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Nothing but a G-thing

Is Gyrotonic the next big craze, or is it just crazy?

READY FOR TAKEOFF Chicago Northshore Gyrotonic owner Alissa Seim demonstrates the Gyrotonic Expansion System.

Gyrotonic is one of the great mysteries of the exercise world. There are signs popping up in gyms and Pilates studios advertising it, but what is it? I couldn't tell. Even after hours of researching for something tangible on the Internet, I felt I knew less about Gyrotonic (or "that G-thing," as I'd taken to calling it) than when I started. I'd confirmed that it falls into the yoga/Pilates category but that, according to its champions, it's an innovative system like no other. I still felt in the dark.

So I ring up master trainer Alissa Seim, owner of Chicago Northshore Gyrotonic, for some answers. We spend an hour chatting, and I still have only a faint concept about what it actually is. "Gyrotonic makes the body happy," Seim says. "It's like a massage but better because it's something you're giving to yourself." Better than a massage? That's when I become hopeful. In preparation, I even browse GirlShop.com for the perfect Gyrotonic outfit (which looks a lot like the perfect yoga outfit).

Seim explains that there are two distinct G-things—Gyrotonic and Gyrokenesis. Both fall under the umbrella term Gyrotonic Expansion System and were invented in the early 1980s by former Romanian dancer and gymnast Juliu Horvath. Horvath describes Gyrotonic as "yoga for dancers": It blends principles of gymnastics, swimming, ballet and yoga to form what has quickly become a stand-alone system of movement complete with certification, equipment and dedicated studios—and an iron-clad patent.

Gyrotonic is taught in private sessions or small classes using large-scale equipment, while Gyrokenesis is performed sans equipment (except for stool and mat) and in a group format, like a Pilates mat class. Seim's studio offers both. Located in downtown Evanston, CNS Gyrotonic is a Zen version of Pottery Barn—it's a small, airy space decorated in light woods, trickling fountains and strewn with girly fitness magazines.

I arrive for my Gyrontonic session, settle into a cushy couch and find two thirtysomething women strapped into what looks like medieval torture machines breathing loudly while kicking in sync. A middle-aged guy on a third machine and a young woman on a Pilates Reformer (which the studio also teaches) round out the client crowd. The three instructors in the room are all impossibly tiny, and Seim is the smallest of them all. (Thankfully, this is a coincidence; being pint-size is not mandatory.) Five minutes with Seim, a former dancer who describes her body as one that "lacks excess," and I feel like I am taking up too much space. What Seim lacks in size, however, she makes up for in energy.

She bounds over to me, and we begin our session with a Gyrokenesis warm-up. I sit on an 18-inch stool and arch, twist and curl my back in various iterations for about five minutes—think seated cat and dog yoga poses. Sure I feel silly, but my back is beginning to feel noticeably more limber.

Properly warmed up, we move onto Gyrotonic and the medieval torture machine, which is two separate and detachable medieval torture machines—a handle unit with two rotating discs and a pulley tower with various weight plates and ropes. Seim explains the straps and pulleys. Anyone who's seen a Pilates Reformer will get the basic concept: weight-adjustable resistance manipulated with straps controlled by the arms and legs.

Standing, sitting and lying down in various positions, you move through six "families" of body parts: spine, upper legs, upper body, lower legs, abdominals and shoulders. Seim says the ultimate goal is "bringing a person back to themselves and opening them up so they can realize their physical potential." I say it's essentially 3-D resistance training.

The leg workout is a perfect example. Seim directs me to lie on my back. She then places my feet into straps hanging from the pulley tower behind me. With her help, I move my legs through four to five swimming motions. I bend at the knee, dive through the air and point my knees out as in a frog kick. The pulley is surprisingly flexible. I feel graceful as I point and flex my way through swanlike movements. According to Seim, by pressing my legs together I am working my thighs, and by lifting and lowering my trunk I am working my core. At the gym, I'd use separate inner-thigh, outer-thigh and abdominal machines, but it seems Gyrotonic works all three at once.

I can't say my legs are shaking with intensity or that the following day I was too sore to move, but I'll take that as a plus. I notice, too, that certain body parts seem to respond better to Gyrotonic than others. My hamstrings quiver under the weight of the straps in one movement, but my upper back feels inactive and bored during another movement.

The advanced students in the room seem to be breathing hard and flushing under strain while I haven't even broken a sweat. This, it seems, is intentional. Instructors avoid discussing breath work until the third or fourth session so as not to overwhelm new clients.

In fact, Seim says the learning curve is steep, but clients prepared to practice twice a week should see results within a month or two. "People who have success are the ones who agree to do this," she says. "Those who are dedicated and patient will see unbelievable results." She describes the Gyrotonic body as long, lean and lithe, "like a ballerina's."

I don't know how balletic I look, but the straps do allow me to glide through the motions like I am swimming on land. At other moments, I feel like a gangly klutz. Even though I am given lots of leeway and help, the movements are measured and precise—just as you'd expect from exercise created by a dancer for other dancers: It's beautiful to watch, but sometimes hard to mimic.

Session over, my body is noticeably looser. Would I do it again? At $65 a lesson, I'd have to see some serious changes pretty quickly to continue the habit. I may still get the Gyrotonic outfit. If the G-thing doesn't work out, I can always wear it at yoga classes.

Where to try it:
Chicago Northshore Gyrotonic, 522 Davis St, Evanston (847-866-9655, www.cnsgyrotonic.com).
Chicago River North Pilates, 232 W Institute Pl between Wells and Franklin Sts (312-751-1256).
Core Connection, 1363 W Fullerton Ave between Wayne and Southport Aves (773-296-9660, www.coreconnectionchicago.com).
Lincoln Park Athletic Club, 1019 W Diversey Pkwy between Sheffield and Seminary Aves (773-529-2022, www.lpaconline.com).
The Movement Studio, 1811 W North Ave, suite 202, between Wood and Honore Sts (773-489-0484, www.themoementsudio.com).
Water Over Stone, 3309 N Clark St between Buckingham Pl and Aldine Ave (773-755-1347).

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