The Cult of Lithe Method: Going Beyond the Exercise Mat With Lauren Boggi

Ex-cheerleader Lauren Boggi crafted Lithe Method—her crazy program mixing dance, Pilates, yoga, and weight training—into Philly’s most addictive exercise cult. But can she take Manhattan?

Lithe Method founder Lauren Boggi of Philadelphia

My t-shirt is soaked like a dishrag; my foam rubber mat resembles a Jackson Pollock canvas. It’s lunchtime, and I should be eating a sandwich somewhere—preferably one loaded with processed meats and trans fats. Instead I’m trying to catch my breath in an Old City workout studio, surrounded by 21 women who appear to be perspiring much less than I am. They’re mainly in their 20s and early 30s, fit, fashionable—no baggy tees and ill-advised spandex here. By comparison, my Sixers t-shirt and Champion shorts give me the look of a sweaty, hyperventilating hobo. I’m gripping two elastic resistance bands that dangle from the ceiling, trying, largely in vain, to keep up with the choreography in a class called “Weightless.”

“Arms are going to stay low,” says the cheery instructor, Lauren Boggi, through her headset microphone. “It’s just stiletto and flat, up and down, squeeze the glutes!”

The club music pulses as the women around me flap their bands and make sharp, distinct movements that would do Beyoncé’s backup dancers proud. Booties are slapped. Struts are fierce. I flop around like a just-caught mackerel on a dock.

“You got it!” says Boggi.

I don’t.

Welcome to Lithe Method, the made-in-Philly boutique fitness craze that has made otherwise sane women wake up at 5 a.m. to check the Internet and see if they’ve escaped wait-list limbo for a crack-of-dawn session. (As one classmate tells me later, “If you’re not registering three weeks in advance, you’re not getting in.”) Lithe was founded by Boggi (pronounced BOH-gee), a peppy blond firecracker whose self-described “ca­rdio-cheer-sculpting” kingdom will soon include five locations, spanning from the city to the Main Line to a soon-to-open outpost in New York City’s trendy Flatiron District. “She’s like Joan Shepp,” says Boggi’s former publicist, Nicole Cashman, comparing her to the Philadelphia designer-boutique doyenne. “Joan was a trailblazer in her industry 40 years ago. Lauren is doing the same thing in the fitness world.”

Lithe’s classes have cheeky names like “Skinny Mini” and “Arm-istice” and incorporate “Lithe-exclusive props” like the resistance bands and trampolines, wrapped in tidy but brutal one-hour workouts. At the center of it all is Boggi, today in a white sports bra and black yoga pants, her hair in a swishy ponytail. At 35, she represents Lithe’s aspirational, but relatable, fitness ideal: Unlike the waifs and Gumbys who populate most yoga and Pilates studios, Boggi is a four-foot-11-inch powerhouse, with muscular thighs and steely abs that offer no evidence of self-deprivation. She talks freely about her curves, and her recent struggles to lose baby weight. She has the workout instructor’s cadence down cold, striking just the right balance between life coach and drill sergeant. “Shake it!” she exhorts. “Really tuck. I want to see cellulite in the right cheek.” Boggi still sounds like the cheerleader she was in college, but not the kind you want to see tormented in a horror movie—she’s the one on the dean’s list who’s nice to the nerds.

She moves us to the barre. I grip it with both hands while holding the tension bands, trying to keep my left leg in “stiletto” position, perched on the ball of my foot as if I’m wearing an invisible five-inch Louboutin. We do squats, knee lifts, reverse lunges, all in sets of 30. I consider myself to be in pretty decent shape, but by the final set, my calf is shaking with fatigue. Some of my classmates struggle with me; others, dead-eyed and focused, don’t tremble at all. Boggi has advised me to “not worry about anyone else. You’re focusing on survival.”

There were cheers and laughter when Boggi introduced me to the class. Few guys try Lithe, and of those who do, almost none come back. (Ass-shaking and “stiletto” moves hold limited male appeal.) What’s less obvious is why Lithe has become a certified phenomenon, a religion for the region’s most discerning and demanding female fitness junkies. It’s more than just a workout. It’s a clothing line (Lithe Wear), it’s health-conscious meals and drinks, including a cleanse (Lithe Foods), it’s even exercise getaways to chic villas in the Caribbean (Lithe Escapes), all orchestrated by the petite Boggi, Lithe’s L. Ron Hubbard. Says one Lither: “It’s a cult.”

