5 Days at the (Bohemian Studios) Barre

There comes a point in the midst of life when things are clearly no longer what they were.  For me, that manifested itself in a sudden increase in pant size from 32 to 34 to 36 inches, and the actual measurement went above that.  I had gradually cut back and then stopped exercising, and much of the time remaining had been filled up with snacking.  Yes, I had hit the point of middle age slump.  But it was more than that.  I had also had a gradually deviating septum more or less collapse on itself.  When I finally realized that lingering sinus infections and not being able to go up more than one flight of stairs without pausing for breath was not normal and went to see a specialist, I was diagnosed with over 95% nasal passage blockage and surgery was recommended. Having recovered from that and suddenly finding myself infused with much of the energy I had simply given up on as lost, I decided the time had come to get myself back into some form of shape.

A chance twisting of my shoulder while picking up a bag got me thinking I should work on my flexibility, and a friend recommended I try yoga.  I am not a group activity person, and I think the last time I did any exercise in a group setting was a weight lifting class my sophomore year of high school, so I bought a yoga mat, found a free beginners yoga video online, and after about 5 minutes gave up.  My body did not move the way the body on the screen did, and what I was feeling in my muscles and joints did not match what the voice was telling me I should feel.  It was obvious that if I wanted to go down this path I would need a teacher.  Realistically, that meant a group setting, and it took me several days to convince myself this was something I needed to do enough to overcome my aversion to group exercise.

Once I did, the question became which group.  I am currently located in West Seattle, and within a 10 minute walk from my flat there are at least 5 different yoga studios.  The one closest to me, and which on website looked best, offered a 6 week beginner to yoga introduction series; all of the others had classes listed as more beginner friendly than others, but nothing specifically geared to beginners.  I was all ready to sign up until I realized that I have enough upcoming work travel that I would probably miss at least 2 or 3 of the 6 classes. I contacted them via e-mail to see how that would impact my ability to learn, but they didn’t respond.  I then happened to chance upon a free outdoor yoga class as I was going to the grocery store, and picked up a flyer for Bohemian Studios, which had put on the event.  I sent them an inquisitive e-mail, and within hours received a very well written response to my questions and was encouraged to consider certain types of their yoga class offering.  They had a $25 unlimited pass for new students in order to be able to try out new things and different instructors, and almost as an aside they mentioned I might like to also try their Barre classes.

Then I got busy with other projects and work trips and so shelved the exercise thoughts…  until last Monday.  I got home from work, found myself sitting in my flat wondering what to do with the evening, and suddenly decided it was time to give them a shot.  I setup an account on their website, bought my $25 introductory week pass, and booked a place in the next available class (which was starting 2 hours later).  It was Barre, and, to be honest, I hadn’t done much in the way of researching quite what Barre entailed.  I understood it to be a mix of multiple types of similar low-impact exercise genres – yoga, Pilates, ballet style stretches using the barre as support (hence the name), was aware that I should probably expect more women than men in the class, and beyond that went in eyes wide shut.

Day 1:

Their website said to arrive about 15 minutes early if it was your first session, and so I dutifully did so.  The instructor knew I was a new student before I even introduced myself, and as she was giving me the tour and a quick overview of how to set myself up asked how experienced I was with Barre or similar programs.  I admitted I was a complete virgin in these matters, so between greeting other students as they arrived she gave me the quick rundown.  In summary, she advised that Barre uses lots of reps with either body weight alone or relatively small dumbbells to work various muscles, mainly core and stabilizers, and she mentioned almost as if in passing that if I found myself unable to keep up there was no harm or shame in getting myself to something I could maintain and either take a short break for the remainder of that specific element or join back in to the same one if I was ready sooner.

I struggled through the unfamiliar setup activity.  Grab a mat from the ones hanging on the wall, pick up some props (in this case blocks, 2 and 3 pound dumbbells, a blanket, and a ball about a foot in diameter), then set it all out at your selected spot.  Then I did what I saw everyone else doing – sitting quietly cross legged at the end of the mat, rolling shoulders and necks and occasionally stretching arms and legs.  Of the 20+ students there were 2 other males, I was certainly the largest and the most out of shape person in the room, and the students on either side of me looked like they were regulars…  all of which had me more than a touch self-conscious.  I pushed that thought away with the knowledge that everyone has to start something new from the same basic position, and then we got started.

