Cover Story - December 9, 2009

Creating a Happy Body

Woodside couple stresses inner and outer fitness with Happy Body program

by Natalie Jabbar

"Think of your body as the piano. You are the pianist — we are the tuners."

Those are the last words you might expect to come out of the mouths of two Olympic weightlifters turned fitness coaches. But Woodside's Aniela and Jerzy Gregorek defy convention in so many aspects of their lives.

After coming to the United States from Poland in 1986 as political refugees during the Solidarity movement, the Gregoreks found work as personal trainers in Los Angeles. In addition to starting and coaching the UCLA weightlifting team and training clients in their own home, they also found time to earn master's of fine arts degrees in creative writing.

In 2003, Aniela and Jerzy moved to their sylvan Woodside home because they thought Northern California would be a better place to raise their daughter, Natalie, who is now 5 years old.

Over the years, Aniela and Jerzy have developed an integrative program informed by their life experiences, from their work as professional athletes and trainers to their skills in writing and translating poetry.

What they found is that all of their clients loosely desired the same outcome: youthfulness. Their program, called The Happy Body, helps people achieve what they have deemed the six primary qualities of youthfulness: flexibility, strength, speed, leanness, ideal body weight, and good posture.

At 50 and 55 years old, Aniela and Jerzy embody those youthful standards. Their bodies are tight and limber, and they still compete in world weightlifting championships. But what you really notice when you're in the room with the Gregoreks is a sense of unclouded calm that emanates from them.

And that, ultimately, is what they want everybody to be able to achieve.

"When you exercise, you should feel joy," Jerzy said.

In January 2010, the Gregoreks will be releasing "The Happy Body: The Simple Science of Nutrition, Exercise, and Relaxation." Peppered with anecdotes, metaphors, and poetic turns of phrase, the friendly, 300-page book is a step-by-step guide that allows you to become your own lifestyle coach. This has always been the Gregoreks' primary goal as "tuners" who encourage the body to create its own music.

"You cannot help people if they depend on you," Jerzy said.

Back to the basics

The Happy Body program takes you out of the gym and into your own home. The Gregoreks don't view the gym as a productive space. The "gym" in their garden is essentially a small room replete with windows. Only trees surround you, rather than other people and whirling machinery.

The program involves a total of 18 exercises. Each exercise has five different levels of difficulty depending on your abilities. The book details each level and step so that you can follow along, motion by motion, without risk of injury.

So what do these exercises entail? They're fairly simple, focused on four primary actions: pressing, pulling, squatting and bending.

"All the movements are closest to life, like something we did when we were a 1-year-old and then forgot," Aniela explained.

Many of the exercises involve weights, starting with three pounds for a woman and five pounds for a man. This is to ensure that you are not only losing fat, but also gaining muscle.

The Gregoreks have designed the program so that every motion is meaningful. You curl up your toes during lifting exercises, for example, to shift your weight to your heels and promote good posture.

The same exercises should be done for 40 minutes each day, in hopes that the body will develop a rhythm that it can maintain through its aging process.

Jerzy compared that repetition to reading the same poem over and over again. "You never get bored," he said. Instead, the words, like the exercises, can become a source of comfort, part of an inspiring ritual that actually increases in value each day.

The program lacks endurance elements, such as running or cycling. The Gregoreks believe that endurance programs cause muscle loss and body exhaustion, because people continuously exercise without rest.

Although their program is rigorous in an athletic sense, the Gregoreks say it's based on knowing "how much is enough," challenging the body without pushing it over the edge.

Just relax

Exercise is only the first step of the program. If you are a Happy Body client, you can expect to be led down a woodsy path from the Gregoreks' "gym" to the quiet darkness of their meditation room.

As you lie on your back, breathing deeply, a spritz of lavender essential oil will fill the air and the plaintive strings of Jules Massenet's "Mediation" from the opera "Thais" will stream through the headphones gently placed over your ears. Then you will be left alone to rest.

Part of what makes the Happy Body program unique is the idea that physical improvement cannot be achieved without recovery and rejuvenation.

"You must go from your sympathetic to parasympathetic nervous system," Aniela said.

Think of the sympathetic nervous system as the body's accelerator, the parasympathetic the brake. The parasympathetic system uses fat as energy. According to the Gregoreks, the body burns fat when it is either exhausted or relaxed. Because they don't believe in exhausting the body, they instead advocate daily post-exercise relaxation.

