Nonna Gleyzer: Flex and flexibility

Nonna Gleyzer’s West Hollywood Pilates studio has seen the sweat of Natalie Portman, Kerry Washington and a parade of Victoria’s Secret models. Gleyzer has been lauded as “Hollywood’s secret weapon” for body sculpting, and her fitness tips have been praised in magazines including Women’s Health, Marie Claire and Shape. 

Gleyzer’s petite frame is strong, but Gumby-like flexible. While refreshingly genuine and chatty, she is entirely no-nonsense, evidenced by her motto: “If I don’t like you, I won’t be training you.”

“People know me in the industry for the fact that I get rid of A-listers,” she said. “I came to this country to be free and be respected. I’ve experienced enough abuse where I’m coming from.”

It doesn’t matter if it’s actress Amy Adams or a regular Jane off the street looking for a private lesson; Gleyzer said she treats everyone with respect as long as they return the favor. Now settled in Los Angeles, Gleyzer is light-years away from where she grew up in the Ukrainian city of Lwów, during a time when anti-Semitism reigned and signs reading “Kill Jews, Save Ukraine” were posted across town.

Gleyzer’s athletic career began when she was only 6 years old, when a rhythmic gymnastics coach came to her school to recruit promising young athletes.

“My coach came to my school, put me against the wall, started lifting my leg, and my leg went straight up, 180 degrees,” she said. “And that was it.”

With the encouragement of her father, Gleyzer worked hard and was eventually accepted to the Junior Ukrainian National Team. There was only one problem: She’d have to identify as Jewish on her passport, and this could cause major problems when she tried to travel outside the country. Although Gleyzer recalled begging to change her name to her mother’s Polish surname, her mom refused.

“You’re not changing your last name,” she remembered her mother saying. “You’re Jewish, and you’re always going to be Jewish.”

This was a blessing in disguise, Gleyzer said, because at the age of 18, she, her brother and her mother were able to immigrate as refugees to the U.S. with the help of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Once in the states, Gleyzer and her family lived on about $20 per week. They’d wake up at 5 a.m., stand in line at the Social Security office to claim their food stamps, and then head to the market for simple staples of pasta, chicken thighs and oranges. 

Gleyzer set her sights on trying to make the U.S. National Rhythmic Gymnastics Team, but soon injured her back from the intense training and her nutrient-poor diet. On the recommendation of a friend, she began doing Pilates as a way to rehabilitate her body, and inadvertently discovered her life’s work. Gleyzer began an apprenticeship at The Pilates Studio in West Hollywood (which has since closed), where her relationship with the A-list began.

“I barely speak English and here I am helping Jodie Foster, at The Pilates Studio, to train,” Gleyzer said with a grin.

Now 44, Gleyzer has worked on both coasts, has been flown all over the world to work with actors and models on set, and has always been her own boss. She’s also taken courses in physiology, giving herself a boost as part-trainer, part-physical therapist.

Cookie Johnson — clothing designer, HIV-awareness advocate and wife of basketball legend Magic Johnson — has been working with Gleyzer “religiously” for about five years. Johnson had ongoing problems with her knee and Gleyzer figured out a way to help her that Johnson’s doctor couldn’t. 

“I really think Nonna has a gift,” Johnson said.

Gleyzer genuinely cares about her clients, Johnson said, and if she tells you to go home and ice an injury, “She’ll text you to make sure you did it!” 

Model and actress Stacy Keibler is also one of Gleyzer’s devoted clients. Keibler had wanted to know who trained supermodel Gisele Bündchen when she was in L.A., and learned that Bündchen was connected to Gleyzer. 

“She is more than just a trainer. She knows the body so well, she knows how to rehab old injuries while toning and tightening,” Keibler wrote in an email to the Journal.

Gleyzer’s studio is well equipped to handle her A-list clients, with a private restroom inside the one-room studio and a covered entrance for those skirting the paparazzi. Although Gleyzer has longstanding friendly relationships with many of her clients, she’s not over-eager to rub elbows with them outside of work (unless they ask).

“I’m trying to figure out how to live my life, how to fix my life. So the last thing I need to try and figure out is to how to live their lives,” Gleyzer said.

