West Coast Workout

From Boston Magazine

Who needs to shape up for spring when you can get the star treatment at Sports Club LA?

On a recent trip to Los Angeles, I had one of those mind-expanding epiphanies prompted by travel: I’ve got to spend more time in the gym. It is true what you’ve heard about our neighbors to the left. They are an extremely toned people, perfectly comfortable with the concept of tank tops. And well they should be. Appearance is everything in LA, and being perfectly comfortable—as demonstrated by your car, your address, and especially, your absence of fat cells—is something to show off, not play down.

We Northeasterners tend to be a more modest crew. We focus on our brains, not our bods. We emphasize building character, not biceps. We’d rather be well-read than well-toned any day of the year.

Okay, maybe not any day. Maybe just until May 1, when it comes to our attention that soon it will be summer, and soon we will be forced to exhibit our scholarly physique on the Cape. Maybe that’s when we first start hearing this voice in the back of our highly-educated heads, urging us to shed our Northeast armor—our layers of Polar Fleece and self-conscious outer shells—and just admit it: We wouldn’t mind looking a little more Southern California and a little less North Cambridge this time of year. And maybe this voice leads us to finagle a day pass to the West Coastiest scene to hit this city since California Pizza Kitchen: that status spa overlooking the Common called Sports Club/LA.

“Okay everyone, now keep those toes active.”

When I opened the sleek plate glass doors of Yoga Studio 1 for my Tuesday morning class, I was thoroughly disoriented. And not only by the teacher’s puzzling instructions. Having never engaged in yoga, I had never encountered a roomful of crotches on all fours with one leg up in the air. Plus, I’d just emerged from a dizzyingly vast marble and maple changing room, where I got lost looking for my locker. I finally located it, and changed into a short sleeve T-shirt layered over a long sleeve T-shirt concealed by a zipped hooded sweatshirt draped over Gore-Tex Adidas wind pants, tube socks, and Nikes. It’s quite the look back at my no-frills neighborhood gym, but the clientele here—a co-ed sampling of middle and lower-middle age members, judging by their crotches—was all about natural fibers and bare feet, like they were on the beach in Malibu instead the fourth floor of the Ritz. Call me reserved, but I elected to keep covered up. It was a choice that would impinge my ability to achieve active toes, yet a risk I was willing to take.

“…Love your body”…”No self-judgments”…”In yoga, we leave our egos at the door…”

That final pronouncement came as a particular relief, since the teacher offered it as my legs were spread-eagle over my head for something I think was called Fish Pose. Her name was Jenè (Boston translation: “Jennie”), and she was attractive and blonde–not in that preppie East Coast way with the anchorwoman haircut and the pearls from Shreve’s, but in that free-and-easy West Coast way, with the Pebbles Flintsone ponytail and the lilac nail polish on her active toes. Jenè was extremely serene. During “downward facing dog,” she placed her hands gently on my spine, and whispered, “Close your eyes, relax.” For a minute there, I forgot I was in Boston, where we don’t go around touching other peoples’ spines. And, by the time Jenè struck her little gong and got us curled up in the fetal position, I’d thrown caution to the wind and kicked off my sneakers. I was kind of getting into this LA “love your body” business.

Plus I had foot cramps.

My personal training session was led by an equally attentive individual named Robbie Morello, whose neck was the width of my shoulders, and whose familiar Somerville accent reminded me of the guys yelling, “Push, it Lou! Feel the Pain!” back at my no-frills neighborhood gym. But this, clearly, wasn’t my neighborhood gym. This was “the most dramatic, spectacular gym you’ve ever seen in your life!” according to none other than Regis Philbin, whose rave was stenciled on a ground floor window like a movie review. In contrast to the Wyndham Hill vibe of yoga studio 1, the humongous workout area was Hooray for Hollywood: chrome, mirrors, and overstuffed black leather weight-lifting benches. There were stretching studios, boxing studios, squash studios, a regulation size basketball studio, and a “Rev” studio (don’t ask me) crammed with stationery cyclists on Day-Glo bikes, pumping in darkness to Madonna’s “Ray of Light.”

