illustration by Antoinetta Lazzaro

Modification Girl

I’m not good at boutique fitness classes, but I’ve tried all of them.

If I can speak with authority on anything, it’s boutique fitness classes. What I’m referring to are the kind of group workout classes frequented by and marketed to white women and taught by gay men and former NFL cheerleaders. They cost $25. They typically have a cold-pressed juice bar in the lobby, pristine locker rooms stocked with bowls of free hair ties and organic tampons and counters lined with spray-bottles of rose water, and a gift shop selling tank tops with phrases like NAMASLAY ALL DAY. After one class, you are subscribed to frequent emails with subject lines like #RISEANDGRIND advertising classes with names like Candlelight Beyoncé Flow. I’m not good at these classes. But these are also the kind of classes that appear frequently on Groupon and run “new client” specials, which is why I have tried all of them.

The first one I tried was Pure Barre. I distinctly remember when barre workouts — whose connection to ballet pretty much starts and ends at the use of a ballet barre in classes — became a thing: around the time of the film Black Swan. I’ve seen Black Swan many times, and never once after watching have I said to myself, “Ballet really seems like a low-impact and toning workout! I wish it was more accessible to me, a woman in her 20s.” But yet, the popularity of Darren Aronofsky’s psycho-sexual thriller lead to demonstrations on “The Today Show” and barre studios popping up like fro-yo purveyors (also popular at the time).

With my Groupon app loaded with a voucher for a month of classes, I showed up to my nearest Pure Barre and immediately got in trouble for strolling into the carpeted, walk-in-closet-sized studio barefooted. It turns out you’re supposed to wear socks — not just any socks, but a specific type of skid-proof ankle socks that are conveniently available for $15 in the Pure Barre store. The other women in the class — the thin, moneyed stay-at-home moms of Uptown New Orleans — frowned at me as I scanned the room for sympathetic laughter about my blunder. Beyond my sock faux pas, I already felt like I stuck out with my pierogi body — pale and made out of potatoes — and stomach like rising pizza dough. I was wearing a holey T-shirt and Nike outlet store leggings that are pilling and fading from years of ignoring basic care instructions.

(If you’re thinking, “You’re going to get sweaty when you work out. Why make an effort to look good?” that means you’re likely a reasonable, sane person, and also that you clearly have never gone to one of these classes.)

For the uninitiated, barre workouts involve doing tiny little movements with muscles located deep within your pelvic region that, when activated, induce feelings not unlike menstrual cramps. And you do this while doing about a hundred other things at once: gripping onto the barre, standing tip-toed, bending your leg at a 45-degree angle, softening your knees, tilting in your pelvis, holding a ball between your thighs, and clamping your “sits bones” (clean-eating blonde woman parlance for “butt”). My body quaked. I wanted to cry, throw up, and fart at the same time. Pure Barre actually was like Black Swan: It took all the beauty and joy out of ballet and left the pain and parts that lend themselves to having an eating disorder.

But not one to waste a Groupon, I came back. Over the next month I filed into the walk-in closet of mean moms and was barked at by a series of New Orleans Saints cheerleaders over pulsing Rihanna remixes. For a few classes I seemed to improve. The body shakes calmed down. I was sometimes able to master the tip-toe-leg-jut-pelvis-shift-butt clamp position. My sits-bones looked more defined. But during one class, that menstrual cramp feeling shot upward and I ran to the bathroom to puke. That day’s NFL cheerleader whispered to me, “Are you OK?” but in a tone that communicated she didn’t actually care. After the puke, and realizing the $25-a-class price was unsustainable, my Pure Barre career was over.

Thus began my boutique fitness class failure cycle: Get a deal — either from Groupon or the studio’s new client special — feel the promise of optimal fitness, go for a little while, be awful at it, feel bad about myself, realize I can’t afford it anyway, disappear, and move on to the next one like some small-time con artist. In my spree of fitness classes I tried: a knock-off Soul Cycle where computers were attached to the stationary bikes to rank riders (I held strong at second-to-last), a confusing class created by Navy SEALS, Pilates at a studio frequented by Lea Michele and Emma Roberts, and exactly one trapeze class. Nothing stuck, and I usually finished my latest boutique workout stint feeling more discouraged than before.

