An Interview with Heather Glidden on the Gyrotonic® Method
Photography by Joni Strickfaden
Heather Glidden, age 33, is the co-owner of the recently opened Gyrotonic Tree Town & Pilates Loft Studio, located on East Washington Street in downtown Ann Arbor. A dancer since the age of 10, Heather’s passion for movement and desire to become a better dancer led her to discover the Gyrotonic method, a unique system that works the entire body through fluid and rhythmic motions. Heather is also a Life Coach and Massage Therapist and incorporates elements of both to help clients reach their goals and improve their overall wellness. She has lived in Ann Arbor for 10 years with her husband and now three dogs.
Bill Zirinsky: Heather, what is the derivation of the word “Gyrotonic”? What does it stand for, or mean?
Heather Glidden: The Gyrotonic method was developed by a man named Juliu Horvath, a former dancer whose career ended as a result of several debilitating injuries. In his search for healing, he discovered the circular and wavelike movements that eventually became the Gyrotonic system. Using these movements, he was able to rejuvenate his injured body, so he called his healing movement system “Gyrotonic” — gyro meaning circle and tonic meaning healing.
Bill Zirinsky: Is Gyrotonic a movement therapy modality, or an exercise modality, or a form of dance, or what?
Heather Glidden: Juliu calls the Gyrotonic method “The Art of Exercising and Beyond.” It incorporates exercise, therapeutic movement, and meditation, as well as artistry and expression. Most people come to it for only one or two of those aspects at first. The system is very flexible so it can be adapted for people with a wide range of goals. For example, I’ve had a number of clients who have come to me initially for post-rehab therapeutic work. We did very slow, gentle work to start. As they became stronger, they transitioned into doing more challenging and fitness-oriented workouts. Some of them have also gone on to explore more of the esoteric aspects of the work, such as meditation and energetic awakening.
Bill Zirinsky: I know that it is difficult to convey experiential movement and bodywork. Even so, can you try to describe to our readers what Gyrotonic is, what it consists of, and what kind of movements or exercises or stretches it encompasses?
Heather Glidden: The movements are flowing, rhythmic, and playful. They look like a combination of dance, swimming, and Tai Chi. They are built around fundamental spinal motions: arch, curl, spiral, side bend, and wave. Many of them look like movements that you might see in nature, such as a cat stretching or a long blade of grass blowing in the wind. As practitioners become familiar with the Gyrotonic movements, the experience of doing a workout is like a moving meditation.
In Gyrotonic sessions we use a large piece of equipment called the Gyrotonic tower. Sessions are generally either private lessons or duets (lessons with two people). The equipment is designed to support and guide the body fluidly through the exercises in a way that allows for decompression of the joints and release of tension held in the soft tissues. It may also be used to add resistance to exercises, both to stretch and strengthen the muscles. The goal of Gyrotonic movements is to create a balanced structure, allowing freedom of movement in every direction at every joint while simultaneously creating the strength to support that range of motion.
There is also a version of the movement called Gyrokinesis, which one practices while seated on stools, on the floor, and standing. We generally practice Gyrokinesis in group classes. The movements are based on the same principles and look similar to the movements practiced on the Gyrotonic tower. Gyrokinesis classes follow a regular format so that over time, students can learn the format, allowing them more freedom to explore the effects of the movement in their own bodies. The rhythmic nature of the movement makes it really fun to practice in a group. As the students start to learn the movements and breath patterns, a supportive feeling develops by among the group from practicing those patterns together. My experience of Gyrokinesis classes is that they bring a deep sense of peace and joy to participants.
BZ: What do you love about Gyrotonic?
Heather: The aspect of Gyrotonic that I love the most is that there is always something more to learn, something deeper to explore. The system is endlessly layered so that every time I master one lesson, I discover a deeper mystery. Some of the learning comes from working with other people, but a lot of it comes from learning more about myself — about my own body, mind, and spirit. Beyond that, the movement feels great to practice, not only physically but also mentally and emotionally. I feel like I have so much more freedom in my life as a result of my Gyrotonic practice.
BZ: Where were you raised, Heather? Where did you go to college?
Heather: I grew up in Fort Collins, Colorado, and went to college at a small liberal arts school called Grinnell College, in Iowa.
BZ: What brought you to Ann Arbor, and when?
Heather: I met my husband in college, and we started dating during our senior year. He was born and raised in Ann Arbor, so after we graduated, we decided to move here. Originally, we had only planned to live here for a year — I wanted to move somewhere with warmer winters — but I sort of fell in love with it. We’ve been here for 10 years now, and I feel like it has been such an amazing home for us.
BZ: When you were young, were you into dance and movement or gymnastics or other activities like those?
