Oprah's Go-To Workout (and What Happened When We Tried It)
A fantastic way to get fit: Bob Cooley, the founder of The Genius of Flexibility Centers, shows us the wonders of flexibility resistance training.
Photo: Ruven Afanador
I'm sifting through emails on an ordinary Tuesday afternoon, when who should drop by my cubicle but the O of O. "Lisa Kogan," she announces, "I'm about to change your life!" Oprah Winfrey has been my boss for more than 15 years, during which time I've seen her change lives with everything from cars to houses to trips around the world. But I don't want her going to any trouble—I mean, if cash is easier.... My fantasy is interrupted when Oprah clarifies her definition of life changing with three little words: "Resistance Flexibility training." Ignoring my sad-puppy eyes, she continues, "Picture three guys stretching your limbs apart as you try your best not to let them." Which makes me picture the opening of a particularly grizzly Law & Order: SVU episode. "I've been doing it a few times a week since April," Oprah tells me, "and I feel great!"
Faster than you can ask "And how is this stretching process different from, let's say, the Spanish Inquisition?" I find myself in a sun-drenched Santa Barbara studio meeting Bob Cooley, the genius behind the Genius of Flexibility, and his shaggy band of movers and shakers, who turn out to be part of the elite group of trainers spreading the gospel of Bob's very unique approach to stretching and strengthening the body.
We set ourselves down on plush organic cotton rugs. Bob asks if there's anything he needs to know about my health. I tell him I'm basically okay and he tells me that I'm favoring my left leg, that my wrists and ankles are slightly swollen, that there's a moderate tremor in both hands. I point out that he has known me for just under a minute. "But," he says, "I've been evaluating you since you walked through the door."
Bob has me lie back on the rug as Luther, Kaj and Patrick join us. "Okay, this is going to seem kind of counterintuitive," he warns, "because most people only lengthen the muscle when they try to stretch, but we're going to lengthen and contract your muscles simultaneously—that's the essence of Resistance Flexibility." I am dubious at best. He attempts a different explanation. "Have you ever seen cats get up from a nap? They reach forward with their paws, arch their back, then pull backward and contract the same muscles they were elongating by reaching forward. Animals instinctively understand the need to contract their muscles while stretching them. You are going to be like a cat!" I look at Bob as though he is, if I may use the technical term, cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. "The good news is you don't have to believe a word I'm saying in order for this to work," he assures me. The trainers take hold of my shoulder, elbow, arm and ankle. I immediately feel a sharp pain. Bob looks baffled. "This shouldn't hurt at all. Can you tell me exactly where the pain is coming from?" he asks. "Yes," I manage to respond. "I think Kaj is standing on my hair."
As if on cue, I hear a familiar voice bellow, "The Genius of Flexibility!" and in walks Oprah. She pulls up a rug and is instantly flanked by Roger, Noel and Bonnie. Luther hands my puffy little ankle to Patrick, then heads over to Oprah. We are being pushed and pulled in a lot of different directions. I am a novice; she is a pro. She pants quick little breaths as she harnesses her strength to keep the trainers at bay while they all apply steady pressure to her limbs.
Photo: Ruven Afanador"Oprah, how do you know when to start breathing like that?"
"It'll come to you organically. You breathe how you need to breathe to get through the workout. You breathe for what's happening."
I hear Roger ask Oprah to push even harder with her leg, as Kaj instructs me to point my foot. I lean back against Patrick as he pins my heel down. Oprah holds her arms apart as Bonnie uses her full weight to press them together. We are both doing our fair share of grunting, and we're starting to sweat. A lot. It's not that I've never imagined myself on a fluffy rug sweating with three attractive men. It's just that in my dreams, they're not usually telling me that I look a little nauseated.
After I rest for a minute, Bob walks me to the kitchen for a slice of fresh papaya. "So what got you into this..." I'm about to say "line of work," but it's clearly a passion. He tells me that it all started in Boston. Bob and his friend Pam Mitchell had been out clubbing, because this was 1976 and in those days nobody ever hesitated to dance the night away. Then came the drunk driver.