In the summer of 2016 I moved to Chicago, and I was dazzled by all the big-city millennial amenities the city offered. Extensive, speedy Uber service! Food delivery apps! Wine delivery apps! Grocery delivery apps! (Basically, just delivery apps.) Beyond all the apps, which drained my bank account with so little friction, I also had access to the fabled startup ClassPass. With ClassPass, you pay a monthly fee and can go to boutique fitness classes at a variety of gyms. (They are disrupting fitness!) This was perfect for a boutique fitness dilettante like myself.

And luckily, Chicago is lousy with boutique fitness. Dense neighborhoods like River North and Old Town were alive with women briskly walking, their taut butts in slick compression leggings that looked like armor, wearing intricately strapped sports bras peeking through tank tops, carrying bright yoga mats on their backs with harnesses.

I finally went to the reining queen (kween) of boutique fitness, Soul Cycle. The subject of so many New York Times trend pieces, the site of so many celebrity visits. And this was a real Soul Cycle, not one of those knock-offs with the evil leaderboard of riders. Here bikes didn’t even have computers on them, presumably so you can focus on living your truth, being present, and slaying all day.

I went to Soul Cycle initially for a “Hamilton”-themed ride, then I parlayed my New Client status into a few more free classes. The dark room, again pulsing with Rihanna, felt like being inside a planetarium where you’re yelled at by an Instagram fitness celebrity. In the inky sea of 60 riders, and with the low-tech bikes, I realized you could simply sit on the bike and barely move. Twenty-five dollars a class was too much to sit in the dark listening to Lin-Manuel Miranda (something I could do, and often do, for free in my own home), so again I gave up.

Out of all the fancy work-outs I tried, yoga stuck the longest. Yoga is not inherently fancy; yoga, at its core, is a simple, humble practice that merely requires your own body. But the yoga I speak of bears little semblance to its eastern origins. This was the type of yoga fully colonized by white women, located in those same kind of places with the nice bathrooms with free hair ties, soundtracked by gentler Rihanna songs.

I actually like yoga. I like the feeling of my 5’2 body being stretched into something long and graceful. Since in yoga you use your own bodyweight to build strength, it makes me feel strong and capable, and like I’m using and honoring my perfectly able body in the way I should.

But the scaffold of these positive, healthy thoughts comes crashing down when this inevitably happens in a class: I decide I can’t hold a side plank anymore. The instructor looks my way and says, “Everyone, I want you to pay attention to what Lauren’s doing right now. She’s honoring the pose, but she does have one leg down. Feel free to modify whenever you see fit. Listen to your body!”

I was the class’s — and almost every yoga class I’ve been in’s — modification girl. You may know this character from any workout video, the girl on the left doing brisk side-steps when the one on the other side is doing full lunges. “Be sure to watch Stephanie if you have trouble with your knees.”

“This is your practice!” the teacher continues. “I’m just up here talking!”

Being singled out in this way would make me snap out of my dizzy yoga bliss — that feeling of being long and strong for once, doing Warrior 2 in sync with the rest of the flock — and notice I was surrounded by already fit women in mesh paneled leggings and the kind of Lululemon sports bra I got stuck inside the one time I shopped there. Once again, I didn’t fit in here. It was obvious I was a Groupon customer, a New Client, a ClassPasser on a one-month free trial.

I tried to focus on the instructor’s mantra: This is YOUR WORKOUT! Listen to your body! This is about you!!! But I couldn’t help to think that the “you” in this case was shitty. No one should listen to my body — which is usually telling me to eat a donut.

