Health & Grooming | Chronicles of a Spa Junkie

Spa Junkie in… New York

Our undercover reporter submits to some killer NY workouts

Spa Junkie in… New York

December 10 2011
Spa Junkie

Part: 1 | 2

Pilates, yoga and cardio workouts as we know them were not invented in New York, but they have certainly been crafted, twisted, tweaked and perfected in the city. Largely, we owe thanks to the Upper East Side Wasps, with their unwavering and time-efficient demands; the long and lean yogis who bring Urban Zen to SoHo; and the city-turned-cool set that have transformed once don’t-go-there Tribeca into an oasis of Bugaboos at brunch. Chapeaux to them all. Each one played a part in raising the barre and changing the global fitness landscape.

No city in the world can rival the female tribes that inhabit this urban jungle. Creep north of 14th and you’ll start noticing a gradual difference in the dress, attitude, and hair. Scale further up, to the heady heights of the 60s, and you’re in another world altogether. And if you trek down to the Lower East Side you will find an entirely different cool-without-trying animal and attitude. Each little grid patch sprouts its very own unique individuals with their quirks and craziness, and you can tell a lot from their workout regime; in fact, it often defines them. Forget about the fancy gym and laborious reformers, toss out the knee-wrenching runners; grab some dance socks, a ball and a band strap – it’s time to get into a New York State of Mind.

I have just checked into the Brits’ favourite uptown haunt, The Mark. My friend Lucy calls this the “expensive hair district’’, in reference to the salon-lined Madison and Park Avenues, the favoured stomping ground for the Waspa-skinnysaurus-rex.

While the downtown ladies, in their carefully-put-together “I didn’t put it together” look, are busy having their chakras balanced at dawn, the Upper East Sider is groomed to perfection and following an altogether different approach. Not prone to fancy, the Wasp has generations of good breeding coursing through her J Crew veins. She wants a direct and time-efficient approach to fitness while still nodding to her inner Goop (that’s wellbeing, according to the title of Gwyneth Paltrow’s weekly lifestyle newsletter) – she was, after all, at Spence with Gwynnie.

At Exhale – literally across the road from The Mark – they have responded to this need by creating a haven of underplayed luxury housing some seriously tough workouts, yoga and spa treatments for even the most discerning time-strapped clientele.

“You have got to lean into the pain,” says a perfect sample-shaped instructor to a gaggle of the other perfectly sculpted specimens dressed in the coolest of cashmere-knit kit as she leads us all into the studio for a Core Fusion class.

“Hands up who has never been here before?” I sheepishly raise my hand. All eyes on newbie; it feels like my first day at school. I am greeted by facial expressions that range from “sucker” (ie, she doesn’t know what she’s in for) to the snobby, pinch-mouthed “ugh” (she should have gone to a beginners’ class, she is totally going to slow us down).

What have I got myself into here? Core Fusion is a blend of Pilates, barre work, core conditioning and – the current buzzword in fitness – “interval cardio training”. Everybody is at it, and in NYC it comes in a variety of formats, from the Brazilian Butt Lift (think Adriana Lima) to old-school Hoola Hooping; Ballet Boot Camp to Flywheeling; Soul Cycling to what must be the most ridiculous of all workouts: Aerial Yoga (whereby you hang suspended from the ceiling with ropes). Cirque du Soleil, eat your heart out.

“I love this Core Fusion class. Most of us used to do Lotte Berk, but now we all come here – it’s more high-intensity, more of a workout, and it totally changed my body. My tush is tighter, my abs are back. You will love it – and it’s totally addictive, you know,” says the girl next to me as she points to her rear. We both spend a few seconds too long examining her perfectly small and rounded ass in the mirror.

“C’mon ladies, let’s warm up!” a pretty blonde is yelling from the front of the class. “We start by swinging our opposite arms and legs – keep smiling! – and let’s get those hearts pumping.” So far so good.

“Now, grab your dumbbells, it’s time for the triceps fold-over. Keep your back flat and your abdominals in; squeeze! Tiny movements people! Think about lengthening your muscle; no more chicken wings.” That would certainly be a huge relief.

We do a series of arm exercises. There is a lot of repetition and when the burn sets in, which indicates muscle fatigue, she asks us to go even deeper – and I do, until I feel my muscles snap, crackle and pop; and then, just as I think I can’t do any more, we stop the pulses and do a little stretch.

“On to the barre, ladies. It’s time for your glutes and thighs. Inhale down, exhale up, heels touch, on your tippy toes, and bounce, bounce! Now go a little deeper, and pulse, pulse, pulse!” This is incredibly intense. Within a very short time, everywhere I look there are sets of quivering legs.

This is what they call interval training. It involves bursts of high-intensity work that make your heart pump and they also isolate specific muscle groups, exhausting them through simple and deeper repetition. The high-intensity work is alternated with recovery periods and stretching. According to most new-age fitness experts, this is the winning formula for creating that long and lean ballet body.

“Down to your heels – tuck your undercarriage, dear!” My what? “Your butt is sticking out like a table – tuck your seat, girl!” she clarifies as she pushes my behind back into place. “The idea is to work the core and improve posture. By tucking it all in you improve your alignment and make the workout more intense.” Now the pint-sized instructor has both hands on my shoulders, pushing me deeper into the position until I feel my legs might cave in.

