My fascination with Madonna dates back to 1984, when my 12-year-old cabin-mates convinced me to impersonate her in our summer camp's talent show. "Madge" looks different than she did back then, but, remarkably, not much. So my interest was piqued when I learned that I could experience her preferred exercise routine -- a "yoga with resistance" system known as Gyrotonic -- without venturing too far from home.
That's how I find myself in Pilates Space, a newly opened studio on Flynn Avenue in Burlington. Pamela Stone, the physical therapist who owns the business and acts as instructor, introduces me to a contraption of pulleys, cables, straps, benches, weight plates and rotating disks that looks like a medieval torture machine. The Gyrotonic Expansion System is nothing I'd ever contemplate using on my own. In fact, you can't. It's a two-person operation.
I'm working with a pro. Stone trained under Gyrotonic guru Juliu Horvath, a former ballet dancer. During the late 1970s, while trying to recover from a sore Achilles tendon, he devised a system of extreme stretches and arches he called Gyrokinesis. Based on the seven basic spinal movements -- forward, back, left, right, left twist, right twist and circular -- along with the workings of various joints, it incorporates principles from yoga, tai chi, dance and gymnastics. More than 10 years ago, Horvath used this methodology to design the Gyrotonic Expansion System.
"We're going to start with a little bit of legwork," Stone says. She has me lie on my back, then fits my ankles and feet into straps that are attached to 35-pound weight plates in the 6-foot-tall wooden tower behind my head. "Let me know if anything feels funny."
With my legs hoisted in the air, how can it not feel funny? But I keep my mouth shut and pay attention to Stone's gentle orders, perking up at her assurance that I'll be an inch taller at the end of this hour-long session. "Since this is called the Gyrotonic Expansion System, I want you to feel like you're lengthening in all different realms," Stone says. "But it should all feel good -- if anything feels bad, just don't go there."
As I move my legs back and forth in small, flat-footed walking movements, à la Charlie Chaplin, I immediately sense a stretch deep in my lower back that I've never experienced before; it's like unclogging a drain. Then I turn my feet out, like Mary Poppins, and note more loosening in my mid-section. "These movements work on the glutes, hamstrings, core stability and hip rotators," Stone says. "All different planes of motion."
Gyrotonic also incorporates the Chinese meridian theories found in acupuncture and acupressure. By aligning and adjusting my various body parts as I move, I'm supposedly allowing my energy pathways to open up; breathing deeply and rhythmically, as in yoga, is equally important. For the first 15 minutes I forget to breathe, and feel no special surge of energy. But as I do the bicycle, I start thinking that if all I need to do is lie back and fling my legs around, Gyrotonic is a snap.
It gets tougher when Stone asks me to combine scissors and circles. That's like patting my head and rubbing my stomach at the same time. Coordination turns out to be another essential component of Gyrotonic. That's why its leather-and-steel embrace is luring an increasing number of athletes. Swimmers, hockey players, tennis players and golfers have discovered that the hand-eye skills, along with the rotational stretching and strengthening, can help them not only feel better, but also crush the competition. "I'm seeing a huge increase in the number of athletes -- especially men -- taking up Gyrotonic," Canadian sports trainer Maureen Wilson told Outside magazine last year. "They're all looking for that edge that no one else has, and they can see how the movements in Gyrotonic will help in anything from their golf swing to rock climbing."
Since she knows I'm a tennis player, Stone has me work on my shoulder joints by repeatedly shrugging with my arms suspended in the slings; somehow, she also manages to isolate my shoulder blades, for another brand-new feeling in my back. When I interlace my fingers and make invisible halos around my head, my forearms, which are tense from typing all morning, suddenly slacken. "This is a way for you to find symmetry in your body," Stone says, and then adds, "or asymmetry."
Turns out there's plenty askew. My head tilts stiffly to one side. Later, as I sit facing the tower unit for the undulating arch-and-curl movement, my knees naturally knock together. And my feet keep splaying to the sides. "It's a lot to remember in the beginning," Stone says reassuringly. "I don't expect you to remember half of it. I want your body just to feel it. It takes a long time to settle in, because you've had 32 years of creating your own patterns in your body."
Instead, as I twist, turn and rotate in every direction, I think about my spine getting longer, and begin to feel a new source of grace, power -- and good posture. "There's a lot of theory about spiral movement in Gyro-tonic," Stone says. "We talk about the untapped potential of energy in the base of your spine."
Our $60 private lesson barely touches on the possibilities offered by the Gyrotonic Expansion System or Gyrokinesis, which requires no special machines. But by the end of the session, when she has me imagine that I'm holding a white ball of energy that will be spread over my head and shoulders, I don't feel like my former self. I don't feel like Madonna, either. But as I float out of the studio, with my muscles primed and my spine aligned, I do feel like singing.