Heather: I was a dancer growing up — I studied ballet, jazz, tap, modern … anything I could get my feet on. But in my teen years, I began having severe abdominal pain that went unexplained for a long time and caused me to give up dance.
BZ: Could you have predicted as a teenager that you might end up doing work in a field like Gyrotonic?
Heather: Due to my abdominal pain, I didn’t foresee myself in any field that involved movement. Looking back now, I can see how my experience with debilitating pain, combined with my love of movement, offered me the perfect preparation for the work that I do now.
BZ: Tell us about your path to Pilates. I know you started with Pilates at a very young age.
Heather: My favorite dance teacher got me hooked on Pilates when I was about ten. She told me that practicing Pilates would make me a better dancer. At that age I would do pretty much anything to be a better dancer — from taking French to playing a musical instrument — so when she promised that Pilates would make me a better dancer, I did it.
BZ: You told me that you didn’t get the “feeling” from Pilates that you saw other people getting, and that you wanted that feeling. Can you say more about that?
Heather: Taking Pilates as a young dancer, I didn’t really understand the intention of the movement at that point. I was just doing what my teacher told me to do, but I did notice that after class my fellow dancers talked about feeling great — “longer,” “lighter,” like they were “walking on air.” They didn’t just say it; I could see it in their faces. They felt better after class. I didn’t get that feeling from Pilates, but it looked great so I wanted to experience it. The first time I walked out of a Gyrokinesis class, I thought, Ah, that’s the feeling I was looking for! The class felt like getting a moving massage and afterwards I was left with a lovely feeling of freedom and expansiveness in my body. That’s how I got hooked on the Gyrotonic system.
BZ: And then how did Pilates take you to Gyrotonic? Tell us about your path to your current career.
After I graduated from college with a dance degree, I really didn’t know what to do with myself. I started doing a Pilates teacher training program thinking that maybe I could make a little extra income in the evenings. As I trained, I realized that people teach Pilates full-time, so that became my goal.
At that time, I kept hearing about Gyrotonic and seeing the equipment in the center where I did my Pilates training. I read articles about it, and it looked fascinating. That was what led me to try out my first Gyrokinesis class. By the end of that class, I knew I wanted to do the Gyrokinesis teacher training. At first I taught both Pilates and Gyrotonic, but my passion has always been more with the Gyrotonic work, and I eased away from teaching Pilates as soon as I had built up enough Gyrotonic clients to sustain me.
BZ: “Movement as an expression of life,” is an expression you used in describing Gyrotonic to me. Can you elaborate?
Heather: Movement is a fundamental sign that we are alive — movement of breath, the pumping of the heart to circulate blood. Thus when an area of the body becomes blocked and is unable to move, it is stagnant, less alive. The intention of the Gyrotonic system is to move and stimulate every part and system of the body (muscular, skeletal, nervous, energetic, and so on) so that the whole organism can have a greater expression of life. In essence, the goal is to be more alive.
BZ: What is the process for certification as a Gyrotonic instructor?
Heather: Gyrotonic certification involves four courses and an apprenticeship totaling about 200 hours of study. The process generally takes about a year to complete. Gyrokinesis certification requires a similar but separate process. After completing certification, most Gyrotonic instructors go on to study more specialized topics to deepen their knowledge. I generally take about 150 to 200 hours per year of continuing education courses to deepen my understanding of the work.
BZ: And approximately how many Gyrotonic instructors are there around the country?
Heather: I’m not sure how many there are in the U.S. There are about 4,000 instructors currently active worldwide.
BZ: You went to massage school, too, correct? And how do you incorporate that into your work?
Heather: Yes, I completed the program at the Ann Arbor Institute for Massage Therapy in 2010. Much of the work that I do with clients is therapeutic in nature, and my massage training gives me another tool to help get my clients moving. If someone comes in with a sore neck or tweaked back, I might put them on the massage table before we start moving so that they’ll feel better right away when they do start moving. Or if they’ve had chronic restriction in an area that isn’t releasing with movement, then I might use some massage techniques to help free up tension.
BZ: Do you still bring Pilates into your work?
Heather: Yes, I do occasionally. I try to approach each client with fresh eyes every day, and sometimes Pilates exercises are a better match for where a client is at on a given day than Gyrotonic exercises.
BZ: You’ve recently opened a new studio. Tell us about what you’re intending for it. And who have you gone into partnership with? What kinds of individual sessions, classes, and workshops will your new studio be offering?
