Before quarantine, I class-hopped through different boutique workouts religiously: aerial yoga classes, hot yoga classes, OrangeTheory classes, Cyc classes, and several kickboxing lessons. Class-hopping wasn’t just one of my pre-pandemic hobbies, it was a lifestyle. Nothing gave me more pleasure and horrific anxiety than rolling up to a place I had never been before and sweating with a room full of strangers. So the day I got a flood of emails from all the studios I had been attending saying that classes were canceled was the day it felt like my world stopped.
No more rushing to my various apps for afternoon sign-up windows, no more hauling yoga mats and towels on the train, no more shoving gym equipment under my desk. There was nothing but me and the various apps that aided me in transforming a small corner of my living room into a gym. While working out with a virtual instructor was all well and good, I missed the camaraderie of exercising with other people and matching their energy to get myself through a tough workout.
Once my home state of New Jersey loosened the restrictions on wearing masks indoors, the question wasn’t if I would go back to the gym, but what would be my first class. It had to be something local and something I hadn’t tried before, something special to mark the end of the masked workout. This is how I found myself on my back at a gym in north Jersey, with a man’s head between my wrists saying, “You have to squeeze harder.”
The appeal of group fitness isn’t just the workout itself, but the camaraderie that comes with standing in the back row of a room and making eye contact with that one other woman who also doesn’t think she can do whatever move the instructor is showing. Or the elation of perfecting a shoulder stand in a supportive yoga class. Sometimes it isn’t even about the people or the workout, but just the excitement of being in a place completely different from one’s normal routine. That interaction—that particular blend of anticipation and fear and the group endorphins released following a good workout—is what lured me back to a martial arts studio in early July.
I had heard that Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) is a great martial art for women because it teaches practitioners how to get out of compromising situations from a flat-on-your-back position, which could be useful at some point. But that wasn’t on my mind when I walked into a local BJJ studio for the first time and saw a room full of men in gi, the training uniform common in BJJ, stretching and waiting for the opportunity to strangle each other. Aside from one of the instructors, I was the only woman in my hour-long class for the first half-hour. I assumed that since it was my first time, I wouldn’t be asked to do anything too strenuous or that would involve too much contact. I was wrong.
After a short warm-up where I realized I had not tied the pants on my loaner gi properly and accidentally showed my ass to a few men behind me, we were told to partner up to work on a collar chokehold. I stood in the corner waiting for my own specific set of instructions, which were surely going to be different. They were not. I was given to a man named Kevin and we were supposed to take turns choking each other for an allotted amount of time.
In order to properly execute this choke on my new friend Kevin, I had to bring him closer to my body than expected—a jarring feeling after a year of limited to no human contact. While lying on my back, I grabbed Kevin by his wrist and the edge of his collar, pulled him onto my chest and used the hand on his wrist to grab the opposite side of his collar and choke him using my arms and my legs, which were wrapped around his waist for the entire exercise. (Hello, Kevin!) Kevin, who had already done a few BJJ classes, then returned the favor. He was a great choker.
Even though we were just gently choking each other, I would describe my brief time with Kevin as the most intimate experience I’ve had this year. At some point, he was explaining proper hand positioning while one side of his face was pressed into my tit.
The strangest thing about my interaction with Kevin and the two subsequent men I practiced the chokehold on was the ease with which we were all able to slip back into a semblance of normal. As the oxygen was being squeezed out of my body by a man named Ed, I didn’t give a second thought to the fact that Ed and I were exchanging air droplets and I was unsure of his vaccination status. No one in that room asked if I was Pfizer Gang or Moderna Mob. It was one isolated hour in a year of worrying, momentarily free from the oppressive feeling of the pandemic. Or maybe I just spent too much time with my oxygen cut off.
But once I walked out of the studio, I left behind the false sense of security I felt in the space. Out in the open air, reality slapped me once again as I habitually Purelled my hands before touching the steering wheel of my car.
I want to selfishly return to group fitness in the way it was before a pandemic reshaped the fitness industry, and even more so I’d love to choke Kevin or Ed in a new and exciting way. But the specter of covid still looms large and with so little known about the delta variant, forcing a return to normal feels about as impossible as me ever being good at Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.