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This Pilates class is harder to get into than the Magic Castle

Colleen McCabe takes a pilates class from Liana Levi owner of Forma Pilates.
Colleen McCabe takes a pilates class from Liana Levi, owner of Forma Pilates.

In a cozy pool house in Holmby Hills, 33-year-old Liana Levi counts backward from 10 as I move my leg in a slow circle. “Think happy thoughts,” she says as the deceptively simple movements cause my muscles to shake on the Pilates reformer. Her distinctly Californian voice wafts over a Bad Bunny-heavy playlist. She has a deep tan in January and dainty gold jewelry. Her sweatshirt, emblazoned with the logo for athleisure brand Sporty & Rich, seems custom made for her. Underneath it are her signature washboard abs. We’re talking a Marvel movie, can’t believe it’s-not-CGI eight-pack that her 130,000-plus Instagram followers know intimately. Her secret? Her Pilates method, Forma.

Levi did not invent the movements she teaches, but with her body as a case study, she quickly became their gatekeeper. Forma Pilates elevates the fundamentals of classical Pilates with what Levi calls “athletic edge.” Rather than shouting buzzwords, Levi breaks down what it means to engage your pelvic floor or really feel your outer glutes and guides clients until they really feel it. The slightest tweak transforms a two-inch movement. The walls of Forma studios are adorned with signed rubber resistance bands that past clients have snapped in half with the strength of their thighs.

Rubber resistance bands, snapped and signed by past clients, adorn Levi's home studio.
Rubber resistance bands, snapped and signed by past clients, adorn Levi's home studio.

Los Angeles is no stranger to trendy workouts. Classes promoting Joe Pilates’ famed technique have existed in America’s fitness capital since 1972. There have been plenty of copycats, too. Faster-paced classes using supersize machines like Solidcore or the Megaformer take inspiration from Pilates, but can’t use the name. Like Champagne versus sparkling wine, Pilates is exclusive by nature. Forma is exclusive by design, an invite-only exercise community that charges $100 for semi-private reformer classes and $250 for private sessions. Forget Raya, Soho House, or even the Magic Castle — getting into one of Levi’s Forma Pilates classes might be the hardest ticket in town.

Levi grew up “very sheltered” in the manicured suburb of Holmby Hills. While a student at the elite private Jewish day school Milken, she played sports and danced competitively. At 16, she took her first Pilates class to supplement her training and was immediately hooked.

“I worked muscles that I didn't know existed,” she said “I felt longer and taller and my core was as strong as it had ever been. I realized this is the most elegant and beautiful type of fitness out there.”

Liana Levi.
Liana Levi.
Liana Levi guides Kassia Taylor in the use of pilates q
Liana Levi guides Kassia Taylor in the use of pilates equipment.

Following a handful of fashion-industry jobs in her 20s, Levi took a chance, and earned her Pilates teaching certificate. She’d long been frustrated by local Pilates classes that failed to teach correct form or emphasize the importance of “mind-body connection,” and thought she might be able to do better. In 2020, she launched Forma Pilates out of her mom’s pool house during the thick of the pandemic lockdown. With safety in mind and only room for two reformers, she had no choice but to start small. First with informal classes for friends, then friends-of-friends. Word of mouth about her rigorous technique spread from her well-connected acquaintances to a handful of celebrities. Within four months, the small business Levi began as a pandemic experiment was drawing A-listers like Hailey Bieber and Bella Hadid.

A year after launching, Levi expanded Forma to a Melrose Avenue studio in West Hollywood. Despite demand, she kept the studio intimate, at just four clients a class. Soon, The Daily Mail was running paparazzi pics of Kendall Jenner leaving the studio, and interest in Forma ballooned. Levi extended her clientele to connections up to six degrees away from herself. “I wanted to keep it exclusive and unique and niche and boutique and luxury,” she said.

In November 2023, Forma debuted heated mat pilates classes in a new Beverly Glen studio that fits 14 people. It’s the largest and least expensive of Forma’s classes. Levi calls it “more accessible,” but it remains true to the exclusivity at the core of the brand. At $50 a pop, it tops Barry’s Bootcamp ($34), SoulCycle ($34) and Solidcore ($40) in price-per-class. Like all Forma classes, referral is required. When I took a class at noon on a Friday, there were just five students. A paparazzo lurked in the parking lot.

Liana Levi, owner of Forma Pilates, chats with her students Kassia Taylor and Colleen McCabe at her home studio.
Liana Levi, owner of Forma Pilates, chats with her students Kassia Taylor and Colleen McCabe at her home studio. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Today, Forma has a total of six locations across Los Angeles, New York and Phoenix. There are upwards of 3,500 approved clients who have the choice of more than 50 classes a week, taught by 16 different Levi-trained instructors. Levi, meanwhile, travels for pop-ups and teaches 10 classes weekly in L.A.

Despite the droves of followers who would happily fill a spot in Forma’s classes, those outside Levi’s charmed orbit must settle for Forma’s online platform. The $50-a-month service is updated weekly with pre-recorded mat and reformer workouts. They may not hold the mysterious allure of membership to an invite-only exercise cult, or the possibility of sweating next to Kaia Gerber. But hey, you can actually get in.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.