Heather: My former studio, Willow Wellness Studio, has recently evolved into a new one. I’ve moved to a gorgeous loft space on the third floor of the Blue Tractor Brewery building in downtown Ann Arbor and combined studios with Tamara Aprea at Pilates Loft to form one big new studio called “Gyrotonic Tree Town & Pilates Loft Studio.” I am really excited for this new chapter in my studio’s life both because of our gorgeous new space and because it gives me an opportunity to work with a lot of great people. I’m also excited to have a partner with whom to share the job of running the studio. I enjoy creating a studio space, but it is a lot of work, and sometimes it’s hard to balance management with teaching. I’m looking forward to having a partner so we can share the job of management and continue to grow the studio together. To me, working in partnership is an important symbolic step that I hope to see reflected more often in the larger world. So this is one way I can cultivate that value with my business.
Our new studio has a total of seven instructors and offers individual and group Pilates and Gyrotonic classes. We have a massage therapist and an energy worker offering services out of our space as well. We will also offer Gyrotonic teacher training courses. Beyond that, we are still developing our programming, but I have some ideas for one-day retreat workshops that I’m hoping I can bring to life soon.
BZ: What do you like least about your work?
Heather: The administrative aspects of my job — emailing, organizing schedules, and making phone calls — are the parts that I would love to wave a magic wand and make disappear.
BZ: You are a Life Coach, as well? How does that help you in your work?
Yes, I am. As with massage and Pilates, I generally don’t offer isolated coaching sessions. Instead I use it as another tool in my Gyrotonic teaching. I don’t use every tool in every session, but sometimes one seems more appropriate than another. For example, if I have a client who comes in with a lot of neck and shoulder tension, we might start out with Gyrotonic movements that release the neck and shoulders while strengthening the spine to offer more support to that area. If that isn’t effective, then I might try using some massage techniques to release the tension. If, after several sessions, the client finds that the tension continues to return, then I might use coaching inquiry techniques to help the client explore what aspects of her life might be causing the tension and how she might be able to shift those situations.
BZ: Tell us about your spectrum of patients.
Heather: My clients come from a wide variety of backgrounds — I have worked with people from ages 7 to 87, from those needing therapeutic work to professional-level athletes and dancers. I really enjoy working with high performers who come in many stripes. My definition of “high performer” is anyone who is dedicated enough to show up to their lesson fully present and ready to really see where they can go every week. They are people who don’t set limits for themselves. Professional dancers and athletes fall into this category, but I have also found that a lot of people who are facing chronic pain or injury are a part of this group — it takes tremendous courage to continue engaging with your body when it hurts all the time. A lot of my clients came to me originally because they were trying to avoid having surgery, they were rehabbing after surgery, or they just wanted to be able to exercise but hadn’t been able to without injury. The most gratifying part of my work is seeing people who were once afraid of moving discover that they can have freedom and joy in it again.
I am also a Gyrotonic and Gyrokinesis pre-trainer, which means that I can conduct the first part of the teacher training. I am excited to be able to share this method that I am passionate about with new practitioners.
BZ: Is your work used as an adjunct to physical therapy or chiropractic or osteopathy or surgery, or other healing and medical modalities?
Heather: Absolutely. My work is not a replacement for any of these modalities, but it works well alongside them, and I have collaborated with a number of other medical professionals, both traditional and alternative, to help my clients realize their wellness goals.
BZ: Please share with us a few anecdotes about situations in which Gyrotonic has really made a difference to a client or patient of yours.
I have one client who is a dancer who had a foot injury that makes it difficult for her to even walk now. The Gyrokinesis movements that we do on the stool and on the floor give her the feeling of dancing without putting weight on her feet. She is a beautiful mover, and it always makes me so happy to see that she is still able to dance in this way.
I have another client who came in with severe tightness in his hips. His initial goals were to be able to put his own socks on and to sit on a horse again. He worked really hard and not only accomplished those goals within just a few months, but also reached the point where he could do a trail ride on a horse. Our big goal this summer has been to improve his golf game, and he has been coming in every week reporting better scores, so I think we’re making good progress.
Most of my clients, though, are more like my professor client who came in with severe back pain and weakness. In that case, the progress is slow and steady and can be tracked over the years that she has been taking lessons. When she first started, she had trouble lifting her children and going up and down stairs without experiencing a major flare-up of back pain. Now she can travel with her children, lifting luggage and sitting in awkward airplane seats, without any significant flare-up. This isn’t an overnight improvement, but the difference between now and when she started is dramatic and has had a big impact on her quality of life.
BZ: Anything else you’d like to be sure to tell us about?
Heather: Oh, I think I’m already over on my word count, so we’ll leave it with this.
BZ: Thanks, Heather.
Heather: Thank you!
GYROTONIC® Tree Town
& Pilates Loft Studio