The Physical Level

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Photo by Raisa Bruner.

At the bottom of Stair 96, in the steamy, labyrinthine bowels of Payne Whitney Gymnasium, there’s a sign scotch-taped to the wall: “SPINNING CLASS THIS WAY” it instructs cheerily, and a scribbled red arrow points down the hallway. In the opposite direction, the loud thumping bass of techno music reverberates throughout the heavyweight crew team’s training room. The basement smells of chlorine and sweat, and my footsteps echo off the tiled floors and the brick-lined walls. I pass the swim team locker rooms, loud with the spray of shower water, and shuffle by a wall lined with hundreds of framed plaques, a display of All-American Swimming and Diving awards. Six more “SPINNING CLASS THIS WAY” signs direct me at corners to go right, left, right, down endless hallways. It would be easy, I think, to get lost down here, in this foreign land of athleticism: I’m no local, and I have no map.

Payne Whitney Gymnasium is, in a measure of cubic feet, the second-largest gym in the world. Nine and a half stories. Three wings. A grand and imposing Gothic stone structure shrouded in the blue-net scaffolding of a nearly $100 million restoration project spanning more than a decade. It is the home of 17 varsity athletics teams, and the regular haunt of 2,500 students and gym members on a daily basis. If Sterling Memorial Library is a cathedral of knowledge, Payne Whitney might be considered a Vatican State of athleticism, a self-sustaining, independent universe of fitness with its own unspoken laws and order. As a non-athlete undergraduate without great enthusiasm for athletic endeavors, I’m no citizen of this state. I am an outsider, not even a frequent visitor: at the start of this semester, I could count on one hand the number of times I had ventured down its hallways, and that included my forays during Bulldog Days at the Activities Bazaars. My experience is not unique, either: most “normies” avoid the grand entrance hall of Payne Whitney and instead get their fitness fix burrowed deep beneath their residential colleges in smaller, less intimidating gyms.

But for me, and for many other Yale women, that hesitation to make the trek to Tower Parkway might be changing. After all, one does not go to Payne Whitney only to worship at the altar of varsity athletics; one can also go to dabble in fitness at one’s leisure. In fact, on average over 1,000 Yale students and community members now participate each semester in the gym’s physical education program, which offers an array of over 70 different classes. Participation in classes is up about 10 percent this year, according to Director of Physical Education Duke Diaz. And much of that increase can be attributed to the recent addition of spinning to the program’s class offerings.

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When New Year’s rolled around this year, I didn’t bother to make a resolution. But a friend of mine did, and she insisted that we sign up for a class at Payne Whitney. I agreed to the plan, partly to placate her and partly because the prospect of a sedentary winter left me concerned about the state my muscle mass might be in for spring break. “We’re going to do spinning!” she said, and although I had never heard of the exercise, I woke up early to blearily register for my session on the Payne Whitney website. Classes at the gym tend to sell out, and fast: last semester, when spinning was first introduced to the program, 300 people attempted to register in the space of three hours. With 10 sessions offered, each meeting twice weekly and costing $120 for the semester, the decision to sign up for a spinning class is no small commitment. It is, however, becoming a very popular one.

“Spinning has energized the program,” Diaz explains to me. Sitting behind his broad desk in his fifth-floor office in Payne Whitney, the mustachioed Diaz expresses a great deal of satisfaction with the state of the physical education program and the opportunities that he has been able to usher in over the past three years. Along with other energetic, cardio-based classes like salsa, cardio-kickboxing, and Zumba, spinning has helped bring greater numbers of students to Payne Whitney in a more recreational context and has reflected a movement amongst students towards engaging in athletics. “I think the interest in wellness and fitness is higher than it’s ever been,” he added. Participation in Payne Whitney classes is also higher than it’s ever been, with the majority of participants — around 80 percent, according to Diaz — coming from Yale College, a majority of them women. Spinning is the most-subscribed class offered this semester; Payne Whitney has even hired a seventh instructor and added more sessions in order to satisfy demand.

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At 7:00 a.m. on a Tuesday, I don’t want to be awake. But my suitemate and I are already making the brisk trek in the biting cold from our suite on Old Campus, down Elm Street, up Broadway, between Morse and Stiles, and across Tower Parkway. Eleven minutes later, we enter the entrance hall of Payne Whitney, and I yawn. Down Stair 96 we stumble, through the basement halls, and finally, into the spinning room itself.

