Thursday, June 28, 2007
The Aspirational Gym

Sodden with snot, greasy –cheeked, throat colonised by bacteria and something scratchy, ears achy: being sick is good for only one thing – time off from the gym.

Instead I drift in a rummy-eyed ether, remembering gyms-past.

There have been a lot of gyms over the years, but none I remember as fondly as the Aspirational Gym (not its real name). Ahhh AG– you took all my money but in return gave me some of the most comfortable, inert hours of my life.

An Aspirational Gym reflects what we want to be, rather than what we actually are. So for example, say you are a poorly paid, unfit, ciggie-puffing, alco-pop quaffing cadet journalist – on entering the AG suddenly you feel like a member of the jet-set; a juice squeezer, a marathon-runner, an owner of an Aga and a wine cellar, rich.

How do you know you have become a member of an Aspirational Gym?

Try this checklist:

· They provide towels that feel toasty. They are not stained, threadbare, frayed or anyway indicate expense spared.
· The reception desk is staffed by highly groomed, good-looking people. But they are sort of fake-nice
· It is quiet. There is usually an inverse noise/classiness ratio with gyms. The noisier the gym, the cheaper the membership
· There are never more than 5 people in a class
· The change rooms are spacious, clean and band-aid free
· There is a pool that is always empty except for one other person
· There are newspapers, magazines, real coffee and fruit for FREE
· The vibe is part airport lounge, part 5 star hotel
· Celebrities exercise there

When I joined the most expensive gym in Sydney, I went most days. Not to do exercise mind you – but to hang out.

After work I could be found in the wet area: an oasis of calm in the middle of the city. I would wash away the grime of journalism in the spa, sweat it out in the steam room or do a few languorous laps before putting on a tasteful robe and repairing to the café to read the Financial Review.

In the steam room one might see a newsreader or a model. The talk was industry gossip or the best wineries to go to in the Hunter Valley. The vibe was quiet, discreet, convivial and relaxed. No one seemed to raise a sweat at the AG. There was a sense that to get sweaty, to raise the heart rate would somehow not be in the spirit of this wonderful, languorous club.

Which essentially is what it was – a quasi-private club – not a gym.

Club culture is alive and well in Britain. You are nominated, you are selected, you pay your dues and you are admitted to the club. At the heart of joining many clubs is not what your membership fees give you – but what they relieve you from. Queues at the bar. People who talk loudly. People who are vulgar. People who wear polyester. People who in subtle or quite profound ways – are not like you.

Australia, being ostensibly egalitarian (but scratch the surface and there is inequality aplenty) does not have a culture of private clubs, but it does have a couple of incredibly expensive gyms that function almost as de facto private clubs.

Or it used to. My aspirational gym has shut down apparently. It didn’t have that many members and had been running at a loss for years. Even paying 40 per cent of my cadet journalist wage into their coffers was not enough to save it.

Vale Aspirational Gym. I never stole towels from you.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007
Demystifying hot stone massages
Hot stoned massages… sorry I mean hot stone massages. Whatever they are called, I can’t escape them. As part of my job reviewing the spas of London for CNN I have been practically pelted with offers for hot stone massages.

I was, however, initially reluctant to experience them.

Would it be like what happened to maidens of medieval times, who when naughty would be taken to the village square and pelted with hot stones?
And if not, what if the stones were too hot and I ended up walking around with a stone sized burn on my back?

What if a hot stone(d) massage was beauty-therapist lingo for smoking marijuana whilst getting massage? There’s no way I’d be up for that.

Yes, I was deeply suspicious of this treatment. I lumped it in with other faddish treatments such as the Wimbledon massage (you are pelted with tennis balls), the 20 hand Re-fuel massage, where they call ten random people from the street to rub you down with petrol, or the Baste and Bake massage, where you are coated in oils and then put in an oven.

There was only one way to find out if this treatment was kosher. That was to try it for myself. Twice.

My first hot stone experience was at a spa in Knightsbridge.

I don’t remember much, as I fell asleep. Later when I returned to work, I felt sick so I had to be sent home. “They must have spiked the massage,” I mumbled unconvincingly.

Today I went to a spa in Mayfair determined to stay awake. “Turn off this trip-hop dirge and put on some Rollins Band!” I asked nicely. The spa didn’t have any Rollins “What about Slipknot. Do you have any of that?” I asked.
Unfortunately the closest they came to heavy was Moby.
I soldiered on. “Make the stones and the massage burny so I stay awake,” I said.

The stones used were basalt and came all the way from Australia, just like me. I wondered if maybe I had encountered it in the past – cut my foot on it down at the beach, or used it to bully other children. But when it came time for me to meet the stones I felt not even a speck of recognition.

The masseur (who I also failed to recognise, but that’s maybe because I didn’t know her) started by lining the table with hot stones that followed the line of my spine. I lay on them. They were nice. Sort of like a hard hot water bottle.

She then put a stone on my face – not a large one that broke my nose – more like a hot little pebble that one might find on their shoes.

Heavier stones were placed on each shoulder and I realised this may be an opportune time for the masseuse to rob me as I would be pinned down on the table and unable to give chase. Then I realised I was sans clothes and had naught to steal.

