mundane adventures in running
My friend Juliette had a birthday recently. Her yoga studio, Fierce Grace, very kindly gave her a free pass so she could bring a friend. Juliette very kindly passed that pass on to me.
Fierce Grace runs hot yoga classes. Not Bikram yoga, hot yoga. My guess is that they actually teach skirting round copyright protection yoga. I heard that it is the opinion of some people that the Bikram guy is pretty litigious, so you can see why Grace might avoid calling their brand of hot yoga anything other than hot yoga. There’s some rumour going round that too much kundalini energy passing your Sahasrara chakra makes you way more likely to sue people.
Juliette and I met on a really very cold February Friday at the studio to take part in a Deep Core session. She promised me lunges and hip openers. She promised me sweat, tropes and pretty young things. The class did not disappoint.
Fierce Grace is slickly constructed. This is no village hall yoga class. There’s a logic and branded consistency to the experience. You are met with a genuinely warm welcome, encouraged to take your shoes off and immediately subjected to logos, to the Fierce Grace in house photographic style (‘characters’ doing yoga, beautifully shot in grey studios) , to a modernish urbanish newageish decor working as a backdrop to gentle and beguiling sales pitches.
We changed in his and hers changing rooms, the hers deliberately much larger than the his. Then we descended to the studio.
We weren’t the first to arrive. A couple of other yogis were already cat-cowing and child posing in the huge yet strangely airless room. The branding continued to the studio. We faced a floor to ceiling, wall to wall mirror. It reflected the class’ participants, but also more logos and slogans, mirror written on the back wall. There was no way you could escape the fact that not only were you doing yoga, you were very specifically doing hot yoga, and Fierce Grace hot Yoga at that.
The teacher arrived. She was welcoming, patient and seemed very warm (emotionally. the room was hot, she was definitely physically warm). Her instructions were clear, well explained and delivered in a lovely Scottish accent. The routine was pretty easy to follow and let me push my edges without going too hard. That said, I think I would have been quite lost if I didn’t know anything about yoga, and if I hadn’t laid my yoga matt out next to Juliette who has been lots before and knows the ropes.
The heat was nice at first, but stifling by the end. I think I’d get used to it if I went again. This time though, I felt quite self conscious that the sweat was literally running off me (running, not dripping, there were, at times, a steady stream of it pouring from my body. ugh.) I was surprised how easy it was to cheat the body into stretching more than it’s used to just be whacking up the heat. I have no idea how good it is for you.
Hot Yoga, a la Fierce Grace, combines saunas and yoga, two things I like, and creates a third thing. It’s certainly not as relaxing as a sauna. And it’s certainly different to the way I usually practice yoga. My praxis of yoga is crap. I haven’t been to classes for years, and even when I did I only went to a handful of ashtanga sessions. Now, I’ll roll out the matt in my living room, maybe pop a couple of moves learned from watching Antranik videos, try a full Ashtanga session (shitly following a youtube video) or, far more likely, I’ll just do Esther Ekhart’s amazing Yoga for Runners 25 minute practice.
This works for me. Really, yoga for me is about stretching. I’m not trying to achieve anything more than a mild meditation, a bit of strength stuff, and a lot of stretching. It helps me to run injury free and is intrinsically enjoyable. The way I practice yoga is on my own terms, and free. It’s this second characteristic which really marks out Fierce Grace as being different to what I do: that to enjoy Fierce Grace’s classes I have to spend £17.50 (less if you buy multiple sessions, even less if your mate gives you a free pass).
Now, I need to be really clear about why I find this odd. I want to categorically state that this is pretty good value for money. The quality of the teaching, the thought that’s gone into the studio and the amount they must spend on heating the place makes £17.50 seem a fair price. The thing I find odd is how exercise, like so many other things, has been reduced to a financial transaction.
I think exercise is rewarding, and while I have to invest in it the transaction is not simply financial: I put the time and effort and get the benefit back. I spend hours running, swimming, doing (shit) yoga (at home), cycling, reading up on training, eating, breathing. I also spend money, quite a lot of money, on my habit: shoes, clothes, swim club membership, osteopaths, the fact that I invariably have two sandwiches for lunch not just one. The thing I don’t do is directly buy exercise. I’ve never felt that I need to pay for exercise itself to get the benefit. When I’ve toyed with the idea of personal trainers, with gait analysis, with paid-for classes, the attraction has always been in the transactionalisation of the exercise/ payoff. It’s less about I put the effort in, I reap the reward and more if I spend £XX on personal training, and I must get the reward.
We’re good little consumerists, and this equation fits the model of modern consumption. I miss something in my life, I buy something and it somehow fills the void. Spending money leads to outcomes, spending money moves the world. Money is agency: spend money, buy stuff, buy services or products and life will change little by little or in sweeping epiphanies.
I don’t want to read too much into other people’s motivations, and I also don’t want to sound superior, but I do wonder if this is part of why they do it. The intention of getting fit, of being a better person, the resolution of doing exercise, of doing yoga, is underscored and made real by a financial transaction: “I know this is good for me, because I have paid £17.50 for it.” It works in so many other parts of life: health food is healthier if it’s more expensive, you know you’re having a luxurious experience when you’ve spent money on it, you know you’re doing mindfulness properly when you’ve spent £2.99 on a meditation app.
I loved Fierce Grace. I really enjoyed my introduction to hot yoga. The hip openers left me walking like John Wayne, I left feeling that the teacher personally cared about me. But. I also wondered how much of my enjoyment was because of the transaction. I didn’t pay for my hot yoga, but I knew it was worth £17.50. The fact that it was good for me, that it was like exercise, that I was part of a gang of Good People was constantly underlined by the branding, by the consistent message communicated in every beatific smile from the staff, every Sanskrit reference, every bright coloured painted room, every tea urn full of Himalayan herbal chai. It’s almost as though by paying for the yoga, by having a value assigned to it, I felt I was getting something from it. Crucially, I knew I was benefitting immediately, without that deferred benefit pay off I expect from long term consistent exercise (long term improvement, getting stronger, faster, dropping heart rate. It was a £17.50 session, therefore I was getting £17.50’s worth of meditation/ exercise/ strength training.
I have two final thoughts about this, and a question. First: more power to Fierce Grace’s customers. I don’t feel I need to spend money on exercise to get benefits, but it is brilliant that other people find their resolution in block booking sessions, and find comfort in doing a thing normalised by other people and some very good, well thought out experiential branding. I want everyone to exercise and enjoy exercise as much as I do. Companies like Fierce Grace which spread positive physical and mental wellness practices are fucking awesome and I really respect what they do. That they can make money out of it, even better. Second: I did enjoy the experience, and imagine I’ll go back again, to hang out with Juliette, to get hot, and to stretch. I found it odd, but I enjoyed it immensely. Third, the question: if Fierce Grace wasn’t a conventional company, but was a community run co-op, and it didn’t have slick branding, nice interiors, great photography, if it was a bit more ramshackle but with the same content, would people still go? if hot yoga was de-professionalised and de-transactionalised, would it still make you fit? Is a £4.50 voluntary contribution hot yoga class as good for you as a £17.50 creatively directed, appified, branded, thought out yoga class?