Years ago, a former head of group fitness at Equinox mentioned a recent audition she conducted. While interviewing a potential instructor for the club, my friend asked about the format, to which hopeful teacher replied, “I teach the hardest class in New York City,” to which I replied with same facial cringe my friend was expressing as she recounted this event.
In certain conditions, “hard” is an appropriate term. If a movement class isn’t challenging in some capacity you have to question its value. What sort of challenge, however? Is it cardiovascularly taxing? Are you throwing a 48-kg kettlebell over your head? Is the series of intense Tabatas getting to you? Or are you being asked to hold a frontal lunge for sixty seconds? A four-minute plank?
Side note: the planking nonsense in yoga needs to stop. As Stuart McGill has pointed out, holding it longer than ten seconds is useless. You’re robbing students of therapeutic and strengthening sequences by devoting time to a mechanically benign (and potentially dangerous) “challenge.”
Hard is always relative. In yoga, someone who loves arm balancing might find a class devoted to backbending especially tough, while the backbender might take issue with sixty minutes of arm balancing. An ultra-marathon runner will not find a 5k fun race challenging unless perhaps it takes place during a sleet storm and you’re running up a hill constructed purely of ice, which will then force you to question why the word “fun” was ever attached.
There’s nothing wrong with bringing students to their edge, yet considering those edges are divergent from individual to individual, some will jump off sooner than others. Some will stay put, resolute and grounded. Some love the pain and should not be denied their pleasure. Some simply get a nice stretch, like the woman at Equinox 85th and 3rd who used to take my Saturday morning 75-minute flow as a warm-up to the two-hour Ashtanga practice she attended afterward. Others would look upon her regimen with murder in their eyes.
It’s not hard we’re looking for, it’s clarity. Being an effective communicator requires that everyone present understand the narrative you’re conveying, even—especially—if the room is filled with students at varying levels of skill. Weaving together the story of the human body should leave everyone complete, not battered, content, not bruised.
The fact that a fitness class is hard is fine. But if the expressed goal of a class is specifically to be hard, you have to wonder if the class is for the students or just feeding the ego of the instructor.
As I’ve told my classes in the past, the hardest class I could teach would be to enter the room, sit down, instruct everyone to close their eyes, begin breathing and focusing and didn’t allow anyone to get up for an hour. Training your mind and emotions in such a manner is, for most of the human population, much harder than any physical movement, to the point where many brutalize their bodies for perceived gains yet could never fathom a dedicated meditation practice, even though actual gains could be much more substantial.
The effects on your nervous system matter. If you’re constantly revving the engine while never letting the vehicle rest you’re missing half the point. (If you only let it rest, you’re also missing half.) I notice this constantly in the gym, with members doing the same workouts, week after week, never straying from their comfort zone. It’s easy to become dependent on the familiar, which has the negative consequence of making even the uncomfortable reliable over time. Surprise has important neurological benefits.
Mixing it up does not necessarily have to be “hard,” in terms of being physically taxing. Abandoning your cycling class to spend 45 minutes rowing is a solid change of pace—it will challenge your cardiovascular system differently, as well as giving your body a new set of challenges. Even more interesting is dropping your cardio habit on occasion for restorative yoga. The monkey mind can be exhausted into submission; it can also be gently coaxed, which relaxes your body instead of pummeling it.
The same must be said from the other side. Many yoga students laugh at the idea of coming into my Kettlebell/ViPR class. The ViPR, being foreign to them, becomes a tool they refuse to try because, well, they never tried it. We have all sorts of similar prejudices—attempt to serve someone organ meat who doesn’t eat it. The idea that we’ll consume the part of the animal mere inches away from, say, a liver or stomach without thought but cannot fathom ingesting the most nutritionally dense regions is insane. Welcome to the human mind.
And it is the mind we train as much as the body because the mind is part of the body. I know, we like to separate parts, as if the mind is a metaphysically constructed concept, ether to the flesh and blood of physical experience. That’s simply not true. Sure, the mind—the way we employ consciousness—is as dependent on the environment as genetics and biology and physiology and anatomy. That doesn’t make it external to us. It is an integral component of our experience. How we train it matters to how we experience the world and ourselves.
So attend hard classes and, instructors, make your classes challenging, but more importantly, be clear on how and why you’re moving (and how and why you’re moving others). “Hard” is but one aspect of a diverse field to play within. If that’s the only goal, you’re missing everything else. Clarity cuts across disciplines. Bump into hard too often, you suffer the consequences.