The next 45 minutes or so were a time warp.  I am neither musically inclined nor rhythmic, and I often struggled to hear the instructor’s amplified directions over the background playlist (which was clearly aligned to the planned actions).  To be fair, the music wasn’t overly loud or the instructor unduly quiet, but the room wasn’t designed for acoustics and I wasn’t in an optimum spot for sounds. Topping it off, she was also generally doing at least the major part of each activity while talking it.  Fortunately, my two wingmen (or rather wingwomen) knew what they were doing, so when I realized I was no longer aligned with them I knew I had missed a call to do something and adjusted.  More than once as we shifted between positions large enough to call for a pause in the rapid fire activity I received good natured smiles from them – I had initially been afraid I was distracting them by lifting when I should have been lowering, but after a couple of the smiles I began to feel a bit of community forming.  Perhaps I was imagining it, but I do think that after a few times they somewhat intentionally made an extra point of their transitions so that I would catch on more easily.  The instructor kept a pretty close eye on me and moved in to offer corrections and guidance when I hadn’t quite caught the jist of what we were doing – little things like keeping my knee over my ankle, or using my lower back to push my chest out rather than sliding my shoulders back.

In what seemed like a depressingly short time I could feel my muscles twitching, and a glance at the twitching part confirmed it was visibly doing so.  At times I felt like my hips, knees, or shoulders were going to come apart. I had reached my limits.  Appreciating the instructor’s earlier advice, I did take some mini-breaks. Usually just coming out of pose for a couple of iterations let me pick it back up, but there were some where I was literally panting on the floor for 10-20 seconds before getting back up to give it another shot.  And during those moments I also saw some of the others taking a quick breather.

The class continued without interruption.  Muscles I had never before considered made themselves known, yet more quickly than I had expected the majority of the class had run through the time warp and was gone, and we moved from Pilates, barre, and interval work into more of a yoga session to wind down the class.   I started that section with multiple muscles in fatigue twitches and wondering how I was going to walk back up the hill to my flat much less get out of bed the following morning, yet ended it with muscles smooth and relaxed.  The walk up the hill was easy, and I woke up the next morning feeling incredible.  So incredible, in fact, that over breakfast I signed up for another class that afternoon.

Day 2:

I spent the day waiting on the good feeling to wear off.  My experiential knowledge of physiology did not consider that muscles could be worked to the point of fatigue, of not even having enough strength left in your calves to stay balanced on one foot while holding onto the barre, yet be so amazingly comfortable the next day.  As I introduced myself to the instructor and let her know I was a brand new student in only my second class, she good naturedly let me know I could expect to be pretty miserable during the first few times as my body adjusts to the routine, and she also told me to take whatever breaks I needed.

It was an earlier class and substantially less people, but I was the only male.  I really don’t think it mattered to anyone; you do tend to get self-absorbed pretty quickly once it gets going, and even when looking at a neighbor’s hand or foot placement to verify what you are doing it’s just a hand or a foot.  Props for this session removed the blanket and blocks but added in a rubber strap.  As with the prior day’s class, we started with a demo of some of the non-standard movements, then some stretching, and then straight into it.  This time the focus was on the glutes and core with plenty of leg lifts, sweeps, holds, and planks and crunches of various sorts.  My muscles had nowhere near the stamina they had had the day before, and I unconsciously attempted to make up for it with far less than proper form…. But the instructor had other ideas, and no sooner had my knee started to drift forward than she was there to have me push it back, or straighten a curved spine, or keep elbows behind shoulders.  Gradually my long ago sports medicine training came to mind and I came to understand that these instructors are striving to get you to your edge of capability and fully expect that you will have to take a breather or five while you develop the capability, but injuries happen not from reaching fatigue and pausing but from trying to push through and getting into improper form, and once they see that they are there to get you back to the correct one.  By the time we reached the point of the yoga wrapup I was beyond ready for it…

After this session I once again found my body was surprisingly limber as I left the studio, but this time things started to tighten up before I even reached my flat.  But tighten up in a good way.

