“Hot Bod” is a weekly exploration of fitness culture and its adjacent oddities.
Fitness classes always wanted our sweat. Phenomenally direct instructors would command us to leave a puddle of our perspiration: on the mat, below the stationary bike. It was an elemental primal sacrifice, visual evidence of our effort. Then, one day, it wasn’t enough. They wanted our tears as well.
What had originally been peculiar about something like the Class (a favorite review from 2015: “I just knew that it was supposed to make you cry, and that sometimes Naomi Watts is there”) has become both commonplace and crucial to a certain type of fitness experience. If you aren’t moved to tears, is it even worth your effort? Happy tears and transcendent sobs have been proudly cited in testimonies for everything from exercise rave Dance Church to stationary bike juggernaut Peloton. Sobbing is also a big part of the ambitious new digital studio Kinrgy, founded by actress Julianne Hough. These new classes cite tears as salesmanship of their programs’ emotional resonance. You can say the class was so cathartic, but your participants’ tears really prove it.
When fitness became wellness, when movement became mindful, we were asked to engage our emotions as well as our muscles. Between calls to draw our navels to our backbone during a plank, fitness instructors repurposed the language of therapeutic processing. It was all in service of the argument that holding this plank for an impossible duration was how we processed. It seemed as convincing as it was convenient. It was all very healing circle, very Body Keeps the Score.
The suggestion to sob has become unavoidable. It stared at me in the face just a few weeks ago: After an intense routine in a cardio class, the instructor unexpectedly purred at me through the screen: “It’s okay if you cry.” My jaw plummeted. I knew this tone. It wasn’t just “okay” if I cried. She straight up wanted me to.
I’m accustomed to giving fitness instructors what they want from me. They exist to tell me what to do with my body, that’s our whole relationship. If they want me to cry, I want to cry. I had to wonder: What would a week of trying as many tearjerker exercise classes bring forth? How many sobs would I be able to shake out, for the sake of stunt journalism and also my soul? Would I be able to count the fluid ounces of my teardrops like a second-grader collecting rainwater in a cup? I would try!
I start with a tried-and-true, sob-culture classic: Taryn Toomey’s the Class. This is like starting with Titanic or The Florida Project: We are ready for the waterworks. I’d describe my current emotional temperature as high-strung vulnerability. It seems very appealing to unknot all that through some healthy tears. I also heard that a precious friend sobbed during the Class when they played “Drops of Jupiter,” our mutual friend’s karaoke barn burner, so missing friends and karaoke might have been the ammunition behind the wailing. Impossible to know, but whatever it was, it worked.
Physically, the Class is a mixtape of cardio leaping, deep breaths, pilates, and dancing like nobody’s watching. It’s also known for spontaneous releases: noises, shaking, flailing, crying. The instruction does not disappoint. We pound our limbs upon the ground, and I’m told to “get your body prepared for your inquiry, excavation, receiving, and releasing.”
I feel skillfully manipulated, but unfortunately, I’m not manipulated enough to actually cry. I wanted to process my high-strung vulnerability with some healing tears, but instead, I’ve just skipped right to feeling unassailable, steady, and calm. I’m disappointed, though that feels like I’ve missed the point.
From some background, here’s when I cry: sympathetically; every time I visit my family; every time I see a whale or a good mountain; and then when any movie, song, or book asks me to. If I even think about “Try a Little Tenderness” for too long, I will cry. I cry about the news. But concerning my own life: I cry almost never. Maybe twice annually. Even when stuff is kinda generally awful or I’m pretty upset, my own life just doesn’t quite do it for me. But I’d really like access to more frequent, personal weeps. Like the little earthquakes that prevent bigger earthquakes, they sound like an appealing pressure release.
Taylor Elyse Morrison’s Inner Workout combines movement, journaling, and meditation. There’s a survey to complete beforehand with intriguingly vague questions like “I find myself sighing often” (STRONGLY AGREE; I’m so emotive) and “I choose to work through my emotions” (HARD NEUTRAL; I’m also honest).
I pick a class about taking up space and we jump right into substantial hip circles, which I could have predicted: I keep hearing that hip openers are the most likely to “release our wounds.” The program is very literal: We practice contracting our bodies as tightly as possible, and then expanding them out as far as possible.
I don’t cry the way I’d defined it going into this project (heaving, mangled-face weeps), but after about fifteen minutes, my eyes start constantly producing big, cleansing nice tears that run down to my hairline. This isn’t the sobbing I’d imagined, but it also seems prettier, so I’m into it.
Like a few programs in this piece, SoulUnity is a holistic one-stop shop for the physical and emotional spheres of life. Whereas Inner Workout is more coolheaded in its guidance, the SoulUnity community is way mystic. Lots of tarot, lots of astrology, and a book club that recommends, of course, The Body Keeps the Score.
The movement class I select is warm, cozy, fluid pilates. Rather than activate my abs, I’m asked to imagine I’m experiencing a three-dimensional hug around my spine. I earnestly feel spiritually blessed to have this imaginary sensation.
I decide to start tracking the moment I feel asked to cry: at the end of class, I’m told my resting is “well-deserved,” there’s deep belly breathing, and they play Frank Ocean’s “Moon River.”
