The right moves

It may look like torture, but gyrotonic, an exercise therapy combining elements of yoga, t'ai chi, ballet, gymnastics and swimming, is set to become bigger than pilates. Julia Stuart gets strapped in

When I was asked to put my foot into a strap on a pulley attached to what looked like a Heath Robinson-esque torture kit, I did think twice about it. As it was, I could not walk without pain for more than an hour, dancing was out, as were heels (and therefore skirts) and skiing. My life had come to a halt.

I had developed Achilles tendinosis (the degeneration of tendon fibres due to overuse) in one heel, probably through working out at the gym or jogging. For months, I ignored the signs of tightness in the back of my foot first thing in the morning, dismissing it as "just one of those things" that would go away. It didn't. Physiotherapy didn't help and, after weeks of treatment, my osteopath suggested the gyrotonic expansion system, dubbed the "new Pilates", as a method of rehabilitation.

The system, used by the film stars Julianne Moore and Liv Tyler, incorporates the movement principles of t'ai chi, gymnastics, swimming, ballet and yoga. It is said simultaneously to stretch and strengthen muscles, while stimulating and strengthening the connective tissues in and around the joints. It is performed on a one-to-one basis with an instructor on hand-operated wheels and foot-operated pulleys, both of which create resistance. The exercises are performed in undulating, spiral and circular movements. Special attention is paid to increasing the functional capacity of the spine, and each movement has its own yogic breathing pattern.

The system was developed by Juliu Horvath, a Hungarian ballet dancer. While a principal dancer for the Houston Ballet, he ruptured his Achilles tendon, ending his career. He went on to develop what he called "yoga for dancers" and opened his own studio. In the mid-1980s, he created a machine to help dancers to achieve a better turn or pirouette. Non-dancers started using it, and he developed it into a system anyone could work with. It is now used in rehabilitation centres, dance studios and sports-training and fitness facilities all over the world.

Fiona Foley, an instructor who works in north London, has used the system to help clients with problems such as scoliosis, polio, arthritis and lower back pain. It has also been used by people suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome, osteoporosis and osteoarthritis. Others use it simply as a form of cardiovascular workout, as the speed and pace of a movement can be increased to make the body work harder. The television presenter Julia Carling credits the system for helping to get her pre-baby figure back. Some people have treatment for a number of weeks, others for years.

"Gyrotonic can be beneficial for a wide range of people," says Fiona, a former ballet dancer. "It's an excellent tool for remedial work or to obtain a higher level of fitness. The movements are pleasurable to perform and have many benefits. In one movement you can be opening and closing the spine, regulating the breath in a calm and rhythmical way and exercising the musculature and joints all at the same time. It's a bit like dancing with the machine."

While gyrotonic is similar to Pilates, there are significant differences. "I practised Pilates for many years," says Fiona, who from this month will work with dancers at the Royal Opera House in London. "It's an excellent system, with many benefits. It tends, however, to be more static and performed in a two-dimensional, linear way.

"With gyrotonic, however, you are working with continuous movements that are soft, fluid and multidimensional. You are often moving off the central axis of the spine. Also, in gyrotonic we are using weight resistance rather than spring resistance, so, for instance, when you are exercising the legs, the triple threading of the pulley allows for a complete freedom of movement, but with low impact to the joints."

In Britain people work on a one-to-one basis with an instructor - there are 29 studios in England and three in Scotland - but the system is so popular on the Continent and in America that group classes are held. Some Pilates studios in the US are converting totally to the gyrotonic system, and many offer it as second option. More than 70 per cent of people training to be instructors are Pilates teachers.

Simon Freeman, 33, an IT company director from London, has trained with Fiona for two years after his wife, who found gyrotonic beneficial for scoliosis, recommended it. "I was having lower back problems, probably because of carrying a heavy laptop around," says Simon. "When I went to twist to pick things up, I would feel a pain. It helped me with my posture and exposed how lopsided my body had become. I could twist in one direction about 50 per cent further than in the other. Over time, my back pain disappeared and I can virtually reach all positions. Before starting, I couldn't touch my calves. I can now bend over and put my palms flat on the ground. It was remarkable.

"And it was on the whole entirely pain free, because it's so gentle. When you leave, it feels like floating when you walk. You tend to walk round with all your aches and pains, and a good stretching means that they all go. I carried on going because it gave me more energy as well. I work 10 or 14 hours a day sometimes, and quite often six or seven days a week. It's also reduced my stress levels and made me feel five years younger from a mobility point of view."

Dorothy Hudspeth, 77, who suffers from arthritis and scoliosis and has had a hip replacement, started using the system just before Christmas. The retired teacher, who for many years practised Pilates, with considerable benefit, has decided to stick to the gyrotonic system only. "It's been fantastic for me. I went the Friday before Christmas for the first time because I was in real pain. On the Saturday I woke pain free. I couldn't believe it. I do think it's remarkable. I find it superior to Pilates. I think it's because of the resistance. I feel much improved and I'm telling everyone about it."

I too found the experience relaxing and pain free. After warming my body up by slowly turning the hand-operated wheelbases, which feels like twisting enormous salt-grinders, I had to perform a series of exercises with my legs attached to the pulleys. Some were bicycling movements. In others, I had to imagine sliding alternate heels down the inside of a giant balloon.

When I walked out of my first session, my problem leg did feel pleasantly stretched, something I wouldn't have dared to attempt on my own. And while I know there's no chance of hitting the pistes this season, given time I have high hopes of being able to kick my (high) heels up on the dance floor again.

Fiona Foley's studio is at Bodymatters, Belsize Village, London NW3 (020-7419 7900). To find an instructor near you, go to www.gyrotonic.com

Gyrotonic: the new way to stretch yourself

Gyrotonic is performed on at least two machines - a cable pulley tower and a bench.

It differs from pilates in that the exercises are performed in undulating, spiral and circular movements.

It can be used to relieve conditions from arthritis to lower back pain and chronic fatigue syndrome - or just as a cardiovascular workout.

Celebrity fans include Julia Carling (left) and Julianne Moore (right).

Gyrontonic is used in rehabilitation centres, dance studios and sports training and fitness facilities all over the world.

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