Dancer’s Second Act as Pilates Instructor

Ever since she was a little girl, Danielle Shapiro Friedman had a passion for dance. After training at one of New York’s premier dance schools, Friedman joined a New York repertory company in New York, touring throughout the United States for nearly seven years. She eventually choreographed dances as well.

“When you dance, you have a sense of power and control over your own body,” Friedman said. “There’s almost a quality of being out of this world when you’re in the moment of dance. It’s amazing to work in harmony with other dancers, too. It’s a community within the time span of the performance.”

But her own sense of community was shaken up a decade ago when a series of unfortunate events forced her to make the choice between a career she loved and a spiritual path that helped her feel connected. Over time she’s found a way to bring two seemingly discordant aspects of her life together into a single expression of fitness and faith that is benefiting Jewish women.

As the owner of Studio 613 — located on South Robertson Boulevard, between Olympic and Pico boulevards — Friedman has found her niche. Her women-only Pilates venue is providing a safe space for Jews and others to get in shape while maintaining their modesty.

Friedman left New York for Los Angeles in 1987. After launching her own modern dance company, she toured throughout California; an interactive ensemble piece that she choreographed and produced earned rave reviews in the Los Angeles Times. But slowly, Friedman’s life in the world of dance clashed with her growing awareness of Jewish values.

“I worked on my ensemble piece for more than a year, hoping to move people, and then I went to a rabbi’s class and I was more moved in one hour than after a year of working on this performance,” she said.

The class was Friedman’s first exposure to Orthodox Jewish thought.

“I was shocked that a rabbi with a black hat could be so funny and so real,” she said.

From that first encounter, she became a devotee of weekly Torah classes given by Rabbi Baruch Gradon, and has attended them for eight years.

In 1995, Friedman first walked into an Orthodox shul, and felt an unexpected connection to the Hebrew letters she saw.

“I felt I had come home,” she said. “It was a very emotional experience.”

Shortly after, the brewing conflict between the personal and the professional came to a head. Friedman became uncomfortable performing on Shabbat, and her growing desire to uphold the Torah concept of tzniut (modesty) made the act of dancing in public increasingly difficult.

Several months before her next performance was scheduled to open, three of Friedman’s dancers and the composer quit. Another dancer was injured. Friedman wondered whether God was sending her a message. When the theater brochure was printed with the wrong performance date, Friedman felt the message was as clear. With a heavy heart, she disbanded her dance group.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I began teaching Pilates again,” Friedman said. She started bumping into some of her students in kosher markets and kosher bakeries, and they urged her to open her own studio catering to religious women. Thus, Studio 613 was born.

“I wanted a warm, haimish, friendly place, not a typical impersonal L.A. atmosphere,” Friedman said.

She began with 20 clients, renting space from Congregation B’nai David-Judea, but since the “studio” doubled as the shul’s Shabbat childcare program, Friedman had to move her bulky Pilates equipment each Friday. Within a year, she rented her own studio space a few blocks away. Despite minimal advertising, her client list grew rapidly.

Not all clients at Studio 613 are Jewish, and not all of her Jewish clients are religious. Still, Friedman observes that the religious clientele has had an impact on others: “Sometimes a client who’s Reform will call me and ask, ‘I’m going to an Orthodox wedding. What should I wear?’ Or, ‘What’s Sukkot all about?'”

Friedman says that it’s important to her that in addition to providing quality fitness instruction that she is perceived as a Kiddush HaShem, a role model of Jewish ethics and values. The studio is closed on Shabbat and all Jewish holidays, and Friedman handles all scheduling to avoid the few male clients she has from coming to work out at the same time as the Orthodox women.

Christina Lindeman, who is Catholic, has taught at Studio 613 for four years and admits that certain Yiddishisms have crept into her vernacular. She notes wryly that her boyfriend has also become suspicious of her new habit of tying a scarf around her hair.

Lindeman says that teaching at Studio 613 is more challenging than teaching at other studios because many of the clients only have begun to exercise later in life, making it harder to get into shape. Some also have injuries or other medical conditions that require a greater therapeutic emphasis in the teaching.

