Philosopher, naturalist, pioneer environmentalist, patron saint of oddballs and nonconformists, staunch believer in the virtue of simplicity - Henry David Thoreau was all of the above. What may surprise you is that he was also an early advocate of physioculture and functional fitness.
"The whole duty of man may be expressed in one line," he once declared. "Make to yourself a perfect body."
Thoreau came to mind the other day when I visited Verge Yoga in Wayne, where owner Cara Bradley has introduced a new workout that extends and amplifies the manifold benefits of yoga.
If Thoreau were alive today, he'd probably adore yoga. No doubt he'd love its simplicity - the fact that it requires no equipment except a mat - and the way it fortifies and relaxes both body and mind.
"Good for the body is the work of the body," he once observed. "Good for the soul the work of the soul, and good for either the work of the other."
Given his philosophy of fitness, Thoreau would also appreciate Verge Yoga's aeroSling class.
AeroSling is the brand name of a German-made exercise device consisting of a cord with two handles that runs through a pulley attached by a strap to a stationary anchor such as a tree, wall hook or pillar. The generic term for this type of exercise is suspension training or sling fitness. TRX is the trade name of a similar body-weight training system, sans the pulley, which is available at the Philadelphia Sports Clubs.
Suspension training involves minimal equipment, relies on body weight for resistance, and leverages the effect of gravity to build strength and enhance balance, stability, and what exercise scientists call "proprioceptive awareness" - a sense of where your body is in space.
"The buzzword around here is stability," says Bradley, 46, who also serves as strength coach to athletes at Villanova University.
One of the most beneficial things you can do, she often counsels young jocks, is to brush your teeth standing on one leg.
The constant adjustment required to keep your balance causes the nerves that animate the muscles, tendons, and ligaments to fire quickly.
In time, this conditioned rapid response helps stabilize and buttress joints such as the knee. Result: You're less likely to tear a ligament during sudden exertion on the football field or basketball court, Bradley says.
It's the functional, practical aspect of suspension training that appeals to Jim Ferris, 31, the personal trainer and registered yoga teacher who was leading the Verge class the other day.
"The cords are an extension of your range of motion," Ferris said, "and every exercise engages the full body. That makes it more relevant to real life."
After some yogalike warmup exercises on the mat, the eight women and one man in the class grabbed their slings, which were tethered to columns. Picture a water skier, leaning back while holding the tow rope, but with body and legs straight. With the aeroSling, by changing the angle of your body with respect to the floor or ground, you change the load or resistance.
As Ferris led the group through squats, flyes, presses, curls, arm raises, and rowing exercises, two things became apparent: (1) the only limit to what you can do with the aeroSling is your imagination; and (2) Ferris' imagination is particularly fertile (or, as one acolyte put it, "fiendishly creative").
"Lock in that core line," he exhorted. "Keep the belly tight. Let it burn. Let it cook."
In short order, shoulders and arms began to glisten, and the completion of each exercise was greeted with moans and sighs of relief. At one point, with their feet and legs suspended by the sling handles, Ferris directed his pupils/victims to raise their butts in a pike position, to do pushups, to support their weight on alternate arms, to pump their legs as though pedaling a bicycle.
"Don't strain. Breathe through it," Ferris instructed. "It's about efficiency and quality, not quantity. There's no trophy at the end of this."
The end did come eventually, after 75 minutes, and Ferris' charges were gratefully exhausted and exhilarated.
"It's amazing how much of a workout you can get just by using your own body weight," said Leslie Hughes, 53, of Malvern. "You don't need a lot of fancy equipment. As you saw at the end, we were all dying."
"Awesome!" declared her daughter, Meghan Maurer, 26, of Phoenixville, a health and phys-ed teacher at Owen J. Roberts High School. "A total head-to-toe workout."
For the only man in the class, Hank Hunt, 31, of Doylestown, this aeroSling class was his first, and the experience exceeded his expectations.
"A perfect blend of weight training, yoga and cardio," he said of the class. As for the aeroSling: "It's a fun tool."
Larissa Pluta, 31, of Wallingford, works at a horse farm in Unionville. Suspension training, she said, has helped her strengthen and heal an injured shoulder.
It "expands on the body awareness practiced in a traditional yoga class," she added, "as even minute adjustments in form or position are instantly and often dramatically felt."
The core of the class' appeal? "Its combination of simplicity and intense physicality," Pluta said.
In other words, Thoreau would dig it.