Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Gyro What?

What in the world are these people doing? Are they out of their minds? Is this some weird form of torture? Or a new form of exercise for the criminally insane?

Nope. This is Gyrotonic. And believe it or not, it rocks.

My world of exercise was shrinking fast. A chronic lower back problem forced me to give up Pilates. All those moves with legs overhead and a slow, vertebra by vertebra descent were more painful than multiple shots of Novacaine at the hands of a sadistic dentist. Then a bum knee hampered my developing yoga practice, turning Warrior poses into Wimp poses. What was I, a believer in regular exercise, to do?

The answer came in the form of three people perched on what looked like contemporary torture racks - though none of the apparent students evidenced any pain. Instead, they were grasping handles and somehow moving their upper bodies in wide circular configurations that resembled stirring a huge pot of soup. Or mixing a witch's brew. I was intrigued.

The system of stretching and toning rotational exercises - most of which are done on the contraption called the "tower" (see photo above left) - is called Gyrotonic. Often described as a yoga/dance//Pilates hybrid, Gyrotonic was developed by a former gymnast, dancer, and swimmer who, after injuring an Achilles tendon, devised a system of yoga and then designed the "tower" to provide mild resistance that complements the moves. I had to try it!

It's been a while since I've felt like a klutz. And though my private instructor moved slowly through the basics of Gyrotonic - the repetitive cycles of circling movement and rhythmic breathing, arching my back and curling my spine, narrowing my hips - I felt like a bench warmer thrust into a varsity game. The work demanded my full attention and challenged everything I thought I had down pat: coordination; rhythm; strength, and endurance.

Yet there was something about Gyrotonic that felt familiar. So, I stayed with it. Slowly, I began to get the hang of it and, with progress, began to understand how yoga and dance had been integrated into the system. All the arching and curling of my spine made it stronger. My posture improved. I was less inclined to initiate movement from tense and hunched shoulders and more able to keep the shoulder wings "in my back." My hip flexors gradually opened, allowing me greater range of movement in Gyrotonic and in everyday life.

The "no pain no gain" theory of exercise is happily not part of the Gryrotonic creed. Sure, there are mornings after when I have a sore muscle here or there. But most of the time, even after sessions in which I've done things with my body never thought possible, I'm whole. It's been 9 months since I started doing Gyrotnic, and I haven't had to see the chiropractor once.

Gyrotonic is not for those on a tight budget. A private, one-hour session at Chicago North Shore Gyrotonic in Evanston, IL, where I study is $70. (The 3-session introductory package saves you $50.) There are semi-private and sessions for three available by appointment. And there are classes at varying times during the week. Once you know what you're doing, you can spend an hour on the equipment without instruction for $20. That's what I've started to do.

Like Pilates before it, Gyrotonic is growing by leaps and bounds. A March 5, 2001, Forbes article titled "Do the Twist," stated that there were 218 Gryrotonic studios worldwide, with 126 in the U.S. Today, boasts 1400 studios around the world, with 859 in the good ol' U.S.A. (Check out the web site for a studio near you.)

If I were maybe 30 years younger in search of a new career, I might consider becoming a trained Gyrotonic instructor. For now, I'll have to add that to my "Things I Want To Do in My Next Lifetime List" behind professional dancer and best-selling author.

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