Last spring, finding myself lacking the personal motivation and time to exercise outside of my daily walking routine, I thought maybe what I needed was a Pilates class...or something. I loved taking classes at the Y when it worked for my schedule - there's something about the camaraderie, accountability, shared misery, encouragement and the variety that helps me actually want to go. So last April, after noticing a few different studios pop up around town, I signed up for a barre class. I had googled it a bit and decided it was my kind of workout: a lot of micro-movements that build long, lean muscle and maybe just a light layer of sweat. Barre studios are similar to ballet studios in that they're usually lined with mirrors that have bars affixed to them. There's a lot of work at the bar itself, but also a bit of floor/mat work that is akin to Pilates. Many classes use light weights and small exercise balls, too.
When I got to my first class, I instantly went into comparison mode. For me, the comparing is not so much about my fitness level as it is about what I'm wearing. Fortunately this studio's website had a "what to wear" section, and also a heads-up that it was a barefoot studio, so you don't have to worry about what's on your feet. Still, when I got there, I felt a bit out of place. I was greeted by a super-perky 20-something who instantly made me feel old. The other women there were, for the most part, younger than me. They wore long spandex tights with no panty-lines, their hair was expertly wrapped into messy buns, and they were stretching at the bar like they've done it their whole young lives. Among these Lululemon all-stars, I felt pretty frumpy in my outfit that I probably spent no more than $30 on seven or so years ago. At least my hair looked awesome (I told myself), albeit too short for a messy bun.
Around the room were framed inspirational posters with shabby-chic lettering with sentiments like, "Embrace the shake." I learned during my googling that "the shake" happens when you work your muscles so deeply that they start to give out. The way you "embrace" this is that you keep pressing through them, despite the fact that your legs and then your entire body are a little bit out of control. Like convulsing.
Ready to begin?
The music started and the instructor came out and got us right into it, and though it was a bit fast-paced, there wasn't a lot of coordination needed. (Good news for me.) As we worked through the first few muscle groups, the one I dreaded most was yet to come: thigh. This was where the shake tends to happen violently. Since most of these exercises are repetitive, isometric movements, it's easy to begin confidently because it seems easy. One of the thigh exercises involves standing with your feet hip-width apart, on your tip-toes as high as they can go, with your tailbone tucked in. From there, you hold onto the bar with one hand, your other hand on your waist, and bend your knees to about a third of the way down from standing, and from there you bend your knees down an inch, then up an inch, and repeat. Simple. You got this. But after a 30 seconds or so you start to lose your mind with the shaking and burning that is happening as you're staring yourself down in the mirror, clinging to the bar for dear life. They tell you if you're shaking a lot, don't even worry about moving up and down. This is the time to - you guessed it - embrace the shake. It's almost laughable. After an hour, I left feeling well-worked, refreshed, and shaky for several hours. My muscles had never been worked quite in that way.
And...surprise. I loved it and felt empowered. I just wasn't totally sold on that studio. I looked up a different place a little further from my house called Bar Method. It's a franchise and there are hundreds of them across the country. Where the first studio had more of a cool downtown loft aesthetic, the Bar Method was more like a spa, thoughtfully built for flow. You walk into a reception area, where there is a sign-in, then a waiting area with an assortment of magazines and a bouquet of flowers, a mini fridge with bottled smoothies and water, a Keurig machine, etc. You keep walking through to a curtained-off area to find the changing room and lockers - all very clean, all very white. Truly, you walk in here and you feel like you've escaped from the grind. They also offer stuff like daycare and even have a monthly bookclub and some incentive programs, like earning "Bar Star" status (which earns you your own locker and monogrammed towel), and lavender socks after taking a certain number of classes. This place is a socks-ON studio, which was great news for my foot joints, because that means it's also carpeted (which I thought would be gross, but isn't).
Here were the young 20-somethings (but they tend to wear their hair in high pony tails and also have giant diamond rings), and even some teens, but also ladies more my age - professionals and working moms - as well as women who are nearing retirement if not already there. But what I ended up appreciating most was the level of attention by each of the instructors. Each one learns every person's name. Throughout the class, they may correct your form or they may cheer you on - out loud, on their mic, in front of everyone. I am usually the kind of person for whom this would be mortifying, but strangely, it's a nice reminder that I'm seen and cared for and working hard. I also like how we "thank our bodies for working hard for us" at the end of class. The whole thing is a surprisingly mindful experience. And then we clap and cheer for ourselves. It all sounds a little silly but gosh darn it, I'm into it.
Bar Method folks are sure to tell you you're building long, lean muscle. It's true. The muscles are there and some are kinda visible! I aim to go 3 times a week, thus fulfilling one of my original Day Zero goals. I rarely make excuses to not go because I know how good I always feel at the end - better than I'd feel if I didn't. I even went on the Saturday morning of my birthday, just so I could wear the birthday tutu. Who knows how long I'll stick with this particular mode of exercising, perhaps long enough to earn those coveted lavender socks. Either way, whatever I do, I'm just gonna thank this body for working hard for me.