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?

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.’”