Conversations with Lauren Boggi are, like her, lively. As we sit in her sun-drenched studio, she casually tucks one leg under her derriere and stretches the other across the powder-blue bench behind the reception desk. She looks so fresh, in an off-the-shoulder black shirt (courtesy of Lithe Wear), black Lululemon leggings and chunky-heeled boots, that you’d never guess she’s taught two classes already today. She’s drinking a $7 bottle
of “Apple & Ginger (BFF’s),” one of the Lithe juices.

The only child of divorced parents, Boggi grew up in Vineland and was raised by her entrepreneurial mother, who ran a series of laundromats and a California Closets franchise. Boggi’s dream of becoming a ballerina ended at age nine, when her dance instructor had a blunt discussion with her about her body. “I don’t know if she called me ‘fat,’” Boggi says. “But I was definitely too curvy. I remember coming home and feeling like, I can’t do this anymore. I felt really self-conscious.”

Out went the pointe shoes and in came the pom-poms, a move that paid off at the University of South Carolina, where she earned a full scholarship with the cheerleading team. At some colleges, cheerleaders are a momentary distraction from football; in the South, they’re celebrities who smile down from highway billboards. But the grueling training schedule wore Boggi out, both mentally and physically; just halfway through freshman year, a rotator cuff injury ended her cheering career.

After college, Boggi tried her hand at acting, landing a few bit roles on daytime soaps, and studied at Pilates on Fifth in Manhattan, which she calls “the Ivy League of Pilates education.” Her H­ollywood dreams fizzled, and Boggi moved back home, waiting tables at Continental Midtown and wondering if she could make a career as a full-time fitness instructor. With encouragement from her mother—and the $20,000 in seed mo­ney said mother had squirreled away for her wedding fund—Boggi opened her first studio, in Northern Liberties in 2005, years before the Piazza at Schmidts made “NoLibs” a hip address. “It was just us,” Boggi recalls, “in the middle of brownfields.”

The Lithe Evolved Pilates Studio bore little resemblance to the juggernaut Lithe Method would become. With a focus on traditional Stott Pilates techniques, Boggi had room for just nine mats and taught up to 25 classes a week herself. She built a modest client base, but quickly hit a wall. “I was like, ‘I’m so bored,’” she says. “I’m severely ADHD. I really missed cheerleading. So I started throwing in my stuff—cheerleading, dance, choreography.”

Boggi’s hybrid rubbed purists the wrong way. “The Pilates community of Philadelphia hated me,” she says. “They’d say, ‘That’s not Pilates!’ I realized I couldn’t say this was a Pilates studio anymore.” With Lithe Method, Boggi turned the cheerleading she’d loved but lost into a career by stirring in the one ingredient missing in so many other workouts: fun. Customers responded. Her mother had warned she’d need six years to climb into the black; Boggi did it in just one. “I lived, ate, breathed, bled Lithe,” she says.

Devotion to workout gurus is hardly new. Jack LaLanne had America doing push-ups in front of the TV; London’s Lotte Berk spiced up traditional fitness routines with modern dance and drew everyone from Joan Collins to Barbra Streisand to her basement. Today in Philly, Dhyana Vitarelli of Dhyana Yoga and Noelle Zane of Pure Barre have passionate followings of their own. But they don’t summon the loyalty inspired by Boggi’s Lithe, where women fight for class sign-ups weeks in advance, buy pricey drinks and clothing, and risk humiliation by wearing trash-bag shorts and high-kicking in public outdoor workouts. Boggi has achieved cult status by becoming an inextricable part of her brand. She’s Martha Stewart without the frosty sheen—a model of entrepreneurship who started her own company and grew it without help from a wealthy team of investors. She’s Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer with a smaller empire, rooted in sweat instead of Silicon Valley.

Two events would transform Lithe from exercise business into obsession. In 2007, a Lither tipped off Boggi to an open space just off Rittenhouse Square, on 17th Street. Boggi was making money, but not enough to stop scrounging around the seats of her Honda Civic, looking for loose change. She rolled the dice and signed the lease anyway. “It was rough,” she says of the Rittenhouse expansion. “Really rough. I knew I could do it, but we weren’t ready.” Boggi poured all of her own money back into the business, recruiting five instructors. By then, she’d also hired publicity firm Cashman & Associates to spread the Lithe gospel. “She’s incredibly marketable,” owner Nicole Cashman says. “She’s pretty, she’s smart, she’s a go-getter, and she had a really unique idea.”