My relationship with boutique yoga officially ended at CorePower, which was by far the most corporate of all the corporate fitness experiences I’ve had. I can’t imagine this modern permutation of yoga would be pleasing to the early Brahmans, who could never have envisioned a chipper woman concluding a class with “Namaste, you guys!” Located in a strip mall between a Target and a Subway, here you could buy a $40 “OM” tank top or leggings with a cultural appropriation pattern in the studio’s store. The most eerie part about CorePower was every teacher followed nearly the same script during their classes, down to the “listen to your body” part.

At the beginning of one class the teacher — a lispy man with cultural jewelry who I assumed is a DePaul University theater grad — asked the class if we had anything we wanted to focus on. Thinking I had pegged all yoga teachers at this point and wanting to seem like I was super attuned to the divine light, I requested we focused on the spiritual goal of patience. He looked at me like I had just asked which way the Zumba class was. “Um, that can be your personal intention, but I was thinking more like a part of the body you want to focus on.” Oh. “Uh, hips,” I offered.

At the end of the class the teacher said if we had any questions or feedback to let him know. I was in no position to be giving any yoga teacher “feedback,” so I headed straight to the locker room to spray my sticky, flushed body with rose water and steal some hair ties. It was winter so I zipped my sleeping bag parka over my Old Navy clearance top and those pilling, graying leggings.

As I was about to leave and head to Target my teacher cornered me by the front desk. I thought he was going to thank me for trying really hard, or use some other micro aggression directed to women who attend fitness classes and have the audacity to not already be fit. But instead, he got in front of me with the intense earnestness of an ACLU street canvasser and asked, “Do you have any feedback for me?”

“The class was great! Really … restorative. My hips are definitely open.”

“Is there anything you would change?”

“Um, nope!”

He furrowed his brows, as if the ACLU street canvasser was about to begin a sentence with “You know, now, more than ever …” “Well I have feedback for you.” He was in front of a crowd of hot, sinewy yoga teachers congregating by the front desk, some of whom began to surreptitiously look my way with that same look of disappointment I got when I didn’t wear socks to Pure Barre.

“You’re doing downward dog wrong,” he said, referring to pretty much the foundational pose of yoga. It would have been nice if he had pointed this out, you know, during the actual class. He began to demonstrate how to property do downward dog in front of all the yoga teachers, as I watched, shrinking in my zipped-up sleeping bag.

I was fine being the modification girl in the dimness of a foggy yoga studio, but out here in the light of day, in front of CorePower’s factory of theater students-turned-teachers memorizing their scripts for class like they were sides for a commercial audition, I felt like I was being intentionally embarrassed.

A few weeks later the founder of the chain was found dead after falling into a drunken stupor and suffering a self-inflicted head injury.

During my first Chicago winter, I discovered a love of chocolatey stout beers, devouring entire packages of Trader Joe’s ravioli, and not moving, and thus a gained a quick 15 pounds (I also blame the Trump Administration). But once the ice began to melt and I walked more instead of taking Lyfts, sometimes supplementing my commute with short rides using Chicago’s bike-share, I slowly shed the hibernation pounds. I began to feel accomplishment in incorporating small, healthy changes into my life. Those impossibly expensive and difficult classes, where I could never advance past the New Client stage, seemed to only set me up for failure.

But eventually I felt the exercise class pull again. This latest urge lead me in a different direction: To a tiny corner studio in my neighborhood for Zumba. Zumba, the dance fitness craze you may recognize from so many late-night DVD infomercials, featuring drastic before-and-after photos and ecstatic moms doing the rumba — this generation’s Sweatin’ to the Oldies. Lea Michele and Emma Roberts would never go to Zumba.

Armed with pairs of purple, Zumba-branded workout maracas, me and the group of 50-somethings in class that night waited as the teacher turned off the studio lights and switched on a light-up disco ball that cast purple, red, and green shapes across the room. The music began, a generic reggaeton song interspersed with “ZUMBA!” I fell into the repetitive motion of shuffling left, then right, shaking my Zumba sticks. At one point a song had us jumping as if using an invisible jump rope. As I was jumping spastically, my loose shirt rustling and my stomach fat jiggling, I caught my reflection in the mirror. Through the red light covering my face I saw I was laughing.