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?

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.”