Cashman’s firm proved to be the perfect proselyte, specializing in reaching the kind of women who would eventually flock to Boggi’s Rittenhouse studio: young, be it by date of birth or the surgeon’s knife; type A; and affluent enough to pony up $22 per session, or $340 for just one month of unlimited classes. (By comparison, a full year’s access to all Philadelphia Sports Clubs locations is just over $800; an annual Sweat Fitness membership is a little over $600.) Despite the cost, Lithe classes filled to capacity. Boggi’s annual revenues nearly tripled from 2009 to 2011.

The second event came as a surprise even to her. She had no expectations—en­trepreneurial or otherwise—when a friend set her up on a date with Jordan Goldenberg, creative director and partner of Finch Brands, a branding company based in Old City. (“I wasn’t into blind dates,” Goldenberg says, “but when you hear ‘Pilates instructor,’ you think, Okay, this is worth a shot.”) Drinks at Bar Ferdinand eventually led to marriage in 2009—and Goldenberg’s help running the company. Boggi’s modest blog became “FitHipHealthy,” Lithe’s lifestyle site, updated daily with testimonials, tips, and diary-like entries by Boggi herself. While Boggi describes herself as “so not a businessperson,” her husband disagrees. “She’s the gutsiest type of businessperson there is,” he counters. “She gets an idea and she goes for it. I don’t know if it’s blissful ignorance, but she’s all in. She’d rather fucking break down walls and try to make it happen and fail than be cautious.”

Boggi credits Goldenberg with the website’s appealing design—clean and bright, with a delicate baby-blue butterfly logo—but both say its tone and voice are all hers. Along with client testimonials and instructor profiles, FitHipHealthy is part journal, part chat with your BFF—Dr. Oz and Ellen DeGeneres fused together. Photos show Boggi’s post-baby belly (son Mars will be two in July) and document her struggle to get back into instructor shape after her C-section and a hernia operation. In one post, she recommends an end table from Anthropologie and a coral lip glaze; in another, a close-up self-portrait accompanies eyebrow tips. (“Super thin is not in.”) “The blog was agnostic of the workout,” Goldenberg says. “The workout supports our mission—to empower women through movement and be excited about life. It’s not just product lines. It’s a way of life.”

Today, FitHipHealthy is a testament to Boggi’s influence far beyond the barre. In one post under the “Lithe on Location” banner, a student performs a wide-second position—in stiletto stance—in front of the Taj Mahal. Another does lunges poolside in Anguilla on her honeymoon. A Lithe bride submits wedding photos along with this confession: “I have two loves in my life: my husband Rich, AND you!”

As Boggi expanded to Ardmore in 2010 and opened her Old City studio the following year, clientele grew in both numbers and zeal. Classes were more like Justin Bieber concerts than workouts; on the Main Line, women were caught sneaking in a side door to squeeze into sold-out sessions. “People were just becoming obsessed with it,” Boggi says. “Like it was their life. I don’t know how many women have told me, ‘If I could just put a cot in here, I’d sleep here.’”

When it comes to living the “Lithestyle,” Maria Ferzola is a model of devotion. The brunette has the look that Lithers strive for: pretty, petite, toned. “I’m addicted,” says the 30-year-old Wharton grad who’s one of the “6 a.m.’ers,” 15 regulars who meet five days a week to sweat before you’ve had your morning coffee. One had her baby just days after a Lithe class. As instructor Sh­annon Graham says, “Six a.m.’ers are no joke.”

Ferzola’s first class was “Twiggy,” a max-cardio routine using leg bands for resistance. “I was blown away by how dramatically different it was,” she says. “Very innovative. I wasn’t looking to start working out like crazy. It just happened organically.” Ferzola was already thin, but after three months she saw big results: stronger arms, tight abs, a delicate muscle line in her thighs. Now Lithe is a six-day commitment, as much a part of her life as her tutoring business or her fiancée. Maybe more so. “I told him I don’t want to move to the suburbs because I don’t know how I’ll get to Lithe every day,” she says. “He thinks I’m insane, as he should. But it’s true.”

