“This is a meditation, just with your body,” begins fitness instructor Taryn Toomey in her deep, gravelly voice, reminiscent of Kathleen Turner. “Feel what your mind is trying to tell you.”
I am in The Class, billed as a “cathartic mind-body experience” by founder Toomey, who is leading the session in her Tribeca studio. The airy space is outfitted with marble counters, soothing neutral palettes, modern gold-plated fixtures, and wood floors embedded with a layer of rose quartz crystals.
Tunes by Florence and the Machine and The XX set the pace of The Class’s routines. As instructed, I am squatting and breathing deeply as a chorus of Lululemon-clad attendees repeatedly shout, “Huh!” in unison. These affluent working women are using sound to (Toomey claims) harness and release energy, treating the class’s mix of cardio exercises, body conditioning, yoga, and meditation as a sort of therapy session. As they perform the repetitive movements, their guttural noises almost sound like a battle cry that translates, roughly, to “I am overstressed, hear me roar!”
From there, the women morph themselves into winged positions, their arms outstretched. They breathe heavily, eyes closed, as their leader uses phrases like “rise up” in lieu of “stand.”
“We’re out of our bodies most of the day,” Toomey tells the room as she perches on a window ledge overlooking the lower Manhattan skyline. “It’s time for a reunion.” The crowd nods in agreement, with some looking genuinely touched. More than one attendee keeps her eyes shut for most of the class, while one petite brunette next to me spent half the class dancing to herself, out of rhythm with the rest of the class, as if in a trance.
Midway through a medley of jumping jacks, lunges, and burpees, Toomey’s voice loudens, taking on a new gravitas.
“What are your blinders?” she asks the room. “Your blocks–what are they?” Her voice gets even louder, like a commanding priest. “What are they? What are they?!” As if revealing the crescendo to an opera, she shouts with gusto: “Feel! Feel! Feel!”
The room, frankly, loses it. The session devolves into a rave as Prodigy’s “Firecracker” roars over the speakers. Some class members moan like a birthing animal, while others shake their Lycra-clad limbs with a spastic fervor generally portrayed by a car dealership’s balloon air dancer.
“This is a safe space,” Toomey reiterates.
Toomey has garnered a cult following for this unique, visceral form of exercise. If you can even strictly call it exercise. Is it meditation? Is it spiritual? Athletic vocalization? The Class cuts across various genres to claim its own territory within the fitness movement, making it the first of its kind. There’s really nothing to compare it to. The Class’s niche is hard to define, and yet its fans swear by it. Stop any one of the New Yorkers in the session I attended and ask them to describe The Class, and you’ll hear it called “total body relaxation,” “a brain-body release,” and “a spiritually orgasmic exercise.” One participant simply explained it by telling me, “Sometimes you just need to yell, ya know?”
Some of these women feel the need to shout more than they ever have before. A sizable portion of her clients, Toomey says, turn to The Class because they’re distraught over Donald Trump’s presidency. For affluent, liberal women who might feel powerless or angry about our current political climate, The Class’s combination of movement and sound serves as a necessary stress reliever.
Of course, this trend is nothing new. As the New York Times recently reported, “anger rooms” where people can literally vent their anger by destroying stuff (like TVs and computers) are all the rage these days among Americans who feel a lot of angst and have some extra cash to burn.
“We’re right at this moment where a lot of people are fed up and frustrated and scared and strong and brave and all of these dualities of things,” says Toomey. “One of the reasons why [The Class] has become what it is, is because of the timing . . . Right after the [presidential] election, people were coming in there, and they were screaming and crying.”
Toomey is used to hearing a lot about “the sound” of her class–i.e., the noises her clients make during the sessions. Indeed, that aspect may be The Class’s most distinguishable characteristic, the one that leaves the biggest impression on a new participant. But as Toomey explains midway through her session, “People talk a lot about the sound in here, but there’s a lot of duality going on . . . There’s a lot of silence, too.”
Toomey says that The Class’s structure is designed to permit individual moments of expression, even while they are operating within the session’s structured framework of exercise routines. Some people, like me, might sit quietly and take it all in; others might grunt and convulse. One thing that keeps everyone unified are the synchronized breathing patterns dictated by the instructor and the beat of the music.
“I think a lot of people are coming to The Class because there’s a sense of, ‘Do what you need to do, not what I’m telling you to do,'” says Toomey. “It’s not necessarily a place where you come in and say, ‘This is how I feel about this.’ It’s just a place to let yourself feel whatever it is you’re feeling, and then allow it to be felt.”
From Fashion To Fitness
“I’ve always realized that I’m somebody that has a lot of fire in my body . . . Growing up, I would just feel a lot,” says Toomey, pausing before erupting into laughter. “Let me try to explain that again!”
She recognizes her words might come across as a bit kooky. That’s part of Toomey’s appeal: a splash of the spiritual woo-woo grounded in the physical and practical, rooting her self-help messages within tried-and-true elements of mainstream fitness. She is completely aware that her talk of metaphysical and spiritual practices can seem foreign and alienating, and she makes efforts to make them more accessible to the consumer (without alienating her more Goop-y fans).
Take, for example, her studio’s crystal-embedded floors, which allegedly clear bad energy. When asked whether she believes in crystals’ supposed healing properties, Toomey quickly asserts herself as a skeptic before adding, “I believe a lot in the power of intention.”
Toomey’s first foray in the fitness industry was far more mainstream. After a stint teaching Step aerobics (“I was in Florida,” Toomey tells me defensively), she moved into the fashion industry. She oversaw wholesale accounts at Ralph Lauren for over six years before jumping to Dior, but never did she feel truly satisfied during her decade-plus career.
