Autumn Phillips: Different kind of Zen

The last time I took an exercise class, leotards were in style.

I remember my favorite leotard particularly well. It was a one piece designed to look like two. It had a striped T-shirt element matched with a solid colored piece that went over it like a suspenders/underwear combination. The whole thing was visually tied together with a little belt and a plastic snapping buckle -- "just for looks."

I completed the ensemble with a pair of shiny white tights, leg warmers and Reeboks.

I had long hair at the time, as you were required to have in the '80s, which I held back with a long plastic banana clip. The rest of my hair -- that huge cloud on top of my head that I called bangs -- was held in place with a force field of Aquanet.

Those were the days of aerobics and Jazzercise. When exercise classes did damage to the knees and backs of women everywhere in the name of a perky workout.

Those were the days when the instructor walked into the room with boom box the size of a pet carrier and a stack of mix tapes full of sweat-worthy songs such as "Eye of the Tiger."

Needless to say, when I stepped out of the time machine into a modern day exercise class, I was a little out of step.

Between Jazzercise and today, I had been swimming laps.

Front crawl. Back stroke. Kick board. Underwater lung exercise. In that order, again and again, until the water began to erode my forehead.

Swimming always had been a great escape for me. There are no phones underwater. No Third-Street-and-Lincoln-Avenue traffic. No 5 p.m. Central Park Plaza. No mountains of snow melting into a slushy puddle that sits between you, your canvas tennis shoes and wherever you need to go.

Swimming was relaxing, but I was starting to bore myself in that pool. I needed a new kind of workout escape, and that's how I found myself as a regular attendee at yoga and Pilates classes.

Discovery: Exercise classes are a different kind of Zen than swimming.

First, no one cares what you're wearing in the pool. All that matters is that it stays on.

However, in the exercise class experience, as with all things Steamboat, you must get the outfit right.

Fashion tip: This is the age of yoga wear. Capri workout pants and fitted tank tops. You don't wear shoes in yoga or Pilates, so you might want to work on the pedicure.

After you have the look down, you will have the confidence to learn the moves and become one with the grunting, sweaty collective.

Your first days in any exercise class are like a boot camp where your self-esteem is ground by the instructor's mortar and pestle.

If you want to feel bad about your body -- go clothes shopping with a group of high school girls or look at yourself in the mirror while you do sit ups.

Part of the self-esteem destruction comes from the fact that you cannot hide. If my form is bad in the pool or if my arm flab makes me look like a manta ray on the surface of the water, I do not know it. There are no mirrors to tell me. There are no googly eyes peering in from the windows behind me as I try to perfect a stomach strengthening, but somewhat compromising, Pilates position.

That's me, in the back of the class, doing "The Rocker." If you don't know, it involves spreading your legs into the air, pointing your toes, grabbing your ankles and rocking back onto your shoulders. Then you hurl yourself back into a sitting and balanced position.

I never did this in the pool.

Fortunately, this exercise is so difficult, my mind isn't coordinated enough to be self-conscious. Or bored.

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