The Cult of Barre

Beware Barre babes of drinking the Kool-Aid.

Posted Aug 04, 2015

Image from Rebalance Pilates and Yoga
Source: Image from Rebalance Pilates and Yoga

I was trying to be a good bride-to-be.  I really was.  Being mindful of the feelings of family and friends throughout the process, refusing to register for the singular $500 knife Williams and Sonoma was pushing on me, and most regrettably, signing up for Barre.

Perhaps it was that I fell prey to the hype behind the latest summer read, Primates of Park Avenue, written by fellow Psychology Today blogger Wednesday Martin.  As I read about the women who spinned, cycled and did all sorts of bizarre exercises with passion and fervor, I found myself mystified by the practices she described.  Enter the unlimited bridal Barre package and me, the easiest sell of virtually any item with a catchy enough jingle.

Reading that Barre is the perfect mix of ballet, pilates, and yoga, I was intrigued.  A registered yoga teacher (RYT-200) through the Yoga Alliance for just over a year now, and having taken ballet for several years in adulthood, I figured comfort with 66.67% of its foundations would giving me pretty good odds.

My first class was great.  Only five students, with 3 of us as newbies, the teacher taught foundational moves and some pretty cute aerobic type movements, circa 1980s Jane Fonda (ok, I’ll admit, I’ve never done her videos, but this was precisely what I imagined them to look like).  There were some challenging moments, but they were immediately followed up by stretches, and breathing breaks.  Very strong class sequencing in my experience. 

But I’m afraid it was beginner’s luck, or the beginning of the end.  I later found out as I made my way through a slew of classes that Barre is known for the “shakes and the quakes.”  It’s awakening the muscles that have been inactive.  The greater the shake, the greater the glory.  I tried teacher after teacher next, and I witnessed them transform from perky, peppy, and friendly ladies before turning on their microphones to Robo-Barbie-types, “20 more ladies, push, pull, lower, and lift, lower, and lift…happy hour is just around the corner, earn it!!!”  I don’t think I’ve ever watched the clock as closely in my life since perhaps my last standardized test appearance.  In the last 15 minutes I was sure things were going to slow down (hello, savasana anyone!?), but that was only the final push after 45 minutes of exhaustion.  Squeezing out every last drop of energy, shaking and quaking thighs, hamstrings, glutes, abs, you name it.

Usually, I’d walk out weary but with my head held high.  As I’d watch women walk out mid-class altogether, or have extreme looks of pain in their face, I’d often have no problem just lying there, immobilized mid-class.  My ego wasn’t going to break my body.  In fact, when I usually got home, I was just fine.  That is, until I started having some of the most excruciating spasms of pain from random body parts in the middle of my day.  I was sharing this with friends recently when one of them who had also tried a Barre class shared experiencing a seizure due to her class and being hospitalized. 

In our American culture of extremes—work hard, play hard—this mentality is also permeating health and fitness.  Eat whatever you want, and then demolish your body in a one-hour class.  Where in yoga I’ve come to hear messages of being kind to your body, accepting it, and treating it holistically, not once did I hear this message in my Barre classes.  It was always push harder, and to the extreme.  Whereas yoga teachers preach adequate hydration, and eating in a gentle manner, this conversation was completely absent in the context of Barre. 

As a psychologist, seeing such extreme forms of exercise are troubling and a bit concerning.  There are those who certainly swear by Barre (I went in on the recommendation of a friend in the first place).  But I would ask, is it kind and is it necessary?  The amount of times I nearly passed out in class was scary, and I’ve typically been a fit and healthy individual.  But it wasn’t right for my body. 

One of my favorite all-time books, Body, Mind, Sport by John Douillard discusses identifying your body composition and the types of fitness that are right for you.  Some of us are distance runners and pole vaulters, while others of us are the ballerinas and cricket players.  Strength and endurance are certainly important for all bodies and our mental well-being.  But they should never come at the expense of berating ourselves and jeopardizing our wellness.  Fortunately for me, the endorphin rush of the Barre ladies led to a kinder than expected return policy.  Lesson learned.  Listen to your body, don't rush in, and do what's uniquely right for you.  

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