“I would literally just count down the minutes to get to yoga at the end of the day,” she recalls. “I was pretty miserable.” She ultimately realized, “I was just in the wrong line of work.”
In 2007, Toomey enrolled herself in a local yoga teacher-training school in New York. After six months, the new student decided that fitness work was definitely more along the lines of what she wanted to pursue. And with that, she gave her notice to Dior.
“I decided to jump ship and make a massive, very scary change and see what I thought about doing yoga,” she explains, adding “with the expectation that I would probably go back to [fashion].”
It was not a light decision, and certainly not one she thought made financial sense: “I decided to learn for a few more months to see if I could teach, which was one of the scariest things: living in New York, thinking that I was going to be a yoga teacher. But I was just so passionate about it and I loved it.”
After receiving her yoga certification and further study with a Shamanic healer in Peru, Toomey “hit the pavement,” as she describes it, by teaching at local yoga studios and community centers. After a year, she branched out into private classes, and began to feel at ease with her employment change.
But upon giving birth to her daughter in 2009, Toomey’s perspective changed. When she finally felt ready to return to work, getting back in the game proved difficult. Without a steady roster of work, she found that she had more free time on her hands, even with a baby to care for.
During that period she began to experiment with her own exercise regimen. In her apartment building’s gym, she combined different genres together, including yoga, cardio, and high-intensity interval training. Toomey says that while she loved the meditative component of yoga as a way of connecting with her breathing, she also craved the endorphin rush one gets from cardio routines. “I love a solid playlist,” Toomey says of cardio’s energy-boosting effects and yoga’s mental focus. It was a mix she created for herself: quiet reflection with bursts of fast movement.
It was around this time that Toomey became more aware of the sounds she made during her workouts.
“I was just so frustrated with so many different parts of myself internally that I found when I got loud–and not just in terms of making sound through my voice, but loud in terms of the size of my movements and my ability to kind of throw my arms around, to do what it was that was coming through me, as opposed to ‘containing’ in this way, that I would feel yoga was . . . It was just the freedom that I wanted.”
Launching A Startup
In 2014, Toomey branded her budding technique The Class.
“You start to realize that most of what’s going on [in the body] is in the mind,” Toomey says of her fitness philosophy. “And you know that you actually have a choice and you can reroute it,” she claims, adding, “and that’s what we do in The Class: We practice the ability to do that.”
Toomey enlisted two fellow yoga instructors to help her fine-tune The Class’s routine, then began shopping the program around to established exercise studios. Through word of mouth, The Class’s popularity began to grow within New York City circles, and then throughout the greater Los Angeles area. Soon, Toomey began to receive attention from health and fitness outlets and attracted A-list clients such as Naomi Watts and Christy Turlington. The Class now costs $35 a class and is available in the two coastal cities, as well as in the Hamptons and Vancouver.
Many attendees, says Toomey, come to The Class out of pure curiosity–they’re intrigued by the mystery surrounding the mishmash of genres. Plenty others are “emotionally vulnerable” or are going through therapy, and are enticed by the idea of seeking mental resolution through exercise. It started with “a lot of moms,” but now there’s an even mix of parents, working women, and fitness-loving millennials in her classes, she says.
“I’ve had a lot of people tell me that they come before big meetings to open up their creative sense,” says Toomey.
She finds millennials the most challenging group to teach, in part because of their dependence on technology. Toomey often finds herself playing the role of disciplinarian with her younger students.
“The millennials are coming in with their phones and doing all their things,” she says. “It’s funny. Once I walked around and I picked up six phones on the floors. I could see the fright in everybody’s bodies.”
In early 2017, Toomey opened up her own studio in Tribeca, bringing her little empire to 18 teachers and 65 classes a week. The loft-like space features lit candles and succulents. The bathroom is outfitted with dozens of Chanel products, free of charge.
“All the colors are very light, with the intention that I wanted to create this softening when one walks in,” explains Toomey, “so you take a little bit of New York City off of the human body and mind when they walk in.”
Those soft hues would later find themselves in a limited-edition Lululemon x The Class by Taryn Toomey Collection that was released this past July. Toomey says the collections sold out within a few days. The Class also expanded into selling vacations dubbed The Retreatment. These instructor-led getaways take place at luxurious hotels and resorts like the Weekapaug Inn in Rhode Island. They usually cost between $2,000-$3,000 a person, and the last 11 getaways have sold out. (Jennifer Aniston attended in 2016.) The Class also offers a $350 10-day meal plan called The Layer and Toomey’s handcrafted jewelry line, The Airelume.
But a quick franchise expansion is not on the horizon: Finding the right instructors who can teach her unique approach has proven challenging. The founder is considering opening her own studio in Los Angeles, rather than just offering The Class to Angelenos via other gyms, but she doesn’t foresee The Class infiltrating most U.S. cities. If anything, she may create a streaming video version so she can better cater to clients across the country–that is, once Toomey secures the music rights to her preferred tunes (“Music is key,” she stresses).
“I’ve been taking everything so slowly,” says Toomey. With so much of her brand dependent on instructors’ ability to personally connect with clients and make them feel safe enough to let loose with their emotions, she’s up against a different model than most gyms. “I want to have the quality over quantity . . . I don’t want to dilute it by just throwing it into the realm of it being a fitness class where people are just instructing you to do moves.”
“Sure, it is a ‘gym,’ it is ‘exercise,'” she relents, “but it’s just, for me, so much more than that.”
Taryn Toomey is leading a Class as part of the Fast Company Innovation Festival in NYC, Oct. 23-27. Join her session and others by signing up here!