Then it’s onto the mat, for one-legged sit-ups and one-legged tricep-lifts. My back is against the wall, literally. “Now lift your legs!” But my legs, which feel like lead, won’t lift; not even an inch. So I sit this one out. Trust me – it’s a lot harder than it sounds.

Finally, we go into the Child’s pose – thank God. I saunter back to the cosy confines of the hotel feeling toned and worked-out. This hour-long sculpting class had me not just practising pliés; it was definitely sweat-inducing, had lots of body-sculpting intensity and was all set to a super-fun soundtrack.

The next day, I decamp to the other end of town, checking into SoHo House. Here, the downtown girl prides herself on embracing whatever transcendental health and fitness trends orbit around her (inherited) brownstone cosmos, and will boast of each discovery to a Greek chorus of fellow yogis and Bar Method addicts in the ubiquitous “liquidteriums”– aka juice bars – littering her neighbourhood. And in the pramville of Tribeca, the new must-do workout comes in the form of the Bari Method.

I’d heard The Bari Studio was members only, but either they scrapped that policy or my dulcet tones over the blower won them over. Whichever the case, I called and got into a class straight away.

“Basically, Bari is our founder Alexandra’s vision come true; she combined and blended the muscle sculpting of the standing Bar Method, the strengthening of a good yoga practice, and the cardio of dance into a high-energy interval workout. You are going to love it.” The receptionist beams as she checks me in.

First impression? This is another Lotte Berk knock-off – it’s Physique 57 (itself a Lotte Berk spin-off) with some straps hanging from the ceiling. And I’m not sure about the tag line: “We not only know movement, we are a movement.” It smells a little “trying too hard” to me.

“Welcome! Is it your first time?” Alexandra, the owner, is talking to the class in her cool brick-walled, high-ceilinged space, adorned with work by local artists.

“Do you know much about this method?” No, please tell me. “It’s a combination of barre work and plyometrics; we’ve combined a series of core-strengthening and cardio movements together with some barre techniques. We spend about two-thirds of the class at the barre; we really do get into it so we can sculpt long and lean bodies.”

I ask her what plyometrics are as she places me in position. “It’s when you combine powerful and fast movements into your training; our aim is to overload and then contract the muscle through a series of repetitive bar sequences.”

She takes her position at the head of the class. Rihanna starts blaring from the speakers.

“Grab the bands and pull down, then pull your legs up; it’s warm-up.” I’m tugging on the green bands suspended from the ceiling – pretty easy-breezy – and I’m having fun. Alexandra is guiding us through the paces, and if her body is anything to go by, this workout clearly works – no question.

On to the barre. We do a series of sequences made up of crunches, lunges and plyos. Her instruction is clear, but distant; I would have expected her to make more of a fuss over a beginner; she does not correct my position at any time and I find myself constantly looking at the others for guidance.

“On to the mat; it’s time for push-ups. Ladies, you will be doing 32 push-ups during the class today,” she hollers; then it’s back to the barre. My legs kick out; I jump, I dip, I crunch and I lunge until it’s ouch-ouch-ouch.

Alexandra demonstrates in a perfect, poetic ballet-style sequence, but I find it is much harder than it looks; and just when I can’t jump, dip, crunch or lunge any more, it’s back to the mat for more legwork.

She continues: “On your hands and knees; lift your leg up, place the ball between your calf and your thigh, squeeze it tight and bring your leg in and out.” Apparently this is called the Superman stretch, and it really works to lengthen your abdominals. Then back to the mat for plank, that killer abdominal exercise where you balance on your forearms and tippy toes, with only your core to give you stability. It’s a favourite in the marine corps.

Alexandra has really taken the Om out of her workouts, but she still manages to get in a couple of Down Dogs, which I am incredibly grateful for – they are an opportunity to stretch and catch my breath.

She certainly has not left a stone unturned in the creation of her “movement”, as she likes to call it. It seems very well researched; she uses reusable steel water bottles, organic products in the bathroom, local reclaimed-wood lockers, there is a class for kids and an antioxidant-rich selection of teas brewing in the kitchen.

So, hats off to her. She’s done a great job; she has certainly liberally borrowed the very best from the Berk Method and Physique 57, and packaged and rebranded it into an attractive business. All she needs to do now is just go a little easier on the cult positioning and tribal banter, and fine-tune her teaching technique.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Both workouts were power-packed with all sorts of pain-inducing, muscle-fatiguing sequences and a selection of props you would find at playschool, which help to take your mind off the suffering. I have become a total convert – a firm believer in this take on interval training, with its barre, Pilates and yoga mix that’s not yet a staple in London.

They may do things slightly differently, but both the uptown and downtown contingents seek, in quick-time, high-result packages, the same level of body perfection; and both approach achieving it with the same energy and single-minded determination they give to landing the Goldman Sachs-partner husband. And thank God for their example; if grooming and spa-ing were Olympic sports, New York women would take the whole podium faster than you can say, “Sauce on the side.”

Spa Junkie pays for all her own travel, treatments and accommodation.