapula and shoulder girdle in the correct position. Such a small change to have such a HUGE impact on the body. Especially over a three-month period of immobilization.

Reading about collarbone breaks will show that healing with an internally rotated humerus and the associated scapula/shoulder girdle issues is not uncommon. I know that Wendy's suggestion about how I held my hand/lower arm while in the sling allowed me to heal with the natural alignment of my humerus and scapula intact.

Ten days after the surgery to remove the rod, I was allowed to begin gently restoring mobility. Having seen Gil Hedley's Fuzz Speech and having been a student of Wendy's for several months by now, I knew that restoring the range of motion in my shoulder was about so much more than just my shoulder. While I did spend time stretching and moving my arm specifically, much of my focus was on movements that incorporated all of the body, such as roll-downs, passive hanging and other core practices I learned from Wendy.

I was careful to allow the breath to facilitate the release, which in turn allowed the fascia to provide support for the movement. This engages the perineural nervous system, which is responsible for wound healing and injury repair. I was now moving through the connective tissue body and from the place of the body's deeper intelligence.

Post-surgery I was still in the sling for quite some time. I became particularly conscious of each of the three cores Wendy was teaching us about: lower core (foot to pelvis); central core; (pelvic floor to respiratory diaphragm); and upper core (diaphragm to cranial base/palate), and their relationship to postural tone while sitting, standing and moving.

Going through my day without a sense of those three cores and their relationship to each other and to gravity caused some degree of pain around the break.

But moving with a sense of those three cores and how the breath connects them I noticed how the clavicle can hang in a soft, open manner and the arm can move more freely. For instance, by the simple act of exhaling I could feel the shoulder blades release down my back, the shoulder girdle widen and regain a sense of weight in my elbows. Wendy calls this "up the front, down the back."

I also found new value in the more traditional Pilates exercises while still in the sling. With this new-found sense of my entire body, footwork on the reformer and legs in straps on the cadillac became an instrumental part of healing. Supine (on the back) on the reformer with the shoulder blade supported I could move the hand and lower arm without rolling the shoulder forward and back. This is possible through the support of the interosseous membrane in the lower arm. Turns out that "up the front, down the back" applies no matter the orientation of the body!

While most are familiar with roll-downs and how to let the arms and head passively hang, it's the core practices I learned from Wendy that were another crucial part of my healing. She has developed a series of movements that brings a deeper understanding of our body's relationship to gravity and how to release into it.

Releasing down into gravity allows so much float and loft in the body.

This series of movements created by Wendy opens and stimulates the entire body while strengthening and invigorating it from hand to head to foot. I took these core practices from the studio to the barn to all over the house. How I did them post-surgery was radically different than pre-break, but that didn't matter. In fact that was the point! I was learning to explore the same concepts of feeling and moving the body that I have now. Rather than adhering to what I used to do or "should" be able to do.

After moving through these I found it much easier to go through my day with a greater sense of moving within gravity instead of fighting it. This ability to release into gravity gave me a greater sense of grounding and connectedness that filtered into my teaching. I began to change not just my cueing and language but also the manner in which I set clients up in their sessions.

What came out of my using these core practices for my recovery is a greater understanding for the importance of the set-up for movement - what Wendy calls the pre-movement. The pre-movement is a yielding to gravity without collapsing into it, which allows for a reciprocal tensional buoyancy throughout the entire connective tissue body.

This way of moving and being was the missing piece for my body and in my work with clients, and it revolutionized my practice. The pre-movement is vital to everything that follows; moving with a broken collarbone, on or off the equipment, allowed me to fully appreciate that.

The break served as a pause for me in so many ways, physically and mentally. Originally I had no choice, as my set up was so modified that I had to stop and think about where the weight was going, if I was finding the connection between the breath and the three cores, and how to break a movement down into its component parts.

As I recovered, I found that giving into gravity prior to movement became a way of moving and being for me all the time - not just when I was in the studio.

Now that I am fully recovered I am continuing to find more and more value in this pre-movement. And I am considering that the setup for a movement is always the foundation for the actual movement. It is this pre-movement that allowed me to fully restore the integrity of the shoulder girdle so easily. I did it not by focusing on that area as one would think, but rather by noticing its relationship to the rest of the body and letting my shoulder girdle guide my range of motion as it healed. When the focus is shifted from "what can muscles do" to "how can connective tissue support the muscles for movement" the way you move radically changes!

Tina Hicks is a Pilates instructor, certified trainer, and equestrian. Her Pilates studio Core Reaction Pilates is in Huntsville Alabama.

Much thanks to Tina for sharing her story! Share your Pilates Success Story