Alison Shulman has always been active, whether hiking, cycling, or practicing yoga. But in 2012, thanks to arthritis and hypermobile joints, the 51-year-old reached a point where participating in any of them was impossible and even walking was painful. Looking for a solution, she sought out the advice of her physical therapist, who turned her onto a rather odd-sounding form of exercise: the Gyrotonic technique.
Shulman, a health and wellness communications specialist by trade, wasn’t turned off by the name, and gave it a go. “I felt relief almost immediately because I was able to move my whole body while still recovering,” she says. “Within six months, I felt like my biomechanics were stronger.”
Today she is not only a fan of the technique but a certified instructor. Those favorite activities of hers? All back in the mix.
The Gyrotonic technique, while still flying under the radar in mainstream America, is growing rapidly. More than 13,500 people in 72 countries have taken the instructor certification, and the biggest growth spurt took place in 2016. Some 40 percent of certified instructors are U.S.-based, and there are 14 studios in the D.C. area that offer the classes.
The method traces its roots to a Romanian dancer named Juliu Horvath. “He developed the technique in the 1970s after years suffering from debilitating injuries,” says Sarah Simpson, communications director for Gyrotonic technique. “It became impossible for him to continue his career.”
At that point, says Simpson, Horvath dropped everything to find his own personal path to healing and wellness. “He initially developed ‘Yoga for Dancers’ with the intention of sharing what he had learned with other dancers, helping them to heal from their injuries, and improve their performance,” she explains. “Over time, his work evolved and spread until it was eventually available to people from all walks of life in studios around the world.”
Explaining the technique is a bit difficult, say its aficionados. “It’s built on the idea that our body is like a gyroscope, always moving and changing directions,” says Michele Olson, a professor of exercise science at Auburn University. “It ends up being more functional than other techniques like Pilates, which operate from one plane of motion.”
Olson likens it to how a fish moves through water: fluid, twisting and flexing at the spine all at once. “Instead of a big lunge forward and then back, for instance, you’re going to move in big circles and give your joints more range of motion,” she says. “It’s fantastic for hip, shoulder, and spine mobility.”
Classes use mats or specially designed exercise machines, and instructors assist attendees in achieving a wave of motion, or a flowing of the spine. None of the movements takes place at right angles but rather in rhythmic, circular motions. Picture a small group of clients, seated on specifically designed benches, stretching their arms overhead and into sweeping, circular motion. Or standing, hands placed in a pulley system, moving their arms forward, back, and sideways, always involving motion at the spine.
“We get clients to a high level of spine articulation,” says Simpson. “All of our movements, even walking, involve spirals and curves. The Gyrotonic method involves diversity of movement using a variety of planes and relationships with gravity and assistive or resistive forces.”
Once trained, Gyrotonic clients end up more balanced, reflexive and prepared for anything life may throw their way — an unexpected step into a hidden hole in the yard, for instance. “Every movement is full body,” says Simpson. “We teach the body to move in synchrony so that it works in harmony with everyday activity.”
Shulman says that the technique helped her learn to think of the body moving in opposition all throughout her day. “You’re strengthening and lengthening at opposition points,” she says. “So if I am sitting, for instance, I am pressing my sit bones and pelvis into a neutral position while reaching up through the top of my head.”
Beyond the everyday citizen, there a lasting benefit for athletes, too, says Olson. “If you add in Gyrotonic classes a couple of days a week, it can balance out your training,” she says. “The best approach is to treat it as a practice, as you would yoga, where you are always evolving and building on what you have learned.”
As with yoga and Pilates, the learning curve with the Gyrotonic technique is long. Shulman estimates it took her four years to become truly adept at it. But she says it was well worth the time investment and is convinced she would have wound up immobile if not for it.
She also said it will help her as she ages. “Most people will have some sort of pain as they get older, but this is the answer to that,” she says. “I won’t have back, knee, hip or shoulder issues because I now understand the correct way to move.”
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