Day 3:

I think I may have overdone it a bit starting off with 2 high intensity Barre classes in 2 days, but today was the only one of the yoga classes this week that they had suggested as being “beginner friendly” (“Bohemian Bliss”), so I booked it instead.   I was stiff and sore for much of the morning, but gradually started to loosen back up as the day wore on.

Bohemian Bliss on this day consisted of what I can mainly describe as a super relaxed Yin yoga session crossed with meditative trending.  But maybe that’s what Yin yoga is all about – it was my first time doing any dedicated yoga class.  It started later than most classes (8:30 PM) and ran longer (75 minutes instead of 60), and as I walked in I found that the lights were dimmed low, the background music much calmer, and those who had gotten there before me had started laying out their mats in rows instead of the “barre centric” around the wall layout of the barre classes.  There were no weights or resistance bands to be seen; props were blankets, bolsters, and blocks.  Getting going was a relatively more languid affair than the barre classes – still on schedule, but just a slow, easy ease out of the space outside the studio into the studio space.  Eye pillows were encouraged, and the session started out with essentially laying down flat on the mat, finding a comfy position, and staying still.

As she did for the remainder of the class, the instructor purred out instructions, sometimes to focus on the feeling of your body’s weight going through a certain part where it contacted the floor, sometimes leading through breathing exercises.  And all of this occurring against the sensory background of a light aroma of incense and a soundtrack of meditative instrumental and natural sound music.   During one of the early breathing exercises the soundtrack had a flowing water quality to it, and mentally I combined the flowing water to the rhythmic nasal inhalation and oral exhalation of 20 or so people all breathing together and ended up with the imagery of a pod of whales cruising up the sound – sleek, powerful, and in their element.  We then shifted positions, got comfy in the new one, and repeated.  And repeated.  And repeated.  The general concept of the positions was to take the description of the guided position, get close to it, then move further into it until you felt just a touch of strain, and then come just back below that point and settle in.

It was not a rigid form class, nor was it a flop around any which way class, but simply an incredibly relaxing experience of allowing for sustained gentle stretching while hovering in a mental space a bit away from the daily concerns.  When it ended (all too soon) everyone generally maintained a calm and quiet (dare I say “blissed out”?) attitude while storing props, cleaning mats, and departing.  I could have rolled straight into bed, but unfortunately had the half mile walk back up to my flat, then up 5 flights of stairs as the building’s elevator was out of service… so I was pretty awake when I got there.

I did sleep well.


Day 4:

Woke up very well rested and had a fairly uneventful day at work.  I had a 5:30 PM barre class booked, and felt fully rested and ready for it.. until the 6 flights of stairs from the parking garage up to the flat because the elevator still hadn’t been fixed. By the top there was a bit of a tightness I hadn’t expected to feel.  But it was too late to cancel, so I went ahead.

I once again introduced myself to the instructor as a beginner, and as the class size was fairly small and there were not any others waiting for her attention we chatted a couple of minutes about what I’ve been experiencing, and as we talked about the relative merits of frequent activity vs. letting the body rest and regenerate she essentially advised me to listen to my body, both the soreness and stiffness as well as the sense of improving and doing right by myself, and as long I remember and apply that I can always opt to take a break for a few seconds or simply not do exercises which don’t feel right there is no wrong answer.  It was a good reminder. As we were setting up, my mat neighbor from day 2 setup next to me again and greeted me with a friendly “Back for more?” Props were the blanket, the rubber strap, ball, and dumbbells.

Whatever lingering traces of yesterday’s Bliss class which might have been in the space were gone, and as the high energy dance music switched over to the class soundtrack we launched straight in with some active stretches before really focusing on the planks and glutes.  She rolled in a few new-to-me moves, and then we dove into the dynamic planks and extended single leg work that is probably the hardest thing we do for me.  After a few reps I’m toast, and she was throwing them at us one after another.  So I remembered to take a break, get back in synch, and keep trying it as soon as I felt I could.  Not soon enough we transitioned to arm work, which is easy for me, but then I was introduced to a concept called the “barre seat” where you put your lower back against the barre and move your legs into a nearly sitting position as if you were in a chair, and then use the rubber band to keep your arms occupied and connected while you press your hips back.  After about 2 reps of that my leg tanks were empty, and I’m not sure I really got much out of my repeated attempts to get back into it beyond the rest it gave me while I was standing straight up for a couple of seconds.  Its really using the muscles used in squatting, and I can’t think of any time I’ve truly squatted for more than a quick second.  Then it was on to crunches of various sorts, angled pushups against the barre with side kicks, squats, and a few jumps tossed in, and by then the hour was complete except for the wind down stretches and group benediction.

