Gym Pets

021908 nyworld web 0 Gym PetsThe other day at this spinning class I go to sometimes, the instructor fiddled with the CD player as he told us to “crank it up five full turns,” which is really huffing-and-puffing stage for me. “Keisha, I’m putting on a song for you! You’ll like this one!” he said, indicating a woman in the second row of bikes. He pushed some buttons. Nothing. One woman in the front row turned around and squealed, “Keeeeeeisha!” Unfortunately the CD player wasn’t cooperating. “Keisha, I am so sorry,” the instructor said. “I left Mary at home! I’ll bring her in next time!”

Mary, in this case, being Mary J. Blige; Keisha, in this case, being the woman who sits on the same bike every time I’ve been to the class, next to the spiky-haired Asian woman. Then in front are the long-curly-haired woman who’s moving out of town; the super-buff woman who whoops and hollers throughout class; and the other woman who whoops and hollers throughout class. When one of them misses a class, the other ones ask them where they’ve been.

The class is always packed, and you have to sign up for a bike, and somehow these women always manage to get their bikes. Do they arrive two hours early? Why are they so obsessed with this teacher? Do they regard the rest of us with disdain? Related: Do they have a life?

I spoke to a 29-year-old architect in Cobble Hill who regularly goes to a local yoga studio, where she usually takes classes with the same woman. She also has been known to hang out with her yoga teacher outside of class. “It’s a pleaser thing,” she told me. “I mean, I want her to like me.”

She continued: “There’s never a time anymore where people say, ‘Good job. It’s hard!’ At work, nobody loves you. I seek the positive reinforcement.”

It made me wonder whether successful New Yorkers had become so accustomed, as children and then adolescents and then young adults, to having their every move praised that when the praise dries up, they have a little breakdown. And so going to the same cardio-boxing class, and standing in front, becomes not only a status thing but one of the only places where sagging self-esteem can get propped up for what can seem like an all-too-brief 45 minutes. Everything—from “Good job!” to a small adjustment on a downward dog—is a scrap of attention that is hungrily absorbed and filed away. And thus the class becomes a performance for the teacher, with students convincing themselves that they will have somehow let their teacher down if they don’t show up.

“I text my yoga teacher if I miss class, just to explain where I was,” said the architect. “If I’m sick, I don’t want her to worry.”

But in many cases, it’s a reciprocal relationship. “I love to see regulars coming back,” said Mark Hendricks, the group fitness manager at the Greenwich Avenue Equinox. Mr. Hendricks teaches classes with names like “Step SLAM N’ JAM.” “I’m very impressed that people are in the room every week, and that a lot of them want to have a relationship with you.

“They place themselves in the room deliberately,” Mr. Hendricks continued. “They’ll stand near the stereo, where they know you’ll be at least a few times, or at the front, where they know you’ll see them perform. My class is a little bit about performance—it’s a little bit about, ‘Look at me, look how good I’m doing.’”

That, of course, can be mildly annoying if you’re not one of the special ones, or if you just want to go to class and sweat and not banter.

“Some instructors are offended if not everyone’s like that,” said Courtney Hazlett, 31,who writes the Scoop column for MSNBC. “I went to one class where the instructor kept interrupting to say, ‘Come on, no one’s answering my questions! What did you do last weekend?’ I don’t want to tell her what I did last weekend!”

One 27-year-old magazine editor said she stopped going to a Union Square yoga studio because of the behavior of an instructor and his acolytes. “It was a beginner class, but it seemed like some of the women had been attending the class for a really long time, because they were really tight with him,” she said. “He would come into the room and there would be a trail of greetings wafting around him. After class I would want to ask him a question because I was returning to yoga after not practicing for a few years, and I would have to wait for 10 minutes while these women did small talk with him after class.

“Then he was out for a month because his wife had a baby,” she continued. “I liked the substitutes better, because I felt like the regular teacher never saw me in class, like I wasn’t visible to him because I wasn’t all up in his business.”

The fraught nature of a friendship predicated upon a paying relationship gets even trickier when the person involved is a personal trainer. “I find myself trying to make conversation,” said Danielle, 27, a fashion magazine editor. “They’ll talk to me, and I’ll have moments where I’m too out of breath to have a witty quip back. Are they not going to think I’m as cute and funny because I can’t breathe well enough to make a joke? I want them to like me personally and I also want them to think I’m an awesome trainee.”