The never-ending quest to find the perfect fitness class in Dubai
Navigating the UAE's fitness scene and its endless trends can take time to master
I have brief romances with fitness regimens. It usually starts with a free class that I sign up for out of curiosity, or attend after repeated invitations from friends. In Dubai, you rarely run out of options. There are studios in every neighbourhood, with deals and trendy new techniques and technologies that lure you in.
“I’ve found the perfect workout,” I tell myself. I sign up for class packages and memberships, I stock my wardrobe with excessive quantities of new athleisure wear and I clear my schedule to ambitiously try to make several sessions a week.
“Where do you work out?” seems to be one of the best icebreakers in the city. Most of the time, people have an answer, a recommendation, an anecdote, a complaint. Other times, they revel in telling you how tough their workouts are. “I die,” they say. And yet, here you are, I think. Instructors are name-dropped, discounts are shared and fitness apps are listed.
Indoor cycling was one of my first trysts, as I joined Flywheel in my early twenties. If you’ve never tried it, imagine cycling on steroids, with instructors pushing you to “race” at varying speeds, incline settings and “positions” (how you sit or hover over your bike) within the span of 45 minutes. These sessions take place in dim rooms walled with mirrors, where the music is played loudly and the only things you see clearly are the instructor – on a platform and lit by an overhead spotlight – and the screen on your bike.There was something freeing about this shadowy setting, a sense of invisibility – in the dark, only I could tell how well I was doing and it was up to me to push myself. The screen, or “torque board”, was there to help, assessing my speed and resistance. My favourite instructor would blast his hip-hop and R&B playlist and off I’d go, pedalling so fast it sometimes felt like my feet would fly off. Thankfully, they give you special shoes that lock you to your bike.
Then I began to notice it – the constant whooping, shouting, incessant huffing and puffing in every class. Performative acts are an inevitable part of gym culture, but it wasn’t only that. To me, the environment was built around competitiveness and showmanship. Maybe it was the leaderboards that displayed the winners of the day, pitting people against each other. Maybe it was the overwhelming number of biker shorts. Whatever it was, I lost interest. Three months later, I left the studio with two classes still left in my account.
I moved on to the next thing – a gym membership that came with a few personal training sessions. If you want to know the value of a minute, let a burly instructor command you to do as many push-ups as you can in 60 seconds (on your first day). Never certain I was using the machines properly, I eventually stopped going.
Next came circuit training, in which groups take turns completing a series of activities targeting specific sections of the body. That meant push-ups, sit-ups, squats, jumps, weight exercises and at times wrestling with Prowler sleds as I shoved them across the room. It proved to be enjoyably challenging, but I was put off by the style of instruction. Trainers had a tendency to yell too much or sound too demanding, which I understand is part of their job. It reminded me of high school, when I joined a milder version of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and had to do laps with cadence calls every day. I was out of there in a couple of months.
Eventually, I started to believe that maybe I wasn’t the exercising kind of person. Was I simply too lazy? Too shy? Too afraid to push myself? My end goal seemed to be a nebulous form of physical agility that I couldn’t define. I wasn’t aiming for a sculpted body, but exercise is so prized in Dubai circles that it seems strange to go without it. Yet in the studios and gyms I went to, there was a tremendous amount of hurry in the way people approached their workouts. During spin classes, for example, some people would jump off their bikes and leave before we cooled off.
People spoke in numbers – RPMs, calories, reps, kilograms – and what their wearables reported. There’s much talk about the struggle of exercise, but hardly anyone tells you it’s supposed to be fun and fulfilling, too. I picked up these regimens and dropped them, again and again. And, as with anything in life, if you can’t remember why you’re doing it, then you probably shouldn’t be doing it any more.
This year, I went back to something I hadn’t done in a while – yoga. We didn’t quite click right away. Some poses felt awkward and difficult, but thankfully I found a studio with an environment that is a little more forgiving. “There’s no competition in yoga,” my teacher often says.
The pace is perfect and I find the people to be warmer and friendlier. They’re not always out the door the minute the clock stops. The most important things you need to count are your breaths and, even then, it is never about the numbers adding up to something.
It suits me. It’s uplifting, but also removed from the sense of pomp and glory-chasing I previously came across. That’s not to say I’m oblivious to the other side of yoga, the one that’s been commodified and appropriated. Even I acknowledge that if it hadn’t, I wouldn’t have been exposed to it.
As I said before, Dubai has plenty of options. It’s up to you to explore them and find one that sits well with you. For me, yoga’s simplicity and portability remain its best features. It can be done almost anywhere, with almost no accessories or special gear. Just you, your breathing and a little concentration. I don’t want to jinx this newfound love – it has only been six months – but I think I may be in it for the long haul.
Updated: December 19, 2019 04:07 PM