The last thing you’d expect to discover about Mariska Breland, a fitness instructor with a petite, twentysomething physique, is that she suffers from a degenerative disease known as multiple sclerosis. She demonstrates core-scultping moves before her students with a flawless demeanor, giving sight to a level of strength that bears no indicator MS has invaded her limbs. The condition clearly hasn’t stopped her from leading the life she loves.
“Superwoman” is a befitting descriptor of this 36-year-old entrepreneur, who easily looks a decade younger. When footdrop, a painful MS symptom that rids the foot flexors of strength, interrupted her avid running routine years ago, she didn’t take the numbness as a sign to stay out of the gym. It instead became her motivation, a driving force that led her to design her own regimen: Breland’s self-created yoga-pilates-dance method, once a simple class she taught at Flow Yoga Center, acquired such a large following that it begged for expansion into its own studio. Fuse Pilates (2008 Hillyer Pl., NW; 202-525-3767) now sits in a five-story Victorian house just off Dupont Circle.
Breland grew attached to mind-body workouts when she was diagnosed in 2002. Studies had shown that stretching, balancing exercises, and stress-relief—all core components of yoga and pilates—helped remedy some of the disease’s effects, and after years of “religiously” attending classes, she craved something more dynamic, and took matters into her own hands.
Breland calls the two-month-old Fuse Pilates studio a “playground,” but it is hardly a place for games. Attendees can walk out of a session feeling it’s one of the most invigorating and unique workouts they’ve ever experienced. Fuse incorporates traditional pilates and yoga poses with Breland’s own original moves, all choreographed to heart-pumping tunes and taught on request: the well-trained instructors ask students to name target areas at the start of each class—lower abs, glutes, and arms are popular—on which the workout will focus. That means they don’t know what they’ll be teaching until class starts, but with this staff’s expertise, you’d have a hard time believing it.
“It’s easier this way to be creative as a teacher,” says Breland, who’s undergone years of training in fitness and holistic health. “If you’re not going into it with a written-out plan, I think classes are a lot better.”
The trademarked original Fuse class began on the mat, but ten more courses, some challenging lessons in reformer and chair apparatus, are now available at the studio. The “Toys” class incorporates weights, springs, and balls; “Push Prep” gets mommies-to-be ready for their big day.
To prepare yourself for any Fuse class—it’ll be fast-paced—first try Foundations, a beginner (but certainly not easy) course in which the instructor will thoroughly walk you through fundamental Fuse moves. This is also a gentler option for those working through injuries. In the Foundations class I attended, Tori Ellis, a laid-back instructor who also leads a Fuse class for runners, made a point to give newbies one-on-one attention, supporting my body when I had trouble balancing through hip-sculpting exercises.
Breland says the Jump Interval class, a more intense workout that incorporates cardio moves on the trampoline-like jump board, is earning a lot of hype among her students. “Its really interesting to watch this class,” she says, “because people smile during it. Sometimes they start laughing.”
In a regular-level mat class led by Addie Johnson, an ultra-friendly, energetic Fusie, laughter abounded. While she pushed us to work and feel every inch of our obliques, she cracked occasional jokes and reminded the bunch, “It’s just pilates, guys. Don’t take it too seriously.”
Johnson encouraged us to find our own way through the class, focusing on our personal strengths and struggles and paying no mind to those around us. The philosophy is present throughout the place: “I always say my math and other people’s math aren’t the same. When I say do ten pushups, you can do five. I don’t count,” adds Breland.
For me, the five-story Fuse defied a frustrating local trend of cramped, unattractive, and at times, unclean yoga-pilates venues. Its decor is simple, yet comfortable; couches and a bowl of complimentary apples in the lobby make you feel at home. Minute details like filigreed mirrors inside the four sunlit studios give the space a touch of elegance, reminding you this isn’t your average fitness center. A lot of care has gone into running this place, and it shows.
“We want people to like our studio and want to be there,” Breland says. “We want our classes to be fun. Ultimately, if its not fun, people won’t come back,” she says.
Fuse Pilates mat and apparatus classes ($18-$25) are offered daily. Private sessions and packages are also available.