Luxury Gyms: The Unexpected Place I Found Home

Equinox provided a haven of cleanliness and control.

Photo credit: Andreas Cappell, CC BY 2.0.

I recently quit the $30 per month utilitarian gym I’d been attending for four years to join a luxury gym for $170 per month. Did I get a raise? Develop an injury or health issue that would justify the cost? Get a special deal or promotion? No, on all counts. Let me explain.

When I lived in Manhattan ten years ago for graduate school I was cash-strapped and subsisting on free seltzer and cheese cubes from school functions. I was new to the city; to the buzz and chaos and filth, the puddles of urine on the subway platform, the cockroaches in the kitchen and rats scurrying underfoot on the sidewalks at night. Each day I returned home coated in a grimy layer of oily sweat to trudge up the five floors to my walk-up above a fish store, which leaked a low-lying rotting stench into our shared stairwell.

During my first week in the city I noticed that the luxury gym Equinox, a few blocks from my apartment, was offering a free three-day pass for newcomers. I wasn’t considering joining, most of my friends used the university gym or belonged to cheap basement clubs, but I thought I’d give myself a three-day treat and then join a cheap gym farther away.

Equinox was pristine. The only odors leaking through the vents were scents of eucalyptus from the steam rooms and Dr. Khiel’s grapefruit body wash from the showers. There were neat stacks of fluffy white towels in the dressing rooms and the yoga mats were sprayed and wiped down between each use. For those three days, in a scary, anonymous, overwhelming, and often filthy city, Equinox provided a haven of cleanliness and control. It always looked, smelled, and sounded the same, with helpful staff paid to make sure I felt comfortable and safe—two things that often eluded me my first weeks in the city, which included being whistled at, spat at, pissed in front of, shoved on the subway, and overlooked by countless bus drivers who saw me running but closed their doors and pulled away from the curb anyway. When I walked into the gym I was greeted by the staff like the Cheers version of fitness, where “everybody knows your name.”

At the end of the trial membership I was deeply sad to let go of the haven of quiet and safety I experienced at the gym. I knew it didn’t make sense for a broke graduate student to join such a fancy gym, but after a week of trying other places, nothing compared—and so I made an appointment with a membership advisor, signed above the dotted line, and walked out with an Equinox water bottle, tee shirt, and vouchers for a free fitness assessment and one-on-one pilates. I was paying beyond my means to belong there, but by teaching on nights and weekends and riding my bike instead of taking the subway and cabs, I made it work and continued to sweat it out with New York’s elite: corporate lawyers, PR people from fancy firms, chiseled Lululemon-clad yoga moms, and Alec Baldwin, whom I frequently saw huffing on a treadmill in sweat-soaked T-shirts.

I got to know the folks at the front desk, who occasionally let doorman-less me have packages delivered there. I became friendly with the tattooed personal trainer with a porn star name who gave me my complimentary sessions and the meditation teacher who’d gone to Ground Zero on 9/11 to offer free reiki to survivors. I loved the twiggy hula hoop instructor in DayGlo spandex and bleached blond hair who once passed out from low blood sugar. I worshipped the hip-hop instructor who by day worked as a prestigious human rights lawyer, and by night introduced me to phenomenal music, the sexiness of my own hips, and whose moves and rippling flesh made me wish I had bigger curves and way more energy. My favorite teacher, Kelly, was a ripped muscle woman who ran a strength training class that was just the right combination of challenging and do-able, hard-core and realistic. That class helped me to get into the best shape I’d ever been, and after a few months my body became a clean-functioning machine that let me eat voraciously without any of the digestion problems that had plagued me before.

I loved these folks — fierce, flexible, down to earth —and I saw them more frequently than I saw many of my friends. There are no friends like gym friends, who watch as you sweat, groan, try as hard as you can and fail; who push you to go farther, clap for you when you nail the headstand, laugh with you when you lose the choreography and show you how that part of the routine went during the break. They are casual family. I went almost every day as much for the warm familiar environment as for the hip-hop, weightlifting, yoga, meditation, and hula hooping class.

In February, when the heat in my apartment was broken more days than not and temperatures dipped into the bitter single digits, I schlepped five snowy blocks to sit in the sauna until I stopped shivering. I’d leave toasty and red-cheeked, thoroughly warmed from the inside. The next year, during a period of heartbreak, I swam teary laps while my heart re-stitched itself. I was glad no one noticed my goggles filling from the inside or my jerking gasps which matched the swim-gasps of everyone else in their lanes. The air sucked at my face for a moment, then I sank to my private distortion of noise and light, bubbles rising from my nose, the loudness of breath in my ears. Slowly, weightless, sadness circulated with the strokes and burned like fuel. My heart ached for the bottom of that pool like a stone, but I kept swimming, dizzy with the effort. I’d emerge from the pool dripping and renewed, and scrub my skin with their nice soaps and slather my skin with thick lotion in the sauna. I’d leave the gym wrung out, fresh with the possibility of feeling better.

Now I live in Boston. I’m no longer a student and I’m no longer as penniless as I used to be, but as a freelance writer and adjunct writing professor, I’m not exactly raking it in. For the last several years, I’ve worked out at a cheap utilitarian gym with flickering fluorescent lights, concrete walls, showers I never set foot in, and machinery that’s often dusty, squeaky, or broken—for which I pay $30 a month. I got a friend to join with me and we attended weekly Zumba classes and the occasional strength training class. The caliber of instruction didn’t compare to what I’d had, and I found I got a better workout churning out 40 minutes on the elliptical while watching the Kardashians. But recently I found myself in a transitional period. I finished writing the book I’d been slaving over for years, I moved, I started teaching at a new school, I ended some relationships and began others. I craved something grounding, safe, clean, stable, and familiar, so I took advantage of a free three-day pass at an Equinox that opened nearby.

Amazingly, it smelled, looked, and sounded just like my sanctuary in New York. For three days, I pushed myself harder than I had in years, I reveled in the streak-less mirrors and fluffy towels, the steam room and jars of Q-tips and shower caps in the dressing room. I wrestled with the decision to join Equinox for a few weeks, trying to talk myself into a less expensive fix, but realizing how much comfort and joy it brought me, I joined, and I love it just as much as I did before. The moment I step through those heavy glass doors, the ones next to a massive shirtless man across whose sculpted chest read the words “Commit to Something” (I’d commit to that, Equinox, no problem), my worries blow off me like so much eucalyptus steam.

So despite my adjunct salary, I’m commuting to a gym in a mall with an Anthropologie, SoulCycle, and a Gourmet Cupcake Bakery — sure signs of superfluous wealth and a certain type of taste. I walk in clad in TJ Maxx workout gear and a tote bag I got at an academic conference. My Toyota Corolla doesn’t beep in the parking lot like many others and I bypass the $11 smoothie station for an apple I’ll eat in the car. But I’m here, getting stronger, finding peace. In Barre class, the instructor told us to click our heels together three times from second position to tone our inner thighs. Click, click, click. There’s no place like home.

Gila Lyons’ work has appeared in Salon, Cosmopolitan, Vox, GOOD Magazine, BUST Magazine, The Rumpus, The Millions, The Morning News, Ploughshares, Brevity, Tablet, Fusion, and other publications. She holds an MFA in literary nonfiction from Columbia University, teaches college writing and literature, and is at work on a memoir about seeking a natural cure for anxiety and panic disorder but falling prey to the underbelly of the alternative health movement. Links to published work can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @gilalyons.

This story is part of The Billfold’s Change Series.

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