“Some Orthodox clients are very particular about what they want to work on, but I think it’s because they simply drive themselves hard and are very eager to see results,” she said.

Some Studio 613 clients are refugees from other gyms or exercise routines.

Gila Balsam had tried aerobics and yoga but explains, “Pilates gets the most done with the least amount of effort. With six kids, I don’t have a lot of time. And after a workout, I still have energy.”

Balsam started Pilates four years ago, when she was pregnant with her sixth child, and credits the routine with making the rest of the pregnancy and recovery easier: “My whole body feels more in tune. If I miss a few weeks, I feel totally out of whack.”

Friedman and her husband are the parents of three young children adopted from Russia, so she shares many of the same time management juggling feats as many of her clients. But she openly admits to missing the freewheeling creativity of her days as a dancer.

“Dance was my whole life for many years, so I still mourn it,” she said. “Though I grapple with the loss, I don’t have regrets. In today’s crazy and unsettled world, it’s my Jewish values and lifestyle that help the world make sense.”

Studio 613 is located at 1101 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 273-2025.

Judy Gruen ( is the author of two award-winning humor books, including “Till We Eat Again: Confessions of a Diet Dropout” (Champion, 2002).


Got Baby Weight? Try Pilates


Too many “When are you due?” comments that came weeks after I gave birth to my second child were all the motivation I needed to reclaim my body. I had gained 60 pounds with my first child, but I bounced back into shape with little effort. Now I was five years older, recovering from a difficult pregnancy and a cesarean delivery. I knew I was going to need determination, patience and willpower if I wanted to put on my favorite pair of jeans again.

My main goal in the first few months was to keep moving. At first I began brisk daily walks with my daughter, Stella, in her stroller. I walked up to 45 minutes at a time (if she would allow it), and fast enough to lose my breath. Then I began integrating exercises I could do while she was with me outdoors: modified push-ups (on my knees), dips (with my hands on a park bench), lunges (holding the stroller in front of me) and some standing stretches (sidebends and hamstring stretches). Doing all of this while caring for my newborn baby meant that on some days I had to be content with just 20 minutes of exercise. Having a good video at home to squeeze in a workout while the baby was napping was also key to my exercise program.

All of the exercise was great, but if I wanted to return to my former size I couldn’t continue to eat as if I was still pregnant. Focusing on a strict diet had never worked for me in the past, so I chose instead to watch what I ate and how much I needed to eat so that I wasn’t hungry. This meant cutting my portions down considerably and restricting dessert to something low-cal once a week. I also kept water bottles with me at all times to make sure I was drinking enough.

After I began to shed pounds, I knew I needed to tackle two other problems: my doughy stomach and my achy back. Who would have thought that caring for a 9-pound infant could wreak such havoc on the body?

This is where my Pilates background really helped. Since Pilates focuses so much on alignment while strengthening and stretching, it took care of both problems. It’s the muscles in our midsection that enable us to stand up tall and take the weight and strain off our backs. All Pilates exercises focus on these core muscles.

Although I’ve owned my Pilates studio for more than 10 years and have been training for over 20, I still had to begin slowly with the simplest of abdominal exercises. Just curling my head and shoulders off the ground was too much at first. Fundamental exercises like knee folds, where the head and shoulders stay down and the abdominals stabilize the lumbar spine, was a better way to start. I had to focus on scooping my abdominals to protect my back.

It was humbling to watch my body quiver as I performed these basic exercises. It’s tempting to just do crunches all day when your stomach is this out of shape. However, listen to your body. Overworking the abdominals at this stage can put you at risk for a hernia. Using Pilates equipment like the reformer, the trap table and even a basic workout ball made these movements a lot easier for me to perform properly. When I couldn’t make it into my studio, I would do matwork at home using a Thera-Band to add resistance.

Although 30 pounds fell off of me almost immediately, the last 15 were reluctant to budge. It was a bit discouraging when my body didn’t meet the deadline I had set for it. It took 14 weeks of hard work before I could perform a roll-up without assistance.