Bob's pelvis was fractured, his leg muscles mangled, and his shoulder dislocated. His left upper arm was ripped apart. "My head hit the pavement pretty hard, so I kept slipping in and out of consciousness. I remember I kept trying to get to Pam but I couldn't reach her." We walk back into the studio, and I watch Bob as he watches the room: Four of his trainers are focused on a client's bum hip; three more are strapping a 30-something guy to a board to isolate a specific muscle group; others bend wrists and twist fingers into positions one might not have believed possible. Noel is coaxing Oprah's leg behind her as she inhales deeply. Bob turns his attention back to me and says softly, "The next morning they told me that Pam died."
He pulls my rug next to Oprah's. "But something really positive has come from something so awful," he says, gesturing around us. "I started experimenting with different positions to relieve my pain, and I discovered that muscles naturally contract when you stretch them. I began practicing different kinds of stretches for long periods of time, and I started noticing that each type of stretch affected me not just physiologically but psychologically." He sips his green tea. "It turns out that these discoveries parallel practices and theories in yoga, traditional Chinese medicine and psychology. I started to really analyze human movement and learn the intricacies of anatomy and the nervous system. I not only rehabilitated my body and mind in a way that all the top orthopedists, neuromuscular specialists and physical therapists I was seeing couldn't, I was also able to apply what I'd figured out to others. Every day, I help people get healthier." Bob smiles and adds, "Which brings us to you."
"Let's try to shred some of your fascia," he says, pulling me to my feet. I don't know what fascia is, but I'm pretty sure I want to keep mine intact. "Fascia is like a very fibrous kind of cellophane that covers your muscles. It can get thick and lock muscles in when they're aching to move. But if we lengthen the muscle by stretching it away from you, the fascia changes because your muscle contracts and the fascia resists us."
I look over at Oprah, who shrugs and says, "All I know is I feel better."
Bob ignores our pleas for a breeze and moves us to the wall. "I want to work on your quads." I want my mommy.
Oprah knows the drill and assumes the correct position, balancing on one knee while pushing her hips as close to the wall as she can, using her other foot to resist. I try to mimic her, but this is a whole lot harder than it looks. My thigh feels like it's on fire, and I keep tipping over face first.
Photo: Ruven AfanadorWhile maintaining her balance, Oprah reaches over and grabs my hand to keep me upright. Did I mention that it hurts? Did I mention that I've become way too familiar with the taste of organic cotton rug fibers?
"Do you think Martha Stewart makes her editors do this?" I groan.
"I know it's challenging, but hang on," she moans. From the sound of it, her leg is burning, too.
"Distract me, Oprah. Tell me what this is doing for you, because it's making me want to get a representative from Amnesty International in here."
She tells me her posture is straighter, her shoulders are back, the tension has left her neck. She had been ready to get shots for her knee pain, but, "Bob has me hiking again." And on that note we collapse into a heap. Okay, I collapse—Oprah rises and shines.
"Lis, how do you feel?" she asks hopefully. Bob looks hopeful too. The trainers lean in. I hate to let down the team, but I know getting up ain't gonna be pretty.
But a funny thing happens on the way to my feet. I don't hear the dice game that usually takes place in my knees. I don't make the involuntary geezer noise that generally accompanies standing. Actually, I don't get up so much as I spring up. I feel lighter, longer, and—dare I say it—limber. Energy is radiating from inside my muscles. If I didn't know better, I'd say I'm experiencing a runner's high minus the running.
Oprah and I gulp down paper cups of water and crane our necks toward the open window, in search of a cool wind. I am shocked by how great I feel. And yet...
"So, Oprah," I begin, "I'm just curious, have you ever driven a Lamborghini or spent the summer in Italy? Because I've been thinking, who wouldn't want to read about you changing my life by, oh, I don't know, slathering me in jewels and buying me a—" But before I can finish, she gives me a hug and bounces out the door.
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