Ingrid Rodriguez, a 27-year-old dentist in the Northeast, schedules family outings around her Lithe sessions and checks Boggi’s blog “like nine times a day.” During a romantic two-week trip to Europe with her husband, Allison Lubert stood along the Amalfi Coast of Italy and felt a longing—for Lithe. “I was excited to get home,” says the 34-year-old owner of Sweet Freedom Bakery, who helped Boggi find her Haverford studio space and gave her $50,000 to aid with the expansion. (She now earns 15 percent of profits from the Haverford outpost.) “I was using any kind of bar or wall to keep up my exercises.” Lithe’s instructors also drink the Kool-Aid; since moving to Washington, D.C., Sh­annon Graham travels back two weekends a month to teach. “I might have to drop down to one,” says the 38-year-old, “but I don’t ever see myself not doing Lithe.”

Boggi’s secret sauce has a few other ingredients. She shuffles the class schedule each month, so students avoid the plateaus that come with regular workout routines. There’s also an emphasis on homespun innovation. (Boggi is a health blogger for the Huffington Post, but doesn’t claim any advanced training or degrees.) One of Ferzola’s favorite new classes is “Peeled,” which involves spraying one’s arms with grapefruit essential oil—p­urportedly a cellulite fighter—then co­vering them in “Peeled Sleeves,” which resemble leg-warmers. “I don’t know if there’s any scientific reason for it,” Boggi says. “But it keeps you sweating. And they love the smell.”

In “Walk-Star,” women take a 4.5-mile speed-trek around Center City with weights on all four limbs, stopping for the occasional liberty pose on a bench or zombie-dance homage to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. It’s usually set to the soundtrack of honking horns and catcalls. That Boggi has convinced so many of the city’s most discriminating women to slather themselves in grapefruit oil and mimic The Walking Dead in public is perhaps her greatest feat.

There’s a theatricality to Lithe, and Boggi has been careful to cast a wide array of women in the role of teachers. Some, like her, are motivators; others crack the whip, or favor complex choreography. None look like they rolled off a Lithe assembly line. “What’s nice is that they’re not all the same body type,” says Lither Laura Price, a 32-year-old publicist. “They’re pretty, but attainably so.”

For those motivated by the extreme, Melissa Weinberg, Lithe’s director of operations, serves as inspiration. A former Junior Olympic rhythmic gymnast, Weinberg teaches up to 10 classes a week. During my “Weightless” class, she took every position to its physical limit—lifting her leg to impossible angles, breezing through the dance moves, a paragon of perfect form. If you’re looking for a photo to hang on your fridge as a late-night snack repellant, refer to the one on a Lithe blog post in which she’s doing a handstand split in Turks and Caicos. In a bikini. Says Meghan Coppola, a Lither who was also in my class: “That picture is absolute perfection.”

Perhaps what Lithe has mined more than any other fitness program in Philadelphia is a sense of togetherness. “You see the same faces every day, and it starts to build friendships,” says Ferzola. “It can be intimidating, because a lot of the girls who do Lithe regularly have rockin’ bodies. But you realize you’re putting pressure on yourself.” Students become Facebook friends, swap Instagram photos and meet for happy hours. That unity also extends to the staff. “We hang out with each other,” says instructor Diana Khuu, who’s brunch buddies with fellow teacher Bianca Pallotto. “It’s camaraderie. You get that aspect on a team or in a sorority.” This bunker mentality bonds regulars who attend classes at least three times a week. (In the first few months of 2013, Boggi’s most popular package was the one-a-day monthly unlimited.)

Boggi’s market research is based mostly on client feedback. When students complained about “schlepping these huge bags of clothes” to and from class, she created Lithe Wear with local designer Bela Shehu as a “studio to street” solution. Lithe Foods is a collaboration with Phillies nutritionist Katie Cavuto Boyle that’s produced a rotating menu of $7 portabella panini sandwiches, $4.75 maple tahini millet salads, and drinks with names like Carrot Ginger Lithe Lemonade and Fall Recovery Smoothie. “I was hearing ‘Lauren, I do this every day, why can’t I get my thighs to look good?’” Boggi says. “Well, what are you eating? A lot of women have kids, they don’t have time to cook, or to make something for themselves when their husbands want steak. [Lithe Foods] is calorie control, healthy, organic mostly, local. If they want it. We never push it. But it’s 20 percent of the business, so it works.” While there’s a sense of the hard sell online, where products are sometimes promoted ad nauseam, in Boggi’s studios there are no elaborate displays or in-class plugs. She doesn’t need a heavy hand. Simply seeing her drinking a Smile Sparkle Shine juice or wearing a Hip-Hot tank top is apparently enough.

