Remember when fitness classes were an hour full of blasting tunes, an instructor barking out moves and an unforgiving mirror to judge yourself in? That belittling boot-camp atmosphere is as out-of-date as your mom’s Jane Fonda Workout tape. Today, workout fanatics are flocking to classes that inspire as much spiritual growth as cardio wellness. Think of these sessions as “affirmation fitness,” and while their methods can seem a little bit hokey to newbies, there’s a rapidly growing branch of brain science that backs up their methods.
A New Kind of Fitness Trend
An early leader of this new movement is Patricia Moreno. The Manhattan-based fitness instructor came up with her intenSati class in 2005, and has since written a book, The intenSati Method: The Seven Secret Principles to Thinner Peace, created a DVD, and trained 500 instructors nationwide. The class is a high-energy, hour-long workout that aims to burn up to 800 calories as well as amplify practitioners’ peace, love, gratitude and faith.
Moreno makes this happen by creating a series of affirmations for each month, which are repeated, call-and-response style. The month after Muhammad Ali’s death, for example, the instructor peppered classes with the athlete-activist’s quotes around the theme “finding the champion within yourself.”
There’s also The Class by Taryn Toomey (pictured above), a 75-minute workout that originated in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood and has spread to Los Angeles’ Westside exercise studios. Introduced as a “cathartic mind-body experience,” Toomey’s program sculpts, shapes and strengthens the body, while seeking to access and release emotion, stress and energy by tapping into the body’s chakras. Each packed class (which has no distracting mirrors) is led by the Toomey or one of her deputized instructors and is set to a unique playlist.
Working Out Your Chakras
Toomey’s movements are designed to move energy through the body’s chakras, releasing tension and toxins (aka “sludge”) while firming muscles. Clients won’t be able to predict what will come pouring out during the workout; a plaintive tune and the instructors’ shouted encouragement to “release the past” might trigger tears mingled with a coating of sweat.
But are these just cases of endorphins going to the exercisers’ heads? Were seen-it-all New Yorkers—who, at first, met teacher Moreno’s enthusiastic calls for vocalization with silence and eye rolls—right to be skeptical? The answer is no, at least according to the growing body of brain science concerning neuroplasticity.
The Science Behind Self-Affirmations
Neuroplasticity is the relatively new idea that our brains change and adapt to our needs by creating new neural pathways. According to Jeffrey Schwartz, MD, a research psychiatrist at UCLA School of Medicine and author of You Are Not Your Brain: The 4-Step Solution for Changing Bad Habits, there is a technique called “self-directed neuroplasticity,” in which focused attention actually changes your brain structure, and thus changes your habits.
Exercise’s stimulant effect (think of the dopamine released during a runner’s high) helps you focus attention. So in this way, voicing an affirmation, such as “I am strong and healthy,” while exercising isn’t only a time-efficient way to get both your daily physical fitness and meditation in, but the combining of the practices actually makes the spiritual component more effective.
Exercising Your Body and Spirit
There’s nothing revolutionary about the physical aspects of these classes—you’re sweating and grunting while working your muscles to exhaustion; it’s the spiritual component that’s special. Walking out of the class with a positive outlook is just as important as raising your heart rate. From cathartic chakra opening to positive chanting, these classes are designed to build a strong body and spirit, boosting self-esteem along with emotional wellbeing.
In fact, when people are given affirmations along with directions to create more healthful habits, the affirmations help them do this—because of brain chemistry, not just wishful thinking. “Healthy self-affirmation activates the part of the brain that allows us to change habits,” adds Schwartz. And it’s been proven by science. Research published in 2015 by the National Academy of Science showed that the same parts of the brain that control habits also process affirmations.
Spiritual wellness requires regular maintenance. Zen practitioners devote years to meditation, while churchgoers attend weekly sermons. With these new affirmation fitness classes, you can work on your cardiovascular and spiritual health at the same time, for benefits that last long after your postworkout shower.
Photo of Taryn Toomey by Jaimie Baird