Over the years, Aniela and Jerzy have found meditation to be the best form of relaxation because it focuses on both the body and the mind. Plus, like the rest of their program, it involves only a few, simple tools — a piece of music, aromatherapy, and a quiet space for at least five minutes.

The Gregoreks ultimately believe that exercise as a whole should be viewed as a process of recovery and meditation.

Each repetition in their fitness program involves three parts: inhaling, moving while holding the breath, and exhaling. That third part allows the body to relax its muscle fibers and mind to be more aware of its motions.

A happy belly

The Gregoreks extend their meditative philosophies toward the third component of their program: nutrition. They encourage a slower, more mindful form of eating that leaves you satisfied but not stuffed.

Instead of spending a lot of money on unhealthful foods, they advocate allocating those resources to buying fewer but better quality, organic ingredients.

Their prescribed diet boils down to two meals and three snacks (of which breakfast can be one) eaten at the same times each day at three-hour intervals. An example of a snack could be a piece of whole grain bread with peanut butter, a Cliff bar, or a small container of plain Greek yogurt with fruit on top. Meals should consist of a protein (meat or vegetarian) and one or two vegetables.

Followers are encouraged to keep food journals initially so that they can be attentive to their eating and accountable to their choices — not to count calories and frantically scale each meal.

"You can't obsess over your diet," Aniela said. "Just like you can't obsess over exercise."

Although their diet is restrictive in the sense that it frowns upon choices like processed foods, cocktails, and that plate of holiday cookies tempting you at the office, it is based on a philosophy of balance rather than deprivation.

The last third of "The Happy Body" is essentially a cookbook. Vibrant, glossy photos depict dishes that are a far cry from bleak conceptions of lean cuisine.

Lemon-spicy shrimp, palak paneer, poached halibut with mint dressing — many of these surprisingly simple recipes came from a monthly potluck the Gregoreks hosted at their home in order to collect original recipes from their clients and friends.

Teaching 'a way to be'

Flip through the Gregoreks' book and you will find that nearly one in every five pages is devoted to a testimonial from a Happy Body participant. Conversational and viscerally honest, each story reveals a distinct personal struggle and gradual triumph in working to achieving a healthier self.

From the college student who wants to get off the treadmill to the yo-yo dieting middle-aged professional to the 70-year-old looking to build strength, it's hard not to locate yourself in at least one of these stories.

Jamis MacNiven, the ever-so-colorful owner of Buck's restaurant in Woodside, has even gone so far as to put his Happy Body testimonial on his current menu and his Web site's home page.

He started seeing the Gregoreks two years ago at the recommendation of his physician. At the time, he was overweight, lethargic, and, well, unhappy.

"I felt like I was on my death bed," he explained during a recent interview at his restaurant.

He said that the program wasn't smooth sailing from the get-go.

"The first couple of weeks were a drag," he admitted. But after losing 10 pounds, then 20, he realized "this was doable" and never a painful strain like his previous attempts at getting fit.

After seven months of the program, Mr. MacNiven had lost 78 pounds.

"I enjoy the calisthenics of life now," he said while stretching his right arm above his head.

But more than the weight loss and newfound appreciation of more healthful food and daily exercise, Mr. MacNiven credits the Gregoreks with helping him become a more cohesive self. He explained that, as a somewhat public figure, he'd always felt the need to embody different personas, depending on the situation — until recently.

"I got fit in every sense. Slowly I merged into one person. It's so relaxing. I can't tell you how liberating that is."

Although Mr. MacNiven can now sustain a healthy lifestyle on his own, he noted that he couldn't have gotten this far without their initial push.

"At first, I thought the name [Happy Body] was a little silly, but it actually works out," Mr. MacNiven said. "They're trying to teach you a way to be. It's about trying to be the best resident of your physical self."


Aniela and Jerzy Gregorek will talk about their program and sign pre-release copies of "The Happy Body: The Simple Science of Nutrition, Exercise, and Relaxation" at Buck's restaurant from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 16. Buck's is located at 3062 Woodside Road. Twenty-five percent of the book's sales will go to Woodside Elementary School. For more info, visit


Posted by George Lukacs, a resident of Woodside: other
on Dec 9, 2009 at 4:54 am

I thoroughly enjoyed this article - it clearly explained (and reflected!)the simple outlines of this "Happy Body" approach. Physicists search for a simple but elegant unified theory; I believe that this couple have found an understandable wholistic approach to sensible living. I will be looking for their book, eagerly looking to gently forge that happy body!

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