BEND AND BURN

How Taryn Toomey’s ‘The Class’ Became New York’s Latest Fitness Craze

Taryn Toomey’s The Class, which sweatily mixes up yoga, detox, and ‘bootcamp’ exertion, takes the exercise class to an intense new level.

It’s 7:00 AM on a Tuesday morning and I am huffing and flailing my way through a round of jump-squats. For every nanosecond that I miraculously lift off the ground, I land with an inordinately loud thud. More miraculous still is that my trembling thighs have not given way, landing me on my bum.

Struggling to focus, I settle my gaze on the pert backside of a spry, sinewy blond at the front of the room, Taryn Toomey, who is leading the rest of us—some 30 women and a few men—in this torturous sequence. She speaks into a wireless microphone over the swelling base of 50 Cent’s “In Da Club,” her voice raspy and hushed. “What is it, that thing you can’t stop thinking about?”

Where to begin? I would still be in a pleasant sleep had I not listened to a good friend—another woman with an enviable backside—who recently gushed about “The Class with TT,” a yoga meets Barry’s Bootcamp fitness movement in New York City created by 36-year-old Toomey. In the last year, her fusion exercise class has attracted a cult following and become de rigueur among the celebrity set. (Naomi Watts is a regular.)

So here I am in my requisite Lululemon pants, grunting along to an old hip-hop song at a most ungodly hour. Sequences last the length of a song, which leads me to believe I’m listening to an interminable “In Da Club” remix.

“Try to figure out where you feel it and start to move something off that space,” Toomey shouts, her raspy voice cracking. “Now add some fucking sound! Let this be the thing that moves it!”

Sputtering, I manage a few “hut-hut-huts” with the other students.

Toomey then takes us through her variation on a traditional burpee sequence: begin in plank or push-up position, hop feet forward to meet hands, jump upwards into the air, jump back into plank. (Some yogis will assume burpees derive from the more enlightened sun salutation sequence, when in fact they were training exercises for World War II soldiers. Toomey’s version is its own unique breed of cardio hell.)

Students moan and growl and shriek and yawp, as if exorcising demons in a ritualistic ceremony. Toomey glides around the room like a Brazilian capoeira dancer. “Whatever bad experience you’re holding in, whatever it may be, let the shit out.”

“It” is the build up of toxic energy (what Toomey frequently refers to as “the sludge”) that devotees flush from their systems during The Class, at $30 per 75-minute session. With its emphasis on cleansing, The Class caters to our detox-obsessed culture and the wealthy urbanites who have embraced it in the last five years.

Long associated with the hippy-dippy cultural fringe, detoxing entered the mainstream with Bikram and “vinyasa” flow yoga in the early aughts. For a while yoga and pilates classes were sought out at luxury gyms like Equinox. But the rise of personalized fitness ushered in the now-booming boutique fitness movement, complete with pricey barre-method (Physique 57, Pure Barre), spinning (SoulCycle, FlyWheel), and cross-training (Barry’s Boot Camp, Tracy Anderson Method) classes.

The Class is the latest to enter the mix, seducing fitness junkies with exclusivity (Toomey herself only teaches one class a day) and toxin-flushing.

There is no science backing the detox movement. But that hasn’t stopped people from buying into it, whether through diet or exercise, as a panacea or means to improve general health. We see detoxing as a path to transcendence, a symbol of modern urban virtue and self-transformation through abstinence. (Alcohol and sugar, even in moderate amounts, are not only sinful but poisonous.) We indulge in expensive cold-pressed juices and SoulCycle classes, justifying these purchases as investments in our health.

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And these days, there is more emphasis on the soul in SoulCycle—the emotionally cathartic component of fitness—than on the workout itself.

“People frequently cry in class,” Toomey tells me when we meet for lunch in Tribeca, a neighborhood in downtown Manhattan that has attracted a new generation of wealthy, young families. Toomey lives here with her husband, Mark, a managing director at Goldman Sachs, and their two daughters.

Toomey teaches The Class at a nearby dance studio, helping students “expel the heaviness that builds up inside of us, the emotional burdens we take on every day, using the breath to release it.”

“I believe that if you don’t move that stuff out, it ends up making you sick,” she says. “And not just sick in the body but in your mind, because you start obsessing.” Such pronouncements may sound as gratingly bougie-boho as they come, but Toomey is immensely likable, bubbly and charismatic, with a warm, honking laugh like Debra Winger’s in Terms of Endearment.

For nearly ten years, Toomey worked in Manhattan as an account executive at Ralph Lauren and later Christian Dior, practicing yoga regularly. By 2007, not long after she arrived at Dior, she’d had enough of the 9-5 corporate life.

“Something didn’t feel right about my life, and it wasn’t just the job,” she says. She completed a yoga teacher-training program and, in the spring of 2008, went on a retreat in Peru to study with shamans. (When Toomey first started teaching The Class, she sent all proceeds to an orphanage in Cuzco founded by her late shamanic mentor.)

Back in New York, the slow pace and inward focus of her yoga practice was less fulfilling. “I loved it, but I needed some fucking fire! And I didn’t want it in a power flow practice. I needed it in a beat-the-floor kind of way.”

“It sounds kind of cheesy, that ‘mind-body-spirit’ phrase, but that’s what The Class is all about,” Toomey says, sipping her vegetarian coconut milk soup.

“I just ate and drank so much in December,” she confesses. “Did you?” She adds that she feels slightly “heavy and gross.” This is laughable, of course. Toomey is tiny and impossibly fit. Her style, much like her diminutive nickname, is best described as “Hamptons twee”—preppy and peppy.

But “heavy and gross” she feels, and so she has embarked, with 20 others, on an Ayurvedic cleanse called ‘The Layer’, which she designed. Any plans to grow her exercise movement must, she insists, remain “completely organic.”

Such is her burgeoning popularity Toomey is looking to employ more instructors to lead her highly personalized exercise classes. Certainly, she seems to command near-total devotion among her clients.

“I’ve had so much experience working out in New York, where everyone is so serious, and that was just completely removed from The Class,” says Courtney Levinsohn, 38, a sports psychologist who met Toomey a year ago (she also lives in Tribeca) and attends class four or five times a week. “I thought to myself, ‘Oh my god, this is where all the cool chicks are!’”

Stephanie Giorgio, a classical musician, credits The Class for helping her cope with anxiety, focus, fear, and self-doubt. “When I’m working on a big project, whether it’s recording or preparing for a performance, The Class gives me the opportunity to conjure up those doubts and crush them. It’s the perfect blend of flying endorphins and Namaste.”

At 44, Giorgio says she’s in the best shape of her life. “I’ve had two kids and Taryn has helped me sculpt and strengthen like nobody’s business. She will give you her heart. She really cares about each one of us.”

I was drawn to The Class for different reasons—chiefly, the pipe dream of achieving a tighter and tauter backside. And who knows, maybe in time I’ll reach the level of glassy-eyed devotion exhibited by the woman I shared an elevator with after the class, who told me—without a shred of irony—“Personal fitness is the gift that keeps on giving.