Robbie Morello led me to a lineup of Life Fitness Flex Decks to start, which are called “treadmills” in my neighborhood gym, presumably because they don’t come with built-in TVs. Eagerly, I commenced watching a Partridge Family retrospective on VH-1 while running next to a gray haired gentleman who was watching Power Lunch on CNBC while running next to a rail-thin woman who was watching Power Lunch on CNBC while running next to a young guy with a suspicious orange tan who was watching Power Lunch on CNBC. I put their combined portfolio worth for fiscal ‘02 at a grand total of a kabillionmillion dollars–roughly the price of an executive membership.

Robbie Morello soon suggested I remove my protective sweatshirt. He had just finished spotting me–and I use “spotting” in the sense of “saving my arm from amputation in the Ground Zero Free Motion shoulder press machine”–and now we were standing before the wall-to-wall mirrors.

“How do your shoulders look?” Robbie Morello asked.

“Lopsided,” I said, “just like they always look.”

“Exactly,” Robbie Morello replied.

Now, this was not exactly the kind of caring-sharing comment I’d grown used to in my short time at Sports Club LA. But Robbie Morello was genuinely concerned about my lopsidedness, and spent the next 20 minutes taking me through a series of exercises to get to the bottom of it. The coolest of these took place upstairs in the Flexibility and Balance Loft (you heard me), where I enjoyed a killer view of the Hancock Tower while tugging and shrugging on a freestanding spider web thing made of heavy-duty bungee cords. When I finished stretching out, we revisited the mirror.

“How do your shoulders look now?” Robbie Morello asked.

“Lopsided,” I said.

“Exactly,” he replied. “But not nearly as much.”

Robbie Morello surmised I was lopsided not due to some physical deformity, but because I hold tension in my right shoulder. This came as no big surprise, since anyone who can get through a day in Boston holds tension in their right shoulder. We also hold tension in our left shoulder, both arms and legs, our ankles, our nose and our hair. I mean, that’s why we work out, right? To get rid of our tension.

But at Sports Club LA, what’s anyone got to be tense about? They can afford the $2,000 membership costs (not counting a $155 haircut at the on-site Salon Fontana). Their schedules can easily accommodate a weekday afternoon in the Rev Studio, or an aqua-boxing class in the pool. “We re-create the LA country club lifestyle” remarked Robbie Morello in his familiar Somerville accent.

“Do you have discount rates for the lopsided?” I asked, more or less seriously.

I felt my shoulder achieve near perfect alignment when I was handed a plush white robe and slippers for my “Gentlemen’s Facial.” Yes, when you’re a Sports Club LA guy, you get a “gentlemen’s facial,” because you are, like, perfectly comfortable in your masculinity–especially when you get to lie on a heated mattress as the exotic Alexandra of Greece dims the lights and tickles your temples with her moisturizing paintbrush. And when you are done with your skin beautifying treatment, feeling all moist and gentlemanly, you also treat yourself to a foot massage for which you have voluntarily signed up (request Kelly, she’s awesome), barely recalling that you’re the same guy who was too uptight to even take your sneakers off in yoga today. And next, you will enter not just a steam room, but a steam studio , and you will then take a shower in a private stall with a smoked glass door that creates a silhouette of your body for those passing by. “Okay, this is a little weird,” you will think, but by now, you are less self-conscious, and unquestionably less lopsided than you were when you first came to Sports Club LA.

And at some point–perhaps after strolling across the hall to feast on West Coast Oysters and California Chardonnay at the restaurant Blu (Boston translation: “Blue”), you are going to remember something that happened at your no-frills neighborhood gym not long ago. It was that time you requested a pad for the squat bar, and the manager, who is named Vinnie, said, “Ahh, some jerk keeps rippin’ ‘em off,” and he threw you a ratty towel to use instead.

It pissed you off at the time, but now, his solution made perfect sense. It was self-sufficient; unpretentious; real. These are the qualities you like about Boston, it occurs to you, and as you finish devouring your post-workout Chestnut Bread Pudding, your right shoulder begins a steady ascent. You’d be lying if you said you didn’t enjoy your glimpse into the West Coast ways of privileged self-indulgence. But you’d also be lying if you thought you fit in.

LA. It’s a great place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

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