I practiced moderation with my eating over the holidays and resumed my regime with the beginning of the New Year. My workout schedule now consists of a Pilates session two to three times a week and a variety of aerobic exercises one to four times a week.

Stella is 4 months old, and intent on learning to roll over. Her mom is beginning to see those muscles again, but still struggling to lose her last 6 pounds. We are both determined and progressing nicely.

Maria Leone is the owner of Bodyline Fitness Studio in Beverly Hills. For more information, visit

Exercising the Mind

As we enter the new millennium, fitness professionals are becoming more aware of the movement toward spiritual forms of exercise. Programs like Pilates, Yoga, Tai Chi, meditation, and body work are common in fitness clubs and community centers. To keep up with today’s stressful lifestyles, we must do more than increase our heart rates and pump iron to maintain maximum health. Mind and body fitness can facilitate this by achieving inner balance and harmony in mind, body and spirit.

One way to practice mind and body fitness is through meditation. Methods of meditation were used in ancient Judaic times by focusing on certain words or prayers. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan has written two books on Jewish meditation: "Jewish Meditation, a Practical Guide" and "Meditation and the Bible."

According to Kaplan, Judaism produced one of the more important systems of meditation. "There is also evidence that during the period when the Bible was written [until approximately 400 b.c.e.], meditation was practiced by a large proportion of the Israelite people," he maintains.

Today, meditation is becoming much more mainstream and has crossed religious barriers once associated with it. Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man, founder and rabbi emeritus of Metivta, a center for contemplative Judaism, describes meditation as a "profound and demanding practice" which "clears the obstacles in our mind, to help us perceive the underlying realities, the divine."

Meditation produces a state of deep relaxation that has been known to reverse the stress process. Focus is key. By focusing on our breath or a mantra, we are able to quiet our minds and still our constant chatter. Meditation should be thought of as an exercise program. You would not run on the treadmill once a week and expect any results. The same is true of meditation. A regular meditation program of 10 minutes a day will produce psychological as well as physiological benefits.

The following is a basic meditation exercise for beginners:

Sit or lie in a comfortable position.

Close your eyes and relax.

Focus on your breath entering and leaving your body. (Place your hands on your abdomen; feel it expand and collapse with each breath).

At the exhalation, count each breath, from 1 to 10; repeat.

Repeat a phrase that has meaning to you. It could be a phrase from the Bible, such as Deuteronomy 4:15: "Take you, therefore, good heed of your souls." It could also be a single word, such as "Shema."

Continue the meditation for 10 to 20 minutes. If the mind begins to wander, calmly direct it back to the task.

The Novice

It is called Pilates, and I had been hearing about it for some time but dismissed it as a faddish ’90s workout. It fit the mold perfectly: It had the requisite exotic name (pronounced puh-LAH-tees), you had to go to a gym to do it, and celebrities hailed it as a miracle workout that managed, with perfect ’90s perversity, to give shapely women the bodies of 12-year-old boys.

Pilates, I had heard, involved archaic equipment with names like “the reformer” and “the barrel,” but that was about all I knew when I arrived at TriBeCa Bodyworks, a Pilates studio on Duane Street, determined to see if my bias was well-founded. A model-thin woman blew by me, a single line of sweat dripping down her radiant cheek. Great. I hated the place already.

Alycea Baylis-Ungaro, the owner of the studio, had instructed me to bring loose clothing and to wear socks. No sneakers were necessary.

Showing me to the changing room, she whispered, “Even men do Pilates. We get a lot of them.” It is true. During my workouts at least one-third were men. Besides, there is, as I soon learned, nothing feminine about Pilates.

The exercise method was invented by a man, Joseph Pilates, a boxer and physical therapist from Germany. Obsessed with body conditioning, he developed the framework for Pilates while serving as a nurse during World War I. So that patients could exercise in bed, he redesigned a hospital bed and developed simple exercises. Modern Pilates apparatus relies on the use of springs to provide resistance, much like weights, but easier on the body. He opened the first Pilates Studio in the United States in New York City in 1926.

