Laura Yan is a freelance and fiction writer, sketch artist and wanderer of the world. She is currently based in Brooklyn, and previously, all over the place. Laura has a lot of hobbies. She also tweets.
A few things you should know about me: I never learned to ride a bike, and I don't own a pair of sneakers. I'm not totally against exercise—I do a lot of yoga and walking (and there was that stint a few years back when I got really into boxing). But, generally, my preferences are limited. Anyway. I'm also a big proponent of trying new things, so when Hopes&Fears challenged me to sample the weirdest fitness classes I could find for a week, I knew it was going to be a terrible, by which I mean a great, idea.
Lately, I’d started to notice something curious taking place in the fitness world: it had inceasingly splintered into aspirational niches, most of which had seemingly little to do with the simple act of working out. I wanted to figure out what was behind all the hype. Do these regimens provide any actual physical benefits above and beyond what you can get at the gym, or are they just another way of shilling to sexy millennials with disposable income?
My first class of the week is at MonsterCycle, which is like SoulCycle, but... goth? The classes are often themed: Metal Night, or NSFW, where they play smutty music videos, I guess. The class I sign up for is called MINAJ’AHTWA (get it?). It features the musical stylings of Nicki + Taylor + Katy. It sounds amazing, actually.
I rent spinning shoes at the studio and put them on, only to realize that they’re terrifying to walk in. I would have tumbled down the stairwell if I’d kept trying. I walk downstairs in socks instead. In the cycling room, the lights are dimmed, like in a nightclub. There are two big video screens on the front wall, and half of the room is already pedaling furiously. I get clipped into a bike in the front row.
Our teacher is a fit and shiny gay man named Jonathan who refers to us as “6:30” (our class time). He calls out motivational directives, which I promptly decide to ignore. There’s a stats reader on our bikes that we can turn on, and every time I do, I get depressed. Jonathan says things like: “Turn up your resistance and go 90mph!” I’d be going 50 mph (and quickly dwindling), thinking the whole time: this sucks.
We’re supposed to pedal harder/faster in intervals synced to the music, which is a good concept except that watching Katy Perry pretending to be a jungle queen or admiring Taylor Swift’s weird swan neck is just not that motivating. I love pop music, I do! But if I’m blasting TayTay I want to be drunk and singing along, not torturing my legs on a bike going nowhere.
Everyone in class seems… normal. Like, really normal. After class, I listen to talk of birthday parties and brunch dates. There are no goths here. MonsterCycle is probably edgy in the way that people who have never been to New York imagine Williamsburg to be.
After class, I go back upstairs and recover on the couch. There are mini Cliff bars in a bowl on the coffee table. I eat two. My head hurts.
Monster Cycle — Soho
Like I said, I don't own sneakers, so I wear my trekking boots to Punk Rope, which is a jump rope class, with some fun and games mixed in. It takes place inside a church near McGorlick Park. It’s just eight of us, including two instructors. A few of the students are regulars and everyone’s super friendly. Tim, one of the instructors, gives me a punk rope pin, which I deliberate putting on until I notice that no one else is wearing theirs.
Every class has a theme, and tonight, it’s Jamaica. We listen to Jamaican music (the soundtrack is fantastic) and start with middle school P.E. style warm ups. Then, we go into intervals of jumping rope. Between jumping rope, we do other exercises or play games.
“Has anyone been to Jamaica?” Tim calls out. No answer. No matter—in our first exercise, we pretend to be on a trip to Blue Mountain. First, we “drive,” which is a walking squat with our arms held out as if navigating. Next, we “mountain climb” to scale our imaginary mountain. Finally, we do squat lunges with a twist, snapping photos of the view. It’s silly, but it also makes the whole thing much more entertaining.
For another game, we break into teams and do a relay race. There’s no humiliating fear of being left out or even much competition. It’s just fun. We do bat jumps (jumping squats, with your arms outstretched) because apparently bats are Jamaica’s favorite mammals. Then, we sprint back to the rest of the team and give our teammates high-fives. By the end of the hour, I’m sweaty and a little giddy. Gym class was always awful, but doing the same things as a willing adult is somehow more joyous.
Next week’s theme is Bollywood. When I ask Tim about the themes, he says that he thinks it’s more for the instructors than the students. Though he’s been super upbeat and encouraging throughout the class, I get the sense that he’s also a little resigned. After all, although the class is a lot of fun, it’s simply not that cool. And despite the name, it’s just about the least punk thing I can think of.