The bottom had opened up outside while we were working, and I had brought neither an umbrella nor hat, so I had the opportunity for a cool natural shower on the walk back to the flat.. and was a touch slower than earlier climbing up the flights of stairs.

So 4 days in, 3 of those heavy workouts, and I can already start to feel and sense some changes.  There are core muscles developing. My posture in both sitting and standing is better. I’m paying more attention to what I eat.  And I genuinely feel better.


Day 5:

I really wasn’t sure quite how I would be today and had another potential evening activity, and I was on the fence about cancelling.  Then I got busy and missed the 2 hour ahead cancellation window… so my decision made itself.  The 6 flights of stairs up to my flat after work were surprisingly easy, so I fairly enthusiastically got ready to go to the Barre class.  One item that helped that enthusiasm was that I had picked up some yoga shorts that were a bit better suited to the class environment than the fairly short running shorts I had been wearing on prior days – kind of goes with the semi-spontaneous nature of how I signed up first and then looked around at what I’d wear, and realized that aside from those running shorts I had no real activewear.  I will say that the yoga shorts were a much better choice for Barre (particularly teh floor work) than the running shorts.

I’ve opted to start taking a slightly longer route to the studio which includes an uphill section, which helps to give my muscles a nice stretch on the way.  I decided tonight I’d dispense with the “I’m brand new” introduction as I feel like I have developed enough proficiency in at least the basics to no longer truly be brand new, though I am certainly still new.  Props for the class were the simplest yet – dumbbells and the ball.

As usual, we started with a yoga based stretch routine, then went straight into planks.  Planks are by far the hardest thing for me, and a big factor is that I’m still just really building those muscles up plus I have a bit more weight to hold up than most of the others.  This said not as an excuse, but as a simple recognition.  My modification to account for this is that I try to focus on proper form to help build those muscles, but when I get to the point that I can no longer do that I drop down and rest for a couple of counts, then try to hold up for a couple before resting again.  It seems to be helping.  When some additional motion comes in which allows the strain to transfer across multiple muscles I’m getting closer to being able to go a full set.  Shoulder and arm exercises are fairly easy for me, but when we head up to the barre for plié’s I know I’m getting ready for another work to exhaustion set.  The continuous and high frequency dips and raises work the legs just to the point of fatigue setting in, and then the variations come in.  faster. Slower. One leg. One leg and a kick. Hold up with micro dips.  Hold low with micro raises.  And then transition into true single leg support; flat foot standing, other foot pointed back, knee at 90 degrees, and push, pull, back and forth and side to side  full range, micro, faster, slower. It’s all about control of the raised leg and that hip’s muscles, but it’s the opposite hip that is countering and getting sore and in need of a breather.  Then on to the floor for ab work – leg lifts and crunches in multiple flavors.  And finally back to yoga positions to stretch out and restore before cleaning up and heading home.

For the walk home I opted to head up the steeper hill rather than the flatter route, and about halfway up as I was walking along at my normal pace I realized my body is perfectly capable of sessions on back-to-back days.  Yes, there are advantages to including days off, but this week is about setting a habit and proving to myself that I can do it, and 5 days in I’m pretty well convinced I can.  I like getting gently nudged past my prior thresholds by positive instructors who are well versed in what they are doing.  The staff, students, and facility are welcoming and supportive.  The “Seattle Freeze” is a long-established tradition, but this space and the people within it provides for a West Seattle thaw.

Can 5 days really change things?  In this case it certainly did.  My perception of group workouts; my consideration of my body; my actual capability to improve.  All of these so much so, in fact, that I just scheduled classes for the next two days and bought my first unlimited month pass. Here’s to the next chapter!

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