Working out on the nearly 7-foot-high "tower" and rack-like bench -- all pulleys, weights and cables set in a hand-hewn wooden frame -- requires a certain willingness to embrace compromising positions. Despite the fact that it looks more like King Arthur's universal home gym than a piece of modern exercise equipment, the Gyrotonic Pulley Tower Combination Unit is working its way into dance and fitness centers across the nation.
Gyrotonic exercise is "about where Pilates was 10 years ago," says Donna Place, a master trainer and co-founder of Peaceful Waves Healing Center in Long Beach.
The tower is the cornerstone of the Gyrotonic Expansion System, which also includes four smaller machines, for targeted workouts, and a system of floor exercises, called Gyrokinesis. The system is designed to build flexibility, strength, control and body awareness with continuous, fluid, circular motion. The resulting catlike stretching of the joints and muscles is referred to by trainers as simply expansion.
"It looks like torture," says Monica Bumatay, a Gyrotonic trainer at Beach Cities Health District Pilates Center in Redondo Beach, of the workout, "but it feels great."
Since 2000, the number of trainers and facilities offering the system has quadrupled, to an estimated 3,000 trainers and 1,200 facilities worldwide -- including more than 200 studios and fitness centers in California.
There are about 2,500 tower units now in circulation, several hundred of which were hand-built by the system's inventor. A home version, the Gyrotonic Transformer 1500 (introduced in 2003), is available in catalogs and at the Gyrotonic website for $395.
Although developed elsewhere, in spirit the tower is pure Southern California -- invented by a charismatic ballet dancer-turned-fitness guru, Juliu Horvath, who was born and raised in Romania but isn't interested in geographical boundaries. "We are all universal beings," he says.
Proponents swear that Gyrotonic exercise increases flexibility, coordination and posture and relieves back and muscle pain. Some say it can even improve a golf swing.
"Gyrotonics has helped me move in ways I haven't been able to move in years," says Laurie Barbarosh, a 38-year-old small-business owner in Tustin Ranch. She did Pilates for two years before switching to Gyrotonic exercises in September, she says. "Pilates made me stronger, but Gyrotonics has given me flexibility. I move like a kid again."
Suzanne Crawford, a 49-year-old fire restoration contractor in Southern California, turned to Gyrotonic exercises about seven years ago when weekly chiropractic treatments failed to relieve her aches and pains.
"It's made me much more nimble," she says. "I can move better, I'm more flexible, and my posture has gotten 100% better. It gets into your deep tissue, and your body hums."
Gyrotonic equipment is used in Europe for rehabilitation of orthopedic injuries as well as fitness, and some U.S. therapists have adopted the machines.
Suzie Mann, a physical therapist in Newport Beach, was hooked after one session.
"I realized that it embodied so many of the principles of physical therapy that I'd be a fool not to use it," she says. Mann has replaced manual physical therapy with Gyrotonic exercise for orthopedic problems such as back, shoulder, neck and hip pain and stiffness.
Horvath conceived the idea in the late 1970s after a ruptured Achilles tendon derailed his career as a ballet dancer.
Living at the time in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, he developed a yoga-like system of stretching exercises that he later named Gyrokinesis.
"Gyrokinesis was an evolution of many, many years," says Horvath, when reached by phone in Sydney, Australia, where he was training and certifying instructors while battling jet lag and a terrible cold. (Horvath wasn't interesting in projecting a guru-like invincibility. "I feel terrible," he says.)
"It was based on hours and hours of observations" of how the body moves, he says. Horvath is a little fuzzy on the timeline -- "I'm no good with dates, don't ask me about dates" -- but sometime in the early '80s he moved to New York, where he began building the smaller units and finally the Tower Unit, which some believe was introduced around 1984. Right? "Could be," he says.
The machines were intended to take the movements performed in Gyrokinesis one step further.
The most important feature of the various pieces of Gyrotonic equipment is that unlike most exercise machines, which are based on the idea of lifting weights on a straight line to a natural endpoint, the Gyrotonic wheels and pulleys allow for continuous fluid motion. Thus, instead of pulling a steadily increasing weight, then releasing it, there is constant tension throughout the movement.
And just as important, says trainer Place, the system allows for circular movement for maximum rotation and extension of a joint and surrounding muscles.