The word aerobics came about when the gym instructors got together and said, "If we're going to charge $10 an hour, we can't call it jumping up and down."
-- Rita Rudner
T hin mats were laid out in neat rows on the carpet. Ambient music played on a portable stereo that sat on a ledge in front of the mirrored wall. Illuminated only by the hazy morning light filtering through the few small windows near the ceiling, everything in the room took on a bluish cast. I swore I could smell wax crayons, milk, and cookies, tangible nostalgia of kindergarten nap time. I chuckled inwardly as I looked around at the other women (most of them at least 30 years my senior), recumbent on their mats and mused, They call this exercise? I'm generally not one for exercise classes, mostly because I don't belong to a regular gym (my fitness guru is a body builder named Charlie, a brick-house Bostonian who advocates bench presses and barbell squats over reps of the grapevine with extended jazz hands). When we visit David's parents on Martha's Vineyard, I attend the gym near the miniature airport as often as I can get a ride. So far, I'd made it almost every day of this spontaneous February trip. Because it gives me a break from my strenuous routine and a chance for some QT with my man's mother, I am always eager to accept when Ency invites me to join her for a class. A few days before, we had danced barefoot on a hardwood floor during "Balletone" -- "low-impact aerobics with plenty of pretty pointed toes, long graceful arms, and pirouettes." I barely broke a sweat.
This pilates stuff promised to be even less strenuous. Our instructor, in loose black short-pants and a leotard top, resembled a retired ballerina. Even standing still she was the picture of grace and agility. "Lie back with your knees raised and your feet pressed flat on the ground," she ordered. Her tone was surprisingly forceful, more drill sergeant than kindergarten teacher. "You don't need to look at me. I'm not talking to your eyes ; I'm speaking directly to your brain , which is then communicating to your bodies ." Mmkay, whatever that means , I thought, and lifted my head so that my eyes, acting as the quality-control inspector for my brain and body, could make sure my posture was congruous with the rest of the lounging ladies.
Prior to class, I'd hopped on an elliptical trainer for 15 minutes, which is nowhere near long enough to get my blood pumping. At least four days a week, I pull-push-jog on one of these heart-motivating machines for 45 minutes with the resistance level cranked up to "running in sand." The only reasons this truncated jaunt sizzled my insides were because I had chosen the machine that was bathed in direct sunlight and selected the "emergency warm-up" play list on my iPod, replete with one spastic gabber track after another. Now seated, the first satisfying drop of moisture gathered at my hairline and dribbled down the side of my face.
Obeying the pilates Nazi's next command, I extended my right leg and held it a guesstimated three inches off of the floor, an easier version of the leg raises I do at home. I spent a moment hoping that the grandmas wouldn't injure themselves trying to keep up with me.
As we switched legs (bending the right and extending the left), I remembered my sister Jane's synopsis of the pilates class her friend Marissa had once dragged her to. "It was a waste of time," she'd told me. "As far as I'm concerned, it's just not as efficacious as cardio or weights. It's a nice adjunct, if you have that kind of time, but I don't need to be stretched ."
I looked around the room and realized I'd missed an order -- all legs and arms were aloft. The ladies had transformed into turtles stranded on their shells, limbs akimbo, crawling on air as if that might help. Trying not to imagine what kind of marooned mammal I must have looked like, I allowed my body to mimic my animal friends and lifted my appendages.
"Now lift your back and reach! Your spines should be off of the floor, you should feel that on your tailbone, hold it! Down, exhale, and lift! Inhale and hold it! Down, exhale, again, and lift!" My ass was the only part of my body resting on the floor. After 20 seconds of holding everything else up, an ache of steadily increasing intensity seized my abdomen, and I could hear myself panting. I looked to my left, where Ency appeared relaxed and unstrained. Her eyes were closed, her breathing was even, and most of her body levitated above her mat.
We were commanded to roll on our sides, but not too quickly; our muscles were to sense each millimeter of deliberate movement. Ecstatic to have relief for my midsection, my slow roll was more of a fast flop. A folded blanket was handed to me, on which I was told to rest my head. Finally, a nap.
"Your waist should not be touching the ground!" This, of course, from the deceptively nice-looking woman with whom I was falling in hate. She walked around the room, poking her nimble fingers under women's waists. When she reached mine, she said, " Off the ground, off! There, now that's better! Ladies, the only parts of you that should be touching the ground right now are your hips and your shoulders . Now, inhale deeply...and lift both of your legs." What? I was balanced awkwardly on my left side; lifting my legs off the mat would require the bottom half of my body to defy thousands of years of skeletal evolution.
I was about to argue that only a fish could flip its bottom half in such a manner when, to my astonishment, I watched from behind as Ency effortlessly executed the move. "Now," the instructor commanded, "Move forward...and hip back. Forward...and hip back."
"Excuse me," I said, realizing too late that my unsettled voice would shatter the serenity of the room. I craned my neck to find our torturer. "What does that mean, 'hip back?'" I didn't intend for it to sound snide. Miss Maleficent glided to my side, placed her hand on my hip, and gently pushed it back. "Hip back," she said softly, her irritated expression barely masked with an encouraging smile. "Now for the other side! Aren't you glad you only have two?" There were murmurs and grumbles and giggles at this. I managed to grunt a mixture of all three.
The blue hair to my right was facing my direction. I'd spoken with her briefly before class had begun. She had just returned from an African safari. She had to be at least 70, and she was thick around the middle. I felt compelled to perform beneath her calm gaze. I held my legs as high as I could, almost as high as hers, and then it happened. A stab of white-hot pain shot up my hamstring and into my gluteus maximus; I instinctively catered to the cramp by dropping my legs and stretching out.
"Small movements; keep them small, " said our instructor, her tsking eyes on me alone.
When class was over, I was exhausted and sore, my jellied legs barely able to make it down the stairs.
"What did you think?" asked Ency, who, I later learned, grew up competing in gymnastics. I didn't know what to say, so I just looked at her and raised my brows in helplessness, an action that proved there was, in fact, a part of my body that didn't hurt. "Don't feel bad," Ency said. "After you've been doing this for 55 years, I'm sure you'll be able to keep up."