By Shawna Korgan • Edited by Amanda Altman
On March 4, 2010, my husband Grant and I were “living the dream.” We had just married five months earlier in our favorite place on the planet, the Yosemite Valley, surrounded by love, magical friends and heart-filled family. Grant was a successful entrepreneur and the cofounder and president of a nanotechnology firm called NanoLabz. Grant’s company worked out of Stanford University’s Nanofabrication Facility to find cures for ocular tumors and breakthroughs in fields such as fusion energy. I was a personal trainer with a degree in exercise physiology and the proud owner of an 8,000-square-foot wellness facility.
Grant and I worked hard—and we played even harder. Grant introduced me to a whole new world of amazing adventure sports, experiences and activities. From backcountry snowmobiling and mountain biking to rock climbing and multi-day backpacking treks through the California wilderness, we would reach new heights, together. Life was pretty perfect.
But on March 5, everything changed. Winter still had a grip on the Sierra Mountains, and just after dawn, I watched Grant load up his snowmobile and pull out of the driveway to head deep into the Sierra backcountry. As a professional athlete, Grant was going out filming that day. He was working hard to finish a snowmobile film he was working on, when he overshot a jump and landed hard, just two feet farther than his intended landing area. Immediately, Grant burst-fractured his L1 vertebra, instantly sustaining a spinal cord injury that thrust him into a world with no feeling and movement from his belly button down.
From that moment on, Grant became my only “client”—my most important client. We set out to find the best programs, therapists, products and modalities to work toward and achieve the goal of 120 percent recovery. Our lives were dedicated to the work of helping Grant regain his cherished independence and reclaim the life we had envisioned with one another.
Although I had dabbled on the Reformer in the past, it was in the earliest moments of Grant’s rehabilitation when I had a newfound appreciation for why Joseph Pilates created this piece of equipment. I knew right away that Pilates was going to be at the heart of Grant’s journey. I also knew I needed it, too; to be there for Grant, I was going to need to keep my body both strong and aligned, to be able to lift and move his struggling body. (Cases in point: Months later, I was able to give Grant a piggyback ride down the beach and get him out on his surfboard so he could ride dream waves, such as Cloudbreak in Fiji and beyond!)
Throughout the course of Grant’s recovery, we have had the pleasure of working with phenomenal instructors, therapists and practitioners. One of these amazing individuals is a woman named Alejandra Monsalve, who lives and teaches Pilates on the Hawaiian island of Maui. Working with Alejandra deepened my understanding of the neurological connections within the body, and how we can utilize the Pilates platform to find new nerve connections. With a constant desire to always learn more, I charged soul-first into the Balanced Body line of instructor courses with the help of my friend, Natalie Garcia, in Reno, NV.
Now, in this moment, as I reflect back to standing in the hospital in 2010, I could have never foreseen the role Pilates was going to play, not just in Grant’s recovery, but in all of his athletic pursuits. It was Pilates and the Balanced Body Reformer that we used to train his body for a 2012 expedition to the Geographic South Pole, where Grant would become the first athlete with a spinal cord injury to literally push himself to the final degree of latitude on our planet, across the polar plateau, to the bottom of the world. I could never have foreseen just how impactful that piece of “obscure equipment” was going to be in our lives—enhancing and empowering our physical dreams and goals nearly a decade later.
From the Pilates community to the equipment, to the exercises and core principles we all live by, all I can say is that I’m forever grateful. I’m grateful that I listened to my intuition and followed my heart to pursue the path of Pilates, because it has forever changed my life.
Shawna shares the motivation, goals and more behind the partner mat sequence that follows.
On Why She Came Up With It: This partner workout was created first and foremost out of the necessity to make the matwork accessible to Grant. Make no mistake, I might be helping Grant’s body do the movements, but it is his strength, positivity and zest for life that keeps me inspired, motivated and able to continue pushing through the workout! I have always loved the power of partner work: Not only do you have an accountability partner that empowers you to show up, but you also get to encourage and challenge one another to push harder and reach for bigger goals. It’s also great to have a partner to help remind you to maintain proper form and technique. Life is better together, so why not craft your workouts the same way?
On the Benefits: The main goal of these exercises is to strengthen the core and the breath. Through the teachings of Peggy Hackney and Bartenieff Fundamentals, Pilates teacher Alejandra Monsalve reminded me that our breath is who we are, and that our core is our purpose. No matter what might be going on in your body, if you can connect with your breath and your core you will always have a foundation for increased strength and mobility. These exercises are also meant to help you connect your entire body from head to toe to get it working as one unit.
On Why She Chose Mat Over Apparatus: I wanted to keep it simple yet powerful. Mat is where Grant and I started his recovery process—in the hospital bed. We’re also on the road and in a hotel room many days each month, so it’s important that we stay creative and flexible so we can keep his recovery going no matter where we are. (That being said, I love our Balanced Body Reformer! There are so many variations and opportunity for progression in a supported manner. Grant and I have a Clinical Reformer with Tower, which resides in our living room—and makes for unforgettable dinner conversation with guests!)
On How Many Times to Do the Routine: Do it 3–5 times a week. It can also be used as a great warm-up for epic Reformer workouts.
On Her Top Tips: Keep your core engaged at all times, continue to breathe consciously, and most importantly, smile and have fun with it!
Partner Back-to-Back Breathing
Early in Grant’s recovery, sometimes the only movement we could do was to just breathe. This exercise became a powerful metaphor for always having each other’s back.
Why partner up: Not only will this exercise connect you to your breath and core, it will also connect you to one another and set the tone for working together in harmony.
Setup: Sit tall, back-to-back and head-to-head, with your partner. Bend your knees and place your feet flat on the floor. Place your hands on your shins or ankles and relax your shoulders.
1. Inhale for a count of 4, and then exhale for another 4 counts. Do a minimum of 5 breath cycles.
Tip: Imagine that you’re lying on the floor as you breathe—expand your back ribs into your partner’s back instead of the ground.
Modification: Sit with crossed legs if that feels more comfortable.
Because Grant currently has no feeling or movement in his feet, I’m always looking for ways to connect with them and work on proprioception. This is also a fun way for me to help him keep his legs up—and boy does it create some extra core and leg work for me!
Why partner up: In this fun approach to a classic, you’ll strengthen your core and deepen your breath connection; because you’re foot-to-foot with your partner, you’ll get a little stability work, too.
Setup: Lie on your back with your legs in tabletop and feet touching.
1. Engage your deep abdominals, extend your arms by your hips and lift your head, neck and tips of your shoulder blades off the floor.
2. Pump your arms as you inhale for 5 counts, and then exhale for another 5, taking either short or extended breaths. Do 10 reps.
Tip: Reach your fingertips toward your partner as you pump.
Modification: If it feels better for your low back, bend your knees and place your feet on the floor.
I’m always looking to engage Grant’s hamstrings in a supportive manner. This does the trick.
Why partner up: Although this is a core-specific exercise, you can really engage the back line of the body (i.e., the hamstrings, glutes, back muscles, etc.) by applying foot pressure.
Setup: Sit tall on the center of your sit bones with your knees bent and feet stacked. Reach one hand to touch your partner’s opposite hand (as if you’re about to shake hands), and bend your other elbow by your side.
1. Scoop your abdominals and slightly tuck your pelvis to roll back, and then inhale as you rotate your torso toward your bent elbow and look over your shoulder.
2. Exhale to return to center and extend your arm to “clap” your partner’s hand.
3. Repeat on your other side. Do 15–20 reps.
Tips: Keep your chin lifted. Before you return to the starting position, re-engage your abdominals to support your back.
Modification: Omit the rotation.