Freaks, Geeks, and Obliques: Nonconformist Gyms For People Who Hated Dodgeball - Atlas Obscura
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Freaks, Geeks, and Obliques: Nonconformist Gyms For People Who Hated Dodgeball

Minneapolis-based YogaQuest leads a costumed yoga session at a science fiction convention. (Photo courtesy of YogaQuest)

Are you dreading the upcoming resolution season because you want to start being more active, but gyms are for mundanes? Is the thought of being surrounded by bulging muscles giving you uncomfortable flashbacks of high school swirlies? Does the sound of new-age music piped softly into yoga class make you want to rip your ears from your skull and throw them into a Dimmu Borgir concert?

Well, you may be in luck, because there are alternative workout spaces popping up around the country that finally make gym culture friendly to weirdos, dorks, and dweebs.

Andrew Deutsch, founder of Nerdstrong Gym in LA, realized that there was a market for geeky gyms when he couldn’t get any of his friends to come to Crossfit classes with him. When his friend David–who was also his Dungeons & Dragons dungeon master–crashed with Deutsch for a while, Deutsch tried to convince him to work out on the equipment he’d set up in his garage. But David just wasn’t finding the workouts inspiring. “So I was like, well, what if I did a dungeon workout, where you kick down the door, you battle a monster, and then you go to the next room and the next room, like you would in D&D?” Deutsch recalls. What if the workout was about imagination, not competition? That piqued David’s interest, so Deutsch devised the story for a D&D workout, complete with monsters and traps.

Soon, nerdy friends were flocking to Deutsch’s garage gym every Sunday for Lord of the Rings workouts, Batman workouts, Godzilla workouts, Star Wars workouts. “It was my stealthy way of getting them to work out in an atmosphere that’s open and welcoming and not the typical gym atmosphere,” he said. Deutsch got teased a little at his Crossfit gym for running a nerd exercise group, but the level of interest surprised him–and it kept growing. Finally, in 2014, he opened Nerdstrong (then called Nrdfit) to the public.

Though he’s a little nerdy himself, Deutsch was enough of a jock that he was initially surprised by Nerdstrong’s popularity. “I didn’t know there was this community of people that were underserved,” he said, “and they’ve just been gradually showing up more and more.” He and his coaches talk to every new member individually about their history and experience with physical activity, and many have never been to a gym at all because they find it so unwelcoming. Here, they’ve found a place where they can swing maces, attack the “Death Star” (it’s a tire), or pretend to be Indiana Jones, all in the name of getting fit. More importantly, they’ve found their people.

“We’re called Nerdstrong not because we do tons of nerdy things, but it’s the community that’s nerd-focused and nerd-centered,” says Deutsch. In many ways, that community has taken on a life of its own; the gym has spawned several sub-communities of people who work out together and hang out together outside of the gym, like the all-women Misfits and the LGBT-friendly Queerstrong. Oh, and the Hufflepuffs. (“They’re not anything else, they’re Hufflepuffs. If you put them in Slytherin [for a Harry Potter-themed workout] they’re like ‘I’ll do it this time.’ They have chants about being Hufflepuffs.”)

And while Nerdstrong has its share of casual members, a lot of nerds have become devotees. David, Deutsch’s DM and the original inspiration for the D&D workout, is now a trainer. 

An Indiana Jones workout at Nerdstrong. (Photo: Nerdstrong Facebook)

While Deutsch started his nerd gym primarily for his friends, Justine Welch Mastin of the Minneapolis yoga studio YogaQuest was initially looking for a place that she herself could feel more at home. “Yoga was meaningful to me, but so much of the yoga culture felt forced and exclusive,” she said. “I found that I was pretending to be someone who I wasn’t. I didn’t feel authentic, but I didn’t know what, if anything, I could do about it.”

Mastin realized that she wasn’t alone; geeks in general were lacking “conversations on how to care for themselves or the narrative that they were worth caring for.” That was the key to what would become the YogaQuest mission. “I’m not just saying ‘okay, so you’re fat and weird, that’s okay, we can work with that,’” says Mastin. “I’m saying ‘you are a vital human being who deserves to move your body and have community.’” As a psychotherapist, Mastin wanted to make the positive aspects of self-care and physical movement available to a larger range of people – to her people, specifically.

As with Nerdstrong, Mastin says that community is the most important part of YogaQuest: “We can’t foster growth and open dialogue if we can’t trust each other. To appeal to geeks, the first thing to do is to show them that this space is for them – whatever that means.”

Kate Harding, who’s taken a class at YogaQuest (and is a friend of mine), said that this sense of inclusion and belonging was the most appealing part: “It’s a unique and really charming, approachable environment. Everyone who works there oozes nonjudgmental friendliness.” YogaQuest regular Rebecca Wegscheid agrees, saying that nobody at YQ judges her either for not knowing a pose or for being in the wrong fandom: “I am accepted as I am, flaws/nerdiness/ability and all. The general attitude about each person who walks through the door at the studio is a huge factor in this: each person that walks in is introduced as a friend. Not a client, not someone who has/hasn’t done yoga before, but a friend.” Even the decor shouts “you belong here.” Harding describes the studio as “like walking into a ThinkGeek catalog.”