A workout developed that long ago, when athletes smoked and tennis players wore long pants? Still, I signed up for three one-hour Pilates sessions. The first, Alycea said, would just be introductory. For $65, she would lead me through the fundamental exercises. Later sessions would get more intense, Alycea promised, at $55 a session. A bargain! I could not quite believe I was handing over this much money to exercise. I am a reasonable person. I live near a park. I own a pair of sneakers. Why not just put them on and run around the park?

The reason became clearer with each exercise. Alycea took me to the Reformer, a long, low, bedlike apparatus with a flat, padded carriage that slid back and forth the length of the bed. It made a dentist’s chair look friendly. Alycea had me lie face up on the carriage, with my knees bent and my feet on a raised steel bar at the end of the apparatus. I was to straighten my legs as I pulled in my stomach.

The carriage, which is set on three long springs, was difficult to slide out, then snapped back against the end of the apparatus with a loud “Bang!” that echoed through the studio. Heads turned. Alycea did not look pleased. The next time, I was told, do it smoothly, no banging. And I was told to stop arching my back. Pilates exercises are designed to protect and strengthen the back.

“The more distance you put between your belly button and your spine, the more pressure you put on your back,” Alycea said.

By changing the position of my feet on the steel bar and pushing, I worked different muscle groups in my legs while working my stomach muscles.

“It’s a real New York workout because it’s really efficient,” Alycea said. “You have to use all your muscles at once.” And you get it all in a neat and snappy 60 minutes.

We moved on to more complex movements, my least favorite being the “hundreds.” Lying face up on the Reformer, I had to raise my feet six inches, suck in my stomach, squeeze my buttocks together and, holding a stirrup set on springs in each hand, keep my arms at my sides and bounce them up and down, 100 times. With so many details to focus on, you hardly feel the pain.

I was beginning to understand why Mr. Pilates called his workout contrology. For every exercise that focuses on strengthening muscle, another stretches the body and encourages balance. And each movement – whether a derivative of the sit-up with legs jutting in the air, or lying flat and pulling on leather harnesses attached to springs – involves stabilizing the core of the body, the torso and buttocks, while moving the arms or legs. (This is the part that appeals to women: The movements are small and repetitions are short, so you tone muscle without bulking up.)

After about a half hour on the Reformer, Alycea introduced me to the Cadillac, which looked a lot like a gurney with harnesses and pulleys. After more stomach exercises, including sit-ups and leg lifts, Alycea had me lie on my back and put my feet into the harnesses. With my feet above my head and my back raised off of the mat, I was hung like a side of beef. Then, using my stomach muscles, I had to pull my body down to the mat against the resistance of the springs, curling my spine, vertebra by vertebra. It felt as if I was stretching every bone in my back. But there was no pain. Instead, I felt stress ebbing until it was gone. I could have done it all day.

But that was not the best part. Alycea had me sit up and stretch to touch my toes while she pushed and rubbed my back. I was forgetting about the $65.

I left my first session with my stomach muscles dazed and confused, but I was still troubled that I had not broken a sweat. But when I arrived for my second session, Alycea reminded me that the Reformer workout did not get longer, it got faster.

“And that’s where the aerobics come in,” she said.

And did they ever. I was more relaxed with the machines and my movements became smoother and faster. But when I slowed down, I heard about it.

At most Pilates gyms, you do individual sessions with a personal trainer to learn the movements – there are more than 500 – until you get up to pace. After about 30 sessions, you can advance to what is called a duet – two people with a trainer – then to groups of three and four.

I had never employed a personal trainer, but I found that having one by my side was surprisingly comforting. I liked having someone there to coddle me while I suffered through the workout. Besides, it is far too easy and tempting to cheat with Pilates.

What is extraordinary about Pilates is its broad appeal. Some professional dancers do it to maintain flexibility and stay fit without adding excess stress to their bodies. And unlike running or aerobics, Pilates is good for the elderly, people with injuries, and even pregnant women.

“They do it right up to delivery,” Alycea said.

As for me, Pilates was a revelation. I had not realized how tight my muscles had become working in an office, slouching over a computer keyboard. By the third session, I was a convert. I was getting the aerobic workout I wanted while regaining some of the flexibility I had lost.

But if I start to get that 12-year-old boy look, I just may have to ease off. For a while, anyway.