— by Beth Howard
NOW & ZEN: An innovative take on yoga-centric techniques to lengthen and strengthen your muscles
The sign on the door at Center of Balance, a training studio in Mountain View, Calif., reads, WELCOME. PLEASE REMOVE YOUR SHOES. With low lighting, New Age music and Japanese screens setting the scene, the converted warehouse feels more like a spa than a gym.
Don't be misled by the peaceful atmosphere: even though there are no dumbbells clanking or treadmills whirring, there's serious work going on, both mental and physical. "You definitely get a sweat going but it's very relaxing at the same time," says Stanford swimmer Gabrielle Rose, whose team trains three times a week with Tom McCook , the center's founder. The exercises they perform—slow, deliberate movements and precise postures, all integrated with the breath—are a hybrid of yoga (the 4,000-year-old discipline that links movement with the breath), Pilates (a method that strengthens the body's core through a series of concentrated movements) and resistance stretching (a technique that as it actively lengthens muscles, aligns and connects the body). The resulting workout combination emphasizes strength, flexibility, mental concentration and posture; the goal—truth in advertising—is a more muscularly and spiritually balanced body.
Despite their simple appearance, the moves are intense. "We do a minimum number of highly focused reps," says Rose. "That way quality isn't sacrificed." Trading dozens and dozens of heavy-metal squat and bench-press sets for a few reps of body-weight-only movements hasn't made dumbbells dinosaur material yet (the Stanford team still lifts weights three times a week), but it has increased options for complementary training. Today athletes are recognizing that to achieve optimal performance, flexibility and physical awareness matter just as much as pure muscular strength. "I used to think about swimming in terms of how strong my arms and legs were. Now I realize—and feel—the whole way my body connects and functions," says Rose, who also counts improved flexibility and reduced lower back pain as tangible benefits of McCook's program.
Although Center of Balance's devotees, which range from Silicon Valley millionaires to pro BMX riders, have different situations and needs, all walk away with a straighter, stronger, more graceful body and a mind more aware of the proper amount of effort needed to move efficiently. Those results translate to better sports performance, whether you're a runner looking to maximize stride length, a basketball player wanting more stability of rebounds or a golfer craving longer drives.
Despite the shift in the nuts and bolts of the workout, one constant accompanies this—and any—sweat session: "No matter how bad I feel when I get here," says Rose, "I always feel better after the workout."
(This article also presents 5 exercises designed by Tom McCook and demonstrated by Stanford swimmer Gabrielle Rose.)