This works, she notes, partly because it’s obvious there’s no pandering going on. “There are also pictures of the staff attending various cons and cosplaying Supernatural out in the woods in their spare time, in case you’re worried that it’s just a gimmick,” she says.

That said, YogaQuest isn’t just about doing yoga with nerds; it operates differently from a typical yoga class, too. Instead of a sun salutation or a Bikram series, participants move through poses dictated by a reference-heavy adventure written and read aloud by Jenny Milos (who originally just wrote scripts, but is now also certified as a yoga instructor). The YogaQuest website offers a long list of fandoms Milos has based her scripts on; among others, she’s written narratives for Buffy yoga, Rocky Horror yoga, Iron Man yoga, Monty Python yoga, Twin Peaks yoga, and Sharknado yoga, and Mastin says that students are requesting new fandoms all the time. Another Minneapolis nerd exercise option, the belly dance class Geek Slink, also meets in the YogaQuest studio for people who prefer other movement options.

If you’re a geeky yogini but you can’t make it to Minneapolis, artist Scott Wayne Indiana has run three sessions of Dungeons and Dragons yoga in Brooklyn and Austin. D&D yoga participants make up characters and are led through a narrative adventure, doing poses to represent climbing, fighting, and acts of stealth or strength. Like a regular, sedentary Dungeons & Dragons session, they even roll dice to determine the outcomes of some of their actions. There are no new classes on the schedule, but you can get the full audio of the Austin session and follow along with the pose chart.

But what if you’re disaffected in a different way? What if you’re more into death metal than Doctor Who, or you’re a goth who wants to put some muscles on your Jhonen-Vasquez-character physique? In that case, you’ve got your pick of Healthgoth personal training in Chicago, a spinning gym called Monster in New York, and heavy metal yoga in Brooklyn, Austin, and Pittsburgh.

When Johnny Love, a Chicago DJ and music producer, decided to start improving his physique, he did it by going to the gym with his friends “who are all either goth, metal heads, punks etc. … all wearing all black, because that’s what we all own.” Love encountered the term “health goth,” and it resonated with him, but he was disappointed to find that it was a cyberpunk-like aesthetic originated by Portland artists (or, in Love’s words, “a stupid meme made by nerds”) and not a movement about getting jacked while wearing black. So he bought Healthgoth.com and decided to make it more like his idea of what “health goth” should be.

Love uses the site partly to market T-shirts with death- and disaffectation-based takeoffs on traditional sporting goods iconography. But people in his Chicago music circles started to ask him for workout advice, and he gradually moved into personal training. He says he hopes to open a Healthgoth gym in LA in the near future. “The biggest problem at gyms, including the one I go to, is the overwhelming bro mentality,” says Love. “Our crew still deals with shit from the bro cliques at the gym, including the employees, because we’re not talking about sports and we wear all black, so basically it’s high school all over again.” The Healthgoth gym will eschew bros, TV sports, and top 40 music.

In other ways, Healthgoth hews close to a standard gym mentality, unlike a place like YogaQuest that seeks to change attendees’ attitudes towards fitness and self-care. Love’s “Healthgoth fitness Bible” (and it should really be the “Healthgoth Liber AL vel Legis”) is the same recitation of intense nutrition and bodybuilding rules you might get from a typical jock trainer, plus a reference to leather harnesses. Monster Cycle is similar: SoulCycle with better music. They’re partly about making fitness welcoming for people who might feel out of place when surrounded by colored spandex, but they’re also about leveraging goth color schemes and attitudes, and perhaps the pressure to wear fishnet shirts, in order to tempt or shame a new population into standard hardcore fitness routines.

Heavy metal yoga is more low-key. The Brooklyn classes, taught by Saskia Thode, replaces sun salutations with obeisances to Satan, chants of “om” with Cookie Monster growls, and prayer hands with metal horns. As you might intuit, it’s more than a little tongue in cheek. For people who find the touchy-feely new-age attitude of many yoga classes off-putting, though, avoiding breezy positivity has an appeal even if you’re not especially into metal, witchcraft, or Satanism. One participant reported that she expected to find the trappings gimmicky, but wound up enjoying the opportunity to tap into her anger instead of being encouraged to release it. Pittsburgh-area Black YO)))ga—the spelling is a reference to metal band Sunn O)))—takes a similar approach to embracing anger, offering metal-, noise-, and industrial-fueled yoga classes to “people who may battle depression, anxiety, alcoholism, drug addiction, trauma/PTSD, phobias, dark passengers, etc.,” with the motto “You can’t fully appreciate the light until you understand the darkness.” Austin’s Black Metal Yoga also offers “enlightenment through darkness.” Namaste.

If you’re not lucky enough to live near one of these workout options for weirdos, sit tight—or even better, do a few Game of Thrones- or Sherlock-themed exercises while you wait. “The question is always, ‘when can I get one in my town?’” says Deutsch. He’s hoping to open a new Nerdstrong location in LA soon, and maybe that will be the necessary proof of concept to make it more widespread. And the more visibility alternative workout spaces have, the more people will be inspired. Someday, your biggest complaint about the gym might be not “what’s with all these meathead jocks?” but “what’s with all these Hufflepuffs?”