Punk Rope — Greenpoint
I cheat a little and go to my regular yoga class in the afternoon. It’s a 90-minute Jivamukti session, which is vinyasa with spiritual teachings sprinkled in. I’m devoted to my teacher, and it’s wonderful as always.
In the evening, I get ready for trampoline yoga at a studio Yelp reviewers have called “a very scarring experience” and “the hallway scene from The Shining meets Fifty Shades of Gray.” The studio is inside a labyrinthine office building in the Flatiron district. It is completely empty except for a dark-eyed woman at a computer, who does not acknowledge me when I first walk in. There’s a huge waterfall visual that covers one wall and bondage-esque wooden racks set up along the walls.
The woman, who is French and named Yvonne, shows me to the changing room, where I notice a folded red lace bra on top of a pile of cotton and linen clothes. It turns out, it’s just going to be her and me. There were others signed up, but I guess they all dropped out. Yvonne asks me what I want to do, and I say, hopefully: “trampoline yoga?”
She tells me that the studio is a personal experience and asks what I’m looking for. I can’t explain that I really just want the weird factor, so I tell her about my wrist injury and how I’d like to strengthen my core. The usual. She gives me a list of options, and I opt for a massage to start.
She drags a rectangular soft pad to the center of the room and instructs me to lie down. Then she tells me she’s going to use an electronic massager. I freak out slightly, envisioning some kind of low-level cattle prod. Then she shows me the thing: a large leather roller. “It’s just a vibrator,” she says, oblivious.
Okay then. I let her give me a massage. My jaw buzzes against the floor. She switches to massaging me with her hands. They’re very soft. After that, she shows me a way to self-massage, pressing my knee and body weight into my arm, which mostly hurts.
We pull out the trampolines. They’re personal-size, and we set them up in the middle of the room, facing each other. She tells me to start swirling around. “Move like water,” she says. “Be organic. Let it flow.”
We move through a series of motions that, on my end, are distinctively not fluid. Then we start bouncing. And boy, do we bounce: legs spread in a straddle, and hands placed overhead. It’s acrobatic girl on top. “Bounce a little higher, a little faster,” she says. And, like, is this not ridiculous? What exactly are we training for?
Trampolines folded away, she shows me some stretches over at the torture racks. They’re not dramatic. I lie down for savasana, which is just about the only yoga we do. Yvonne says: “Think about what you need. Maybe even what your soul needs. What do you really need tonight?” (Lately, I’m trying to be celibate.)
I spend a lot of time, later, watching videos on the studio's website. They’re mesmerizing. Hypnotic music plays as dancers with supple bodies bend and sway, an ankle or a leg hooked around a strange device. I have a lot of questions, and I think most of them will remain unanswered. I’m a little sad I didn’t get to experience Bill, the owner of the studio, who seems like a real eccentric. I saw him briefly at the end of my class, a bald, turtle-like man with a bird-like voice. He didn’t speak to me until I was walking out, and only then, to say goodbye.
Shen Tao Studio — Flatiron District
I first heard about Physique 57 from Wednesday Martin’s controversial memoir, Primates of Park Avenue (on her time spent LARPing as an Upper East Side mom by doing things like competing to get her kids into the best kindergarten or acquiring a Birkin bag). After attending her first Physique class, she wrote: “I thought I might faint—from the physical agony and the indescribable strangeness of this disconnected group-sex experience.” Which means it sounded like something I had to do.
Physique 57 has three locations in Manhattan (and a couple elsewhere, like the Hamptons and Dubai). I really, really wanted to go to the original UES location, and a mixed-level class where I was more likely to see the toned, unsmiling moms that Martin described. But, look, it’s Saturday, and I’m tired, and the last thing I want to do is trek all the way uptown to do a class I know is going to be torture. So I go to a beginner’s session in their downtown location instead.
We’re about eight in a class, all women, mostly older. The music is fast paced, energetic and upbeat. Our instructor is impressively, relentlessly peppy. I think she needs to be, in order to try and convince us that anything we’re doing is remotely fun.
It’s never fun, even when she encourages us to dance around. She also encourages us to do a lot of push-ups. She chirps at one student: “I like your hot pink socks!”