If there’s any resentment in the local fitness community toward Lithe’s outsized success, no one is copping to it. “People are fanatics about Lithe,” admits Deborah Hirsch, owner of Philly Dance Fitness. “I don’t feel like there’s a competitive feeling here. Choice is a good thing.” The few complaints you’ll hear about Lithe are from longtime customers frustrated with the lengthy wait-lists, a towel rental fee and a strict no-refund policy for cancellations within six hours of class time. Boggi says she has no problem with former disciples who’ve launched their own businesses, such as Jillian Dreusike, a University of the Arts ballet major who last year opened BodyLogic, a barre-based system situated one floor under Lithe’s Old City studio. “It’s not a problem for me,” Boggi says. “There’s no confusion in the marketplace. But I keep my eye on her.”

Her lone beef lies with Alexandra Perez, a Wharton grad and ex-Lither who, in 2011, opened New York’s Bari Studio. Echoes of Lithe Method abound, from the workouts (Bari uses a “Slim Sculpt 360” formula) to the product line (about a year after Boggi’s “Lithesicles” organic fruit pops debuted, “BariPOPS” appeared) and the blog, with its testimonials presented as “Triber Tales” and chatty instructor bios. Perez points to her clientele—25 percent male; a different body type—and the absence of any cheerleading routines as proof she’s not copying Lithe. “I didn’t steal anything from her,” Perez says. “I’m not trying to start a war. It’s just smart, passionate people coming up with great ideas. Sometimes those ideas overlap.”

Boggi hired a private investigator to film Perez’s classes and considered a copyright lawsuit; nearly everything Lithe, from the bands to the workouts, is trademarked. She ultimately decided against it. Perez still wonders if Boggi’s competitive fire burns too hot. “Every single press piece about Bari, there’s so many negative comments from people from Philly or Yelp reviews talking shit about us. Can I link it to her? No. But why is so much negative stuff coming from Philly? That’s what’s disappointing.”

“I just want to open in that market and let everyone decide who stole from who,” Boggi says, as all the talk of feminine esprit de corps and community-building fades. “Wait till we open.” She laughs. “Crush time.”

With Lithe scheduled to bow in Manhattan this summer, it’s too soon to tell whether Boggi’s success in Philly will translate. It seems likely, though, considering the many separation-anxiety-suffering Lithe expats in New York and all the buzz the program has received, from Vogue to Shape to the New York Times. While Boggi downplays her business acumen, she’s shrewd enough to consider future Lithe outposts in cities like Dallas—a competitive cheerleading hotbed—along with other ideas. “I definitely want to productize the workout,” she says, sounding more like a judge on Shark Tank than a fitness guru. “DVDs. Online streaming. Maybe someone can go online and have this whole community at their fingertips. That’s going to bring us to a whole new level.”

On the surface, it seems ridiculous that sweatsuit-loving Philadelphia could be the perfect Petri dish for a fitness brand. But Lithe’s potential is vast. The trend in fitness is moving toward one-stop boutiques serving up a variety of workouts, and Lithe offers something for women who are serious about shaping up and willing to pay a premium to do it. If you’re looking for community, you’ll find it. If you want your cardio and muscle-toning in one class, you’ve got it. And as my sore thighs, glutes and lats can attest, if you want results, you’ll feel them.

Boggi’s confidence in what she’s created both trickles down to and is inspired by her acolytes. “Discovering Lithe was completely life-changing for me,” says Ferzola. “I started feeling like the best version of myself.” A powerful testimonial—one that might not be possible if the woman pushing Lithe as a lifestyle wasn’t living it as well. “Why it’s a cult, why she’s a rock star—it’s because of her personality,” says Goldenberg. “She has a passion. People can feel the brand through the workout. She really gives a shit.”

Despite her confidence, Boggi admits the thought of franchising Lithe scares her. The further she expands, the more diluted her enormous influence on the product becomes. “I think it can be done,” she says. “Maybe I’m not ready. I love it. I don’t know what else I would do.” When talk turns to her Flatiron invasion, though, Boggi has no doubt her Philadelphia fitness experiment can be replicated and will spread, like a virus that sends women into uncontrollable stiletto poses, booty slaps and cellulite-burning lunges. “Just wait, just wait,” she says, her saucer blue eyes opening even wider, looking both at me and through me, to the future. “It’s gonna be huge. People are gonna be obsessed.”

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