Stones were placed on my abdomen. I started to feel very….slllleeeppppy.
“PUT ON THE ROLLINS BAND!” I asked again, struggling to stay awake.

Then she started doing something to my leg – with the stone! She was rubbing the stone with vigour along my shin. Weird. Stop being so weird! But I didn’t say it because it felt quite nice actually. The pointy end of the stone was sort of sliding around of my bones with enough pressure to make me wince. I get it now. The hot stones were the tools, and the masseuse was a tradie and my body was the thing being repaired. Mmm, so that’s what its all about.

But just when I had it figured out – odd things started happening – vis a vis the stones.

She got a lot of little hot ones and placed them between each toe. Nice one, said my toes. She placed stones in the palm of each hand where they just sat while I channelled Virginia Woolf at her most unhappy. She did something to my ear lobes with another stone, a sort of rubbey, warmy thing. The ridge of a stone skidded along the top of my brows like a pebble on the water.

Ahhh hot stones! What benign, giving lumps of minerals they are. Who would have thought?
Sunday, June 24, 2007
Sodam burned and so did my resolve

I must admit I walked a bit taller on the second last day of my detox. Pride really does straighten the spine. 'I've done it!' I told myself and anyone else that would listen, I had successfully detoxed for almost a whole week.

Considering I've never been on a diet in my life, it wasn't particularly easy, which made the fact that I stuck to it all the more triumphant.

But I shouldn't have crowed so loudly - or at all.

Feeling self righteous I went for an after-work drink with a friend, where I piously sipped lemon and ginger tea. Then I went to the gym. On a Friday night. Oh I felt smug! I looked at all the poor unhealthy people around me, spilling out of the Soho pubs. They couldn't swill their drinks fast enough, they couldn't drag on their cigarettes hard enough, they could stuff their faces with crisps quick enough.
What wretches! They would have their day of reckoning.

I had the gym to myself. Upstairs, out on the street, Sodam burned around me. I did my exercises. Then as an afterthought I paid a visit to my old enemy- the scaly old scales. Ha scales - you cannot hurt me this time, for I have been on a detox, I told them as I approached. I leapt on, as light as a feather. Or not. It seems I was not as light as a feather. I was more like as light as a MRI machine or a pre-1980s IBM computer or a wilderbeast or a rubbish skip.

Whilst detox I had managed to put on 2 kilograms. In a week. On top of the other 2 kilograms I had put on whilst working out with a personal trainer. Being healthy was making me enormous.

I reeled off the scales in genuine shock. And also anger - was all this deprivation for naught?

I threw my evil gym membership card against the mirror in the changerooms (it bounced off), I threw a handful of body wash at the mirror (it stuck) and I stamped my foot on the ground (nothing happened.)

Then I met my friend Tim, who had met his friend from Andrea from Italy, who had his friends with him and the whole merry gang were at a bar in Soho drinking bottles of chenin blanc like it was a Friday (which it was) and smoking like they had a week to go before the smoking ban.

"Do I look fatter than I did before my detox?" I ask Tim. He was very diplomatic (even though he is not a diplomat). "Maybe the scales were wrong when you weighed yourself initially," he suggested. His other suggestions over the course of the evening also included,"Maybe your portion sizes on detox were too large. Maybe you drank too much juice. Maybe you haven't been doing enough cardio. Maybe your body is not sure what to make of the detox so is storing energy. You need to go on the stepper."

Maybe, maybe. But I felt like a failure. With one day to go of the detox, I broke it in spectacular fashion. I drank wine. I smoked Tim's cigarettes. I ate curry with naan bread. And I was slumping. That wonderful few inches of height that came with the feeling of pride left me the minute the scales shredded my dreams.
And so Saturday morning rolled around. I had a semi hangover. The low level feeling of failure hung around like the day's grey English summer skies. I actually felt quite depressed.

Detox be damned. Fitness be damned. I gave whole thing up when at midday I opened my emails and got this:

Hey Brigid-When I read your comments on going to the gym, well,I had to smile-ok, I really laughed out loud. I started going everyday (except Sunday) to a gym four months ago. I hate-I mean really really hate-going to the gym. But what I do love is how my clothes don't fit my body anymore! I am a 51 year old Nanna of 5 grandchildren and I vowed to myself to be around to dance at my grandchildren's weddings, and being from the South, oh do we love to eat, I knew I had to do something. (I resembled Santa's wife) I had a trainer for less than 30 days, that was all I could afford, and everyday I do the exercises that I can with as much intensity as possible. I don't talk when I work out, I use an old fashioned Walkman, and do I sweat! After I am done with my work-out, then I will talk. Keep up the great work! I know it is a big pain, but I promise it is well worth it. Remember, it is a life change that you are doing.

Thank-you Karen Mac of Alabama. You made my day and made me rethink giving up so easily.

Now I am back on the detox. I have returned to the gym with a glint in my eye like I mean business. I have wiped the body wash off the gym's bathroom mirror and I have kicked the scales in the goolies. I have introduced myself to the stepper. I've stopped slumping.

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Welcome to the diary of a reluctant exerciser. Having previously shunned fitness regimes in favour of bacon sandwiches, Brigid Delaney vows to finally shape up, get fit and eat more healthily. Over the next three months read how she gets on in a brave new world of gyms, exercise classes and no bacon sandwiches.
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