Then we move to the ballet barre for Physique’s famed pulsing, squeezing and lifting of muscles I didn’t know I had, in the legs or ass. Form is of the utmost importance here, but I have no idea what I’m doing so it hurts horribly half the time. Sometimes our instructor corrects me with a subtle adjustment that makes the exercise a hundred times harder. We alternate between intervals of painful movements at the barre to similar ones on the floor. Sometimes, we squeeze a ball between our thighs.
For motivation, our instructor calls out things like: “You’re going to look so hot in shorts!” and “It’s still summer!” and “Whip your ponytails, girls!” I suppose it might be useful if I was here to sculpt my body… but, I’m not. There’s at least one girl who’s not really a beginner. She wears stylish leggings and smiles on occasion. She lifts up her leg with a pointed toe, perfectly high.
“You are now 100% stronger!” Our instructor shrills, a claim I somehow doubt. We are near the end of class, so we do core work using almost all the props: a light mat, a thicker mat underneath, resistance bands, which seems an awful lot of fuss for doing variations of what are essentially sit-ups. An acoustic cover of “Don’t Stop Believin’” plays as we end class with yoga stretches.
As a first time offer, I get two Physique 57 classes for the price of one, but I can’t bring myself to go to another. I resign myself to the fact that I’ll never have what it takes to be an Upper East Side mom.
Physique 57 — Midtown West
My instructor for pole dancing has an amazing body: fit and slim, with a fantastic ass. She is a marvel to watch. The rest of us are less graceful. We start with warm-ups, familiar dance and yoga stretches that have been interwoven throughout the other classes. We do sexy push-ups, which is like the chaturanga variation in yoga: chest and knees down, ass in the air, then slide forward and up.
Then, we move on to the pole. There are six women in class so each of us get our own. We spray and wipe it down first, to prevent slipperiness (who knew there’d be so much upkeep?). We learn how to lock in with our hands, and how to stand in an opening pose, which looks fabulous. Then we learn how to walk around the pole, on our tiptoes, in slow motion. We learn to pivot and to do a basic spin, coming around to hook the pole with a knee.
We learn a more complicated spin that looks impossibly good and is equally impossible to do. Here it is: left knee hooked around the pole, left arm up high, right arm wrapped all the way around, with your forearm pressed against the pole; spin your left leg straight and out, then in a full circle until you land with your right leg hooked, close to the floor. Then you transition to a sexy push-up, then to a sexy lunge, then shift your weight and stand up on your tippy toes. I try a few times and land with a thud.
I spend a lot of time puzzled over how exactly each move is supposed to work, which is not very sexy. Finally, we do a last conditioning crunch/pull-up on the pole, which is as tough as it sounds. “Pole is really hard,” our instructor says. “If you’ve done just one thing you’re happy with today, you’ve done a lot.”
We stretch to end class. Gosh, I’m tired. I’m really, really tired. Learning new things constantly is exhausting. I could get into pole, I think, with time and effort. One day, I might be able to do a Teddy Cleaver. But for today, I can’t wait to leave and finally eat something.
Body & Pole — Chelsea
GrooveHoops happens at the 14th street Y (incidentally, the Punk Rope folks are just wrapping up when I arrive). This is by far the most colorful class, and the vibe is distinctly hippie. There’s talk of festivals and burlesque. There are colorful fabrics, flowy silhouettes, bare feet and ankle tattoos. The hoops are sparkly and come in a variety of weights and thicknesses. Our instructor is a dude in lavender pants with a stylish undercut.
We’re spread loosely around the room, newbies on the right and pros on the left. Right away, our teacher shows us a rapid-fire series of tricks: ducking inside the hoop, kicking your legs up, circling the hoop on your arms. We practice to music: electro-swing, music to dance to.
Some of the pros are serious. They jump over their hoops, dance with them, swirl and spin and twist them around every body part, looking absolutely graceful while doing it. Meanwhile, I often drop my hoop, and have to go chasing after it.
I manage to master some of the basic tricks—I’m terrible with any that use my arm (this is awful for my wrist). But it doesn’t really matter: we’re all jamming and hooping and I don’t want to stop. It’s addictive, like dancing on ecstasy. I can see why this is great for festivals. During one of our last practice intervals, I managed to circle the hoop around my knee. It’s an exhilarating feeling.
