Most of us go through life shaped like frightened turtles: torso listing, shoulders slumped, neck perched forward in permanent...
MOST OF US go through life shaped like frightened turtles: torso listing, shoulders slumped, neck perched forward in permanent computer-screen-staring form. I see it in nearly everyone at work. Sometimes, I see it in the mirror. So it was a bit of an epiphany the first few times I tried Gyrotonic, an exercise system designed to elongate the body and strengthen ligaments.
Started by an injured dancer to cater to dancers’ training and rehab needs, it has steadily made its way to the general population — even some physical-therapy settings. The equipment, known as the Gyrotonic Expansion System, looks almost medieval with its wood frames, straps, cuffs and pulleys. The workout, though, is flowing and graceful. By the time I finished, I felt taller, looser, freer. I stood straighter, my shoulders were pushed back, and my chest had opened up.
I loved these sessions. The first 10, at a studio, are often supervised. That’s more expensive, but necessary, practitioners say, because the motions are different, even counterintuitive in today’s world, and form is everything. It’s fairly easy to pick up, but the form can always get better.
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Gyrotonic seems like equal parts Pilates, yoga, tai chi, gymnastics and maybe even swimming. When I was clicking, I felt the machine was an extension of my body. It was always smooth, but I wasn’t negotiating much weight resistance.
I spent considerable time sitting and maneuvering two cranks ahead of me and out to the side, then back toward my spine, emphasizing stretching my arms, shoulders and other body parts as far as they would go while keeping form. I took on the straps with leg and arm and even torso exercises with resistance-bearing pulleys. I soon found my body awareness and was able to catch my rhythm, increase my range and feel a nice energy. There were plenty of tough challenges as the routine employed some Pilates moves. I did “the wave” and “the dolphin” and other moves designed to work one vertebra at a time.
Gyrotonic, sometimes called “yoga for dancers,” was invented by dancer Juliu Horvath. He built much of the odd-looking equipment, all designed to move the body on multiple planes in reaching, circular motions. The goal is to move as freely as possible. Unlike most pulley-system exercises, there is no clunking or pausing; contractions and extensions seem to flow into one another.
I had the good fortune to work two separate sessions with Magali Messac and Karen Mullen, Gyrotonic “master trainers,” meaning Horvath trained and gave them permission to teach his system. Messac, who was one of Horvath’s first pupils, operates Gyrotonic Seattle. Mullen runs Gyrotonic Movement Center. Both had impressive professional dance careers and exude health.
Because it is so graceful and controlled and I never saw another guy doing it, I wondered if this was just for women. But apparently some professional baseball players and golfers do it.
Messac says while the “Pilates body” is tight and flexibly athletic, the Gyrotonic body has more the look of a dancer or a swimmer. Mullen says the best benefit of Gyrotonic is how it develops “true core strength,” which allows you to generate power with movement accuracy and ease.
Seattle physical therapist Anne-Marie Trombold uses the Gyrotonic tower and the Gyrotonic principles in her work with clients and to help her own workouts.
“I became fascinated by the work when I realized that it was a form of exercise that addressed the areas of weakness that I so commonly see in injuries,” she said. “Most weakness I find is at the end ranges of motion and in the transverse, or rotational, planes of motion. Gym exercises and most other forms do not incorporate these rotational motions, especially at the end of the range.”
I suppose that, as with any different form of exercise, you could hurt yourself doing this. So make sure your instructor is certified. You can find local studios by checking out www.gyrotonic.com/findastudio.asp. Any instructor listed on the Web site will be certified. Private sessions can cost $55 to $60 apiece, but you can get some discount by committing to more sessions. Independent sessions are far cheaper.
Whether Gyrotonic is worth your money is up to you. But it’s gentle and taxing as you’d like it to be. It got me thinking about taking more time each day to reach my arms out like they’re wings, pull my shoulders back more, see if my head can’t get back in line. And that is worth a lot.
Richard Seven is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.