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Dancing with Weights

Combining yoga with dance and swimming, Gyrotonics is the best thing you can do with one very scary-looking machine

By Gretchen Giles

On a recent bright winter morning at Studio M in the Sonoma Valley, equine veterinarian Sandy Schuler waits patiently on an oak and steel bench for a trainer to fit double straps over her stockinged feet. Rising up like a tower, the contraption behind Schuler bears a glancing resemblance to a traditional exercise machine, albeit one designed during a moment of fitness repentance by the Spanish Inquisition. Lying down on the bench, lower back flat, abdomen energized, her feet strapped with pulleys to 60 pounds each of weights, Schuler raises her limbs toward the ceiling and begins not to cycle, but to swim.

Madeline Black, Schuler's trainer and the owner of Studio M, adjusts Schuler's shoulders and hips gently as the pulleys make a soft hissing sound. After a short series of repetitions, Black quietly stops Schuler, who releases her legs back down while breathing in a careful pattern. Freed from the pulleys, she sits up while Black busies herself with weights and pulleys for the next set of exercises.

Schuler, an endurance rider who is used to going long, hard distances on her horse, is practicing the Gyrotonics Expansion System, known simply as Gyrotonics. Developed by Romanian athlete Juliu Horvath--a former ballet dancer who defected from his country in 1970--Gyrotonics combines the art of dance with the concentration of yoga, the core strength focus of pilates and the free, joyful, large body movements of swimming. Over the course of an hour, Schuler will move as though performing the butterfly swim technique, mimic the rigors of rowing, assume the semblance of energetic prayer and sweep her arms around her torso in a strong, graceful pose more often seen in Swan Lake than an exercise studio.

But all references to familiar movements aside, Gyrotonics is unlike anything else.

"It's totally new," stresses Black, who has been a fitness trainer since 1990 and who became a Gyrotonics devotee in 1995. "It's not related to anything. You can draw parallels between yoga and pilates, but it's not either of them."

Horvath developed the technique after injuring himself, as ballet dancers are wont to do. He refined a technique for rehabilitation that he initially termed "yoga for dancers," evolving his concept of better training for the human anatomy so that bones and muscles weren't compacted and crunched during training, but rather elongated and energized. "It alters the nervous system," Black says. "Your bones move and your muscles connect."

Gyrotonics is all about the spine and can be practiced without the tower that weighs Schuler down, but rather simply seated on a stool in a series of swiftly changing movements that entirely awaken the spine in a technique known as Gyrokinesis. "You get a sense of 'core' in the pelvis," Black explains, "but you get movement in the spine." What you don't get is old-fashioned cardio movement, though Gyrotonic practitioners claim the glowing feeling of blow-out exercise afterwards and claim the benefits more commonly associated with aerobics. Black explains that Horvath, who is admittedly a bit eccentric, feels that "the typical cardio workout is very chaotic. He thinks that it does a disservice to the body versus doing movement continuously" in the more fluid, balletic style of gyrotonics.

Horvath initially built all of the gyrotonic workout towers himself, incorporating strength resistance with such pat-your-stomach-and-rub-your-head conundrums as wheeling one hand clockwise while the other works counterclockwise. Almost without exception, the movements are round, gentle and circular, rather than the angular thrusts and repetitions of more familiar exercises. Horvath has developed some 50 sets of exercises based on the cycling movements of the circle. And while many enjoy the Gyrotonic workout for the great rush of energy it delivers at the end and the strength it imparts, it is used just as regularly as rehabilitation therapy.

For Schuler, the focus is on healing old injuries and learning to better present on her horse. Riders who sit even slightly askew on their animals risk damaging both themselves and the animal over time, particularly during grueling endurance races. Even though she's been practicing with Black for nearly a decade, Schuler feels that the trainer's oversight remains necessary in order to get the full benefit of the machine and the technique. "People have holding patterns they may not even be aware of," Black explains. "By being guided, you can move into and through those."

Plus, there's an additional benefit. Black smiles, "Some people say that it's almost like getting a massage while working out."

Movement Methods

Gyro you go--Gyrotonics in the North Bay

While Studio M claims to be the only studio in Sonoma County that is fully outfitted with Gyrotonics equipment, there are many--mostly pilates--studios in the North Bay that teach the methods. Expect the focus to be more on Gyrokinesis, which is done while seated on a stool without the weights and pulleys of the custom-designed machines, than with the "tower" necessary for a true Gyrotonic workout. The Sebastopol-based Moving from Within is particularly recommended by Madeline Black of Studio M for one-on-one instruction.

As the equipment and the training are specialized and personal, Gyrotonics isn't necessarily a bargain, though the benefits may belie the cost. At Studio M, a private one-hour session with a master trainer begins at $80 and drops with package purchases; a nonmaster trainer starts at $65; a semiprivate session begins at $45; and a single Gyrokinetics class is $18.

Basic Do's and Don'ts:

  • Be sure to ask if the instructor is a master instructor, has been taught by one or has one available on staff.

  • As Juliu Horvath is still very much alive, find out if the instructor has met him or had any personal training with Horvath. New training methods can be quickly distorted if not practiced and refined with rigor.

  • Gyrotonics is a very hands-on discipline, with even those who have been practicing the exercises for years still finding benefit from one-on-one training. Don't expect to learn the moves after a session or two and then be on your own.

  • Gyrotonics is a individual endeavor, so an instructor needs to know the limitations, injuries and expectations that any client may have. Unlike weight training, repetitions of each movement may be few; this is no drop-and-give-me-50 method, but rather focuses like yoga on being in the moment of the movement. Horvath is famous for saying that when the mind wanders, the body is done.

  • Gyrokinesis is best taught in small groups of some six participants at a time. This allows the trainer to offer the necessary individual attention. Avoid large classes if offered.

  • While strong, long muscles are a pleasant result of Gyrotonics, this system is widely used for rehabilitative work by physical therapists. It is excellent for those suffering arthritis as well as the ordinary rigors of advancing age. Don't expect to walk out of the studio buff and ripped; do expect to walk out feeling energized, physically adjusted and strong.
  • North Bay individuals and studios affiliated with the official Gyrotonic Expansion System:
    Sonoma County
    Eiger Method, 7 Raffles Court, Petaluma. 707.280.4428.
    Pamela Lindsey, 525 College Ave., Ste. 215-A, Santa Rosa. 707.479.7045.
    Moving from Within, PO Box 799, Sebastopol. 707.829.2516.
    Pure Movement Studio, 2312 Bethards Drive, Ste. 7, Santa Rosa. 707.569.8870.
    Studio M, 721-B W. Napa St., Sonoma. 707.938.5593. www.studiompilates.com.
    Marin County
    Embodies, 824 Fifth Ave., Ste. A, San Rafael. 415.460.6464.
    Personal Best Fitness, Pt. Reyes Station. 415.279.7719.
    Pilates in Nature, PO Box 814, Pt. Reyes Station. 415.269.9447.
    Spiral Motion @ Body Image, 23 Reed Blvd., Mill Valley. 415.297.2095.
    Symmetry in Movement, 524 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. 415.305.8056.
    Lisa Townsend, 201 Mesa Road, Bolinas. 415.717.6153.
    Napa County
    Summit PT, 1070 Summit Ave., Napa. 707.252.1229.


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    From the January 18-24, 2006 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

    Copyright © 2006 Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.

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