The lighting is dim. Strewn artlessly around the room, ropes of white Christmas lights are a festive, if odd, wall decoration. A few fake trees fill the corners, while large, industrial-sized fans prepare to keep the space ventilated. Twelve stationary bikes stand facing a mirrored wall; one other bike, the instructor’s, is positioned facing the pack near the stereo. As we adjust the height and positioning of our bike seats and handlebars, our peppy young instructor begins to pump beat-heavy pop music. We are a fleet of seven young women this morning, in various states of fitness, in various states of consciousness. And we are about to get a very good workout.

The point of spinning is simple: to give you a fast-paced, high-energy, efficient workout in a stimulating environment. You thrive on the energy of your fellow riders, on the enthusiasm and intensity of your instructor, and on the thrill of the disco-like environment with its blasting pop music and club-like atmosphere. Instructors take you through interval and endurance training, simulate the experience of “rough terrain” and “long-distance” rides, dish out encouragement, and focus on intensity. Your heart rate goes up, you sweat, you spin, and when you’re done, you feel like you’ve accomplished something. No wonder spinning morphed quickly into an enduring exercise fad. Developed in 1989, early addicts flocked to Johnny G’s Spin Studio in Santa Monica, California to burn 600 calories in an hour-long workout. Now spinning is a global fitness phenomenon, and Yalies this year have proved themselves to be no exception among its obsessive ranks.

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If you were a Yale student in the 1950s, your freshman orientation program involved a visit to Payne Whitney — but not to work out. Instead, in a windowless room on an upper floor, white-clothed men would instruct you to strip down, attach metal pins to your spine, and then photograph your nude profile. This was a posture test, to confirm that your back was as straight as it ought to be. If not, rumor was, you were required to attend remedial posture classes. This disturbing practice —which was widespread across the Ivy League before co-education — was abandoned in the 1970s and most of the images it produced have been destroyed.

But what has remained is the idea of the gym as a place of judgment, as a place of being put on display and analyzed on a critical, physical level. Was your body good enough? the nameless, silent photographers asked. And in the intervening half-century, that attitude about the gym hasn’t really changed. Of course, now both men and women venture to the machines to tone their arms, dissolve their cellulite, and flatten their abs. And now they are doing it for the objective gaze of the mirror — and for the subjective gaze of each other. But the question remains: is my body good enough? And then: how can I make it better?

Yalies like me are commonly characterized as being obsessed with achievement, driven by perfectionism, and motivated by goals. It makes sense that we tend to get serious about fitness. We’re also, it has been said, intensely insecure, in constant need of positive reinforcement, and self-conscious to an extreme. Finding some modicum of reassurance through success and positive feedback is critical, I’ll admit.

In Sterling and in Bass, bastions of the brainy, we bury ourselves in books and hunch over our laptops, seeking — and generally achieving — academic success. But in Payne Whitney, a monumental structure dedicated to the shaping of the physical self, those of us who are less than fit shrink back from the mirror and even from the intimidating entrance hall. Our athletic peers stride around us, confident, at home. I scurry to Stair 96. Still, it’s a start that I’m here at all.

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On Mondays, Flavia, a student at the medical school, teaches my evening spinning class. She is svelte, tan-skinned, and Jamaican. Her lilting voice rises over the beats of her dubstep remixes and club music to remind us to push harder, think of our goals, remember why we signed up for this class in the first place. “You should be at 90 percent maximum heart rate!” she calls out, and I can tell in the mirror — even in the dim lighting — that my face is bright red from exertion. My thighs are burning. In Position 3 (hands way up on the handlebars, butt up off the saddle), we ratchet up the resistance level of our bikes until each downward pedal stroke feels like we’re pushing through sand. “Ten more seconds!” As we finish our stretches at the end of class to Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” I’m overheated, sweaty, sore — but invigorated. Back in the entrance hall, I’m not so timid anymore; I belong in this building now, I remind myself, all nine and a half impressive stories of it, right along with the heavyweight rowers and gymnasts and divers who populate its hallways and locker rooms. And as I cool off on the walk back to my suite, I can say that in my own way, I’m now an athlete too.

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