Ladies Who Crunch! Hollow Up-Towners Exploring Their ‘Core’

It’s 9:15 on a Monday morning, and I’m surrounded by 30 perfectly sculpted women with abs of steel. I’m in “core fusion,” the wildly popular exercise class at Exhale on Madison Avenue and 77th Street, a “mind-body” spa where Upper East Side moms religiously congregate for an intense, one-hour workout to ensure fitting into their size-26 Seven jeans in time for pick-up at school.

Getting a spot in this coveted 9:15 class is harder than getting a reservation at Per Se. Luckily, I reserved mine at the end of the summer, when many of the core cultists were in Europe.

But now that I’m in the “It” class, I’m not sure I’m woman enough to take it. For the uninitiated: Core fusion combines the disciplines of Pilates, yoga and stretching, with the aim of creating long, lean muscles, a youthful body and mind-body relaxation. The class focuses on “the core,” meaning abdominal muscles. The music varies from yogi atonal to pulsating, pelvic-busting rock. Usually some accessories are provided as well. A soft brown belt, for instance, is used to support certain stretches, although I’ve often thought I should just use it for self-flagellation when I can’t do the exercises. Then there are the “playground balls,” which sound like fun until you place them between your thighs and squeeze until your quivering quads beg for mercy.

I’ve spent months trying to pull up from my “core” (somewhere around the place where my morning muffin sits), and yes, it is a fabulous workout. My husband has lately been saying, “I can tell you’ve been going to core,” which has really added some spice to our coital conversations and pretty much quelled his musings about applying for Wife Swap. But the problem is, I’m the kind of woman who is all too conscious of what other women are doing, thinking and wearing. And this particular group of hard-core core-ists brings out the worst of my insecurities, disrupting my inner well-being.

At the same time that I started to develop sexy “sit” bones, I also started to develop unrequited girl crushes and sophomoric envy of BBTM’s (Better Bodies Than Mine). So many women are doing splits, it’s like a middle-aged audition for The Nutcracker. I’ve realized this class is yet another venue where I have to wrestle with my ambivalent feelings towards other women. Like many predominantly female experiences in the city, the core-fusion class is an intoxicating fusion of nurturing and resentment.

The room is full of gals who’ve been twisting like pretzels for years, so stepping into this as a newcomer was more than a little intimidating. Because I danced years ago, I assumed I could breeze into the intermediate class and figure things out, but it proved hard to keep up. I’ve spent many demoralizing, yet inspiring classes behind post-menopausal women with glutes like chorus boys’. There’s something so fabulous about a mature woman who wraps her spandex-sheathed legs around her neck and then goes home to make a brisket.

There’s not a whole lot of room in this class-physical or psychic. Many of these women are former investment bankers or lawyers, and they bring their achievement-oriented personalities to exercise. One woman in class is so intense that she stakes out the same corner every time and talks only to a select few. One woman who regularly attends a later session confided that she doesn’t like some of the people in the 9:15 class, or how crowded it gets. “I need my space,” she said. On some days, it’s so hard to get a spot at the barre, I’m left with two inches between me and two other Desperate Housewives types, extending my leg into somebody’s face lift. And then there’s the culture of the crowd. The Exhale ladies I’ve been (literally) hanging with are the same ones I encounter in my insular Upper East Side private-school world, where diversity means not owning a country house. While this cushy culture is comforting, it can also become stifling.

One day I decided to try to the basic, “easier” 12 o’clock class, partly because I wanted to see what it was like to go a little slower and also partly to see if the people were different. The women seemed more relaxed, less competitive and, well, friendlier. But soon after experiencing the more Zen-like atmosphere of the midday core group, I was back for my 9:15 fix. There was something just too decadent about taking a shower in the middle of the day and wandering around my apartment in a robe while other people are in business meetings.

I’m trying to see the group less as a clique, more as a sorority-in a good way. The women in the early class spend a lot of time giving each other advice, tips and all kinds of valuable information, as well as the occasional juicy gossip. I’ve been given the name of the ultimate hair relaxer and been invited to a private handbag sale. Some women have been fixed up by others in the class, and others take their core friends to Fairway for shopping runs. One morning, there was so much animated chatter among the mothers that the instructor asked some of them where they were going for coffee after class.

Rather than judge these ladies for being as obsessed over their abs as they are over their kids’ school admissions, or envy them for being more flexible at 40 than I was when I was 10, I’m realizing that they’re not so bad. Many even have a sense of humor, which really helps when you are in positions that rival those in the Cirque de Soleil. One core acquaintance joked about how she had to pop two Advils after every class just to control the pain, because if she didn’t, she’d feel terrible and eat all day. “What would be the point of the class then?” she lamented.

Of course, there are still days when I have to tune out the annoying prattle about people’s vacations in Casa de Campo or Deer Valley, or ignore the perfectly proportioned brunette in front of me who can balance on her butt for two minutes without breaking a sweat. I’ve heard there’s another Manhattan branch of Exhale on Central Park South. According to spa lore, it attracts a more eclectic and diverse clientele. But I’ve never gone there. I’m way too lazy to travel that far to exercise.