However, I am not crying. I did produce little puddles of sweat, even by my kneecaps. Last January, Kevin Durant narrated an ad campaign for Degree deodorant called “Move your body to tears.” Over a montage of people working out, he says: “It might look like your body is crying. That’s because it is.” Maybe, like Durant, my emotions simply only want to reveal themselves as sweat.
Of all these programs, Kinrgy is the one that feels most desperate for me to sob. I have never seen a more bombastic trailer for a fitness routine in my life, never heard a more symphonic heartstring-plucking soundtrack. In its physicality, Kinrgy seems to share a lot in common with the Class: dancerly aerobics and languid strength-building routines. The instructors use breath-work principles in order to build up our energy so that we can experience a cathartic unraveling. Or, as it is explained to me by the instructor: We will “start the whirlwind of the tornado” so that we can “have a full release and expansive explosion.”
I do two Kinrgy classes in a row, suspecting I might need to double the winding up to wring out those tears. I’m warned we will “dive deeper in our wound” which might be “nerve-racking and a lot.” Emotionally, I am primed. Physically, I really like moving in the way that they ask me to! It’s deep, swaying, fiery, and low.
The moment I feel asked to cry: I am very explicitly asked to cry twice. Early in one class, we are asked to localize our emotions in our belly— and then at the end, Andra Day’s “Rise Up” is queued for maximal movie-soundtrack effect and we are told to imagine our emotions coming out: “Anger, frustration, sadness, just let it go.” Nothing emerges. Then, the instructor cries at the end for being grateful she could be there for us. I always cry when other people cry. This time my dry-ass eyes just blink, though I feel genuinely happy for her that she has such a depth of emotion.
The Class, Round II
I have the really wise, breakthrough-level thought: Maybe I have to trust someone in order to cry in front of them? And so, I revisit some programs.
The moment I feel asked to cry: After dancing with integrity and exertion on our mats, we come to stillness, and the instructor asks us: “Who do you wish you were dancing with? Who do you miss?” Like a monster, I don’t cry. I am very sad though, and I admire the instructor for taking emotional manipulation to a new frontier.
SoulUnity, Round II
I select “Cardio Core Flow II,” and the lingua franca of therapy reveals itself within minutes: “If the wrist weights aren’t serving you, just take them away.” When a plank variation is particularly taxing, we’re told, “This is a chance to purge things out.” All of these emotionally driven fitness classes love a crossover lunge. I think because they’re graceful but also pinching.
The moment I feel asked to cry: I do feel the soft vulnerability of letting a stranger be kind to me when the instructor says: “Great job, you can let it go now.” But I don’t feel explicitly asked to cry!
I’m beginning to feel like a Hemingwayesque masc antihero. Where are my tears? In the shower after this class, as a test, I think too hard about “Try a Little Tenderness” and start to cry, but I feel like an emotional charlatan.
Dance Church, a rave-adjacent-yet-wholesome dance party exercise class is quarantine famous for their live Sunday sessions. For good reason! The trio of dancers guiding the class seem so evidently happy to be there. It truly seems like they’re doing this for fun, not because it’s their jobs.
The moment I felt asked to cry: When we’re kneeling on the floor, pounding our fists, and the guide yelps a very emotive: “Just whole body, whole heart!” I do not cry, but I come the closest I have yet.
Tonight, I’m signed up for an intimate live class with Liberate: another new player in the mindful-movement experience, founded with the help of sports psychologists for a rigorous perspective on all the ways our emotions and physicality play together. I completely miss a chance to set my intention as “crying” and I take the first suggestion which sounded great to me: “joy.”
The moment I feel asked to cry: We are encouraged to direct message one another about moments in our past when we overcame our obstacles. I don’t want to blame the person I was matched with, but if she had cried, I would have definitely cried. Instead, we send each other quippy little messages about how it’s hard for both of us to ask for help, lol.
And this is all on Sunday evening, when everyone should be crying! It’s a famously finicky and emotionally frightful time. I’m feeling a little discouraged, though unfortunately, not quite discouraged enough to cry about it.
Maybe related to all this, my body feels physically better than it has in recent memory. Maybe this flexible, strong feeling is from trying lots of new things, maybe it’s that these classes are more likely to incorporate stretching, maybe it’s that they earnestly want me to connect to sensation, maybe it’s that I’ve really worked through some tension. But fingers crossed that my tear ducts come through at the end for that arc!
“Alright, you gotta try Jess King from Peloton,” my friend Nora texts me. Jess King, Nora reports, is one of Peloton’s most uplifting secular fitness priests. She’s making everyone cry on there. Nora sets up an account for me in her subscription. She’s been nothing but helpful in enabling my weep journey. Because I famously don’t have a Peloton, I take King’s 30-minute “power-walking” class while walking the dog through the woodsy park.
The moment I feel asked to cry: When we are up to max walking speed, on an incline, and King requests: “What’s coming up for you? Don’t tell me dinner. Don’t tell me breakfast.” She just wants our “deep desire, longing.”
But I spend too long thinking about an answer and fail to feel my feelings. When I rewind this video to try to have the experience more deeply, I see that my friend has made my Peloton username her nickname for me (“Marge”) and added a helpful numerical distinction (“69”). I miss her so much! I miss my friends! I am truly very dramatically sad about this! I am also in the park holding a bag of treats and a dog leash. It’s sunny and about to be spring, and yet the tears don’t come!