After class, I linger around and ask the regulars what they like about hooping. Is it for fitness or for fun? I approach a beautiful, ethereal girl with a British accent. She tells me she uses a weighted metal hoop at home, which really tones the abs, but she comes to the class mostly to enjoy the vibe. Another woman says that there’s a huge festival culture associated with hooping, and that’s why she does it too: for the community. The motivations might be different for the circus folks, she tells me.
I get it. I walked through the regular gym at the Y before class, and it was a very different scene: a silent room, each man to a machine, earphones in, sweating hard, so alone. In this room, the music is jubilant; we smile, we laugh, it’s fun. I consider investing in my own hoop.
GrooveHoops — East Village
It’s my last day, and I’m kind of looking forward to naked yoga, if only because I already know what to expect.
The studio is packed when I arrive, rows and rows of bare backs sitting cross-legged on yoga mats. There’s no changing room. I am totally cool with looking at naked people, but it takes me a moment to get used to the idea of being naked myself. It’s daunting. I take in a deep breath, then take off my clothes. I try to hold up my mat for modesty as I walk into the room and score a spot in the last row.
This is the most gender-balanced yoga class I’ve ever seen. There might even be more men than women, which is rare! I wonder if men like being naked more than women, or if it’s a voyeuristic thing.
When we’re settled, our teacher surveys the room for everyone’s energy levels. It’s mostly 7s and 8s, sprinkled with an enthusiastic 9 or 10. I say I’m a 7, but I’m actually closer to a 4. The class is a vigorous vinyasa flow. The music is modern and electro. The man in front of me has low-hanging balls. There are lights lining the sides of the room, like ones you might find at a strip club. They change colors throughout the class: now red, now pink, now blue.
Here’s the thing with yoga: it’s not sexy. You don’t want to see sweaty, naked people desperately trying to balance themselves in an eagle pose or flash your vagina to the masses in a wide-legged forward bend. Trust me on this. It’s weird even when you’re fit and gorgeous. Every time I glance up and see the instructor demoing a pose, I feel like I accidentally wandered onto the set of a thematic porno.
Also, because of my wrist injury, I do modified poses with my forearms, and my elbow gets mat burn. It hurts. And did I mention that it’s hot? It’s August in New York. The A/C is off. There are no windows.
You know what else I’d always thought I’d hate? Hot yoga. It’s so hot that my glasses fog up. I’m slippery as a fish, and there are no cotton leggings to absorb anything. I brought a tiny hand towel, but I need a full-size bath sheet for this. I pray, pray, pray for this to end. At last, we come to the inversions, and I experience a brief moment of grace: the novelty of seeing myself naked and upside down. Then it’s over.
A few regulars stay in the studio after class, chatting in the nude. Most of us dress quickly in the lobby, which is transformed into a musty unisex locker room. I watch a middle-aged man opportunistically chat up a pocket-sized version of FKA Twigs. “I used to be a gymnast when I was young,” he says.
I take the opportunity to chat her up too. “What do you like about naked yoga?” I ask, and she tells me that she loves being naked. “There are just so few places where you can do it in public!” She extols the virtues of the teacher, and of being able to do new poses you weren’t able to do before. That’s what I love about yoga too—just not here, and not like this.
Bikram Yoga NYC — Upper West Side
I got obsessed with climbing, recently. My wrist injury, I think, came from the month I fanatically climbed as much as I could. I’d do it one day for six hours, then come back again the next day. Even with the injury, I couldn’t keep away. It’s addicting.
Climbing is a pretty masochistic sport. And if I try to explain it—it’s this thing where you scale a rock wall, clasping onto tiny handholds that wear away the delicate skin of your fingertips, balancing precariously and falling often—it actually sounds a little weird, too.
I love climbing for that sense of accomplishment, that thrill I get when I finally finish a route. But I love feeling like a climber, too: feeling like I’m a part of something and that the “something” is worthwhile.
I hated half the classes I went to this week, but I get how someone else might find it fulfilling. About the women of Physique 57, Wednesday Martin writes: “beyond an identity, it was a calling, a vocation, something to excel at.”
Maybe when you choose your own weird fitness thing and you keep at it, and it becomes deeply personal. How you workout reflects who you are. All that marketing and branding, those gimmicky premises, mask the fact that you’re still doing physical exercise. But it gives you something else, too: a community, and a sense—no matter how illusory—that this special thing you do, it gets you, it suits you, it becomes you: a yogi, or a climber, or a hardened Little Monster, sweating it out to your preferred metal soundtrack.