Working It Out

On a recent trip to Los Angeles, I had one of those mind-expanding epiphanies: I've got to spend more time in the gym. It's true what you've heard about our neighbors to the left. They are an extremely toned people, perfectly comfortable with the concept of tank tops. And well they should be. Appearance is everything in L.A., and being perfectly comfortable — as demonstrated by your car, your address, and your absence of fat cells — is something to show off, not play down.

We New Englanders, on the other hand, tend to be more modest. We focus on our brains, not our bods. We emphasize building character, not biceps. We'd rather be well read than well toned any day of the year.

Okay, maybe not any day. Maybe just until that first warm, sunny day, when it comes to our attention that summer's just around the corner and that we will soon be forced to expose our scholarly physiques on the Cape. Maybe that's when a voice in the back of our highly educated heads urges us to shed our northeastern armor — our layers of Polar Fleece and our cynical shells — and just admit it: We wouldn't mind looking a little more Southern California and a little less North Cambridge at this time of year. And, who knows, maybe that voice even leads us to finagle a day pass to the West Coastiest scene to hit this city since the California roll: the status spa overlooking the Common called the Sports Club/LA.

“Okay, everyone, now keep those toes active.”

When I opened the sleek plate-glass doors of the BodyMind Studio for my Tuesday-morning class, I was thoroughly disoriented. And not only by the teacher's puzzling instructions to our toes. Having never engaged in yoga, I was unprepared to come face to face with a roomful of crotches. Plus, I'd just emerged from a dizzyingly vast marble-and-maple changing room, where I got lost looking for my locker. When I finally located it, I changed into a short-sleeved T-shirt layered over a long-sleeved T-shirt concealed by a zipped hooded sweatshirt draped over Gore-Tex wind pants, tube socks, and Nikes. It's quite the look back at my no-frills neighborhood gym, but the Sports Club/LA clientele — a coed sampling of middle- and lower-middle-aged members, judging by their crotches — is all about natural fibers and bare feet, as if they're on Venice Beach instead of the fourth floor of the Ritz. Call me reserved, but I elected to keep covered up.

“Love your body. . . . No self-judgments. . . . In yoga, we leave our egos at the door.”

That last pronouncement came as a particular relief, since the teacher offered it even as my legs were spread-eagle over my head for something that should be called Fish Pose. Her name was Jené (Boston translation: “Jenny”), and she was attractive and blonde — not in that preppie East Coast way, with an anchorwoman haircut and pearls from Shreve's, but in that free-and-easy West Coast way, with a Pebbles Flintstone ponytail and lilac nail polish on her active toes. Jené was extremely serene. During Downward-Facing Dog Pose she placed her hands gently on my spine and whispered: “Close your eyes. Relax.” For a minute there, I forgot I was in Boston, where we don't go around touching other peoples' spines. And by the time Jené struck her little gong and got us curled up in the fetal position, I'd thrown caution to the wind and kicked off my sneakers. I was kind of getting into this “love your body” business.

Plus I had foot cramps.

My personal training session was led by an equally attentive individual named Robbie Morello (Boston translation: Robbie), whose neck was the width of my shoulders, and whose familiar Medford accent reminded me of the jocks back at my no-frills neighborhood gym who yell “Feel the pain!” even when they're lifting water bottles. But this, clearly, was not my no-frills neighborhood gym. This was “the most dramatic, spectacular gym you've ever seen in your LIFE,” according to none other than Regis Philbin, whose rave was stenciled on a window of the preopening sales office like a movie review. In contrast to the Wyndham Hill vibe of the BodyMind Studio, the 10,000-square-foot Weight Training Gym is “Hooray for Hollywood”: chrome, mirrors, and overstuffed black leather weightlifting benches. There are stretching studios, boxing studios, and squash studios; a regulation-size basketball studio; and a “REV Studio” (don't ask me) crammed with cyclists on stationary Day-Glo bikes pumping in darkness to Madonna's “Ray of Light.”

To start, Robbie led me to a bank of Life Fitness FlexDecks (Boston translation: treadmills), which come with built-in TVs. Eagerly, I commenced watching a Partridge Family retrospective on VH1 while running next to a white-haired gentleman who was watching Power Lunch on CNBC while running next to a rail-thin woman who was watching Power Lunch on CNBC while running next to a young guy with a suspicious orange tan who was watching Power Lunch on CNBC. I put their combined portfolio worth for fiscal '02 at around a katrillion dollars — or roughly the price of a Sports Club/LA executive membership.

Robbie soon suggested I remove my protective sweatshirt. He had just finished spotting me — and I use “spotting” in the sense of “saving my arm from amputation in the Ground Zero Free Motion shoulder press machine” — and we were standing before the wall-to-wall mirrors.

“How do your shoulders look?” Robbie asked.

“Lopsided,” I said. “Just like they always look.”

“Exactly,” Robbie replied.

This was not quite the same kind of caring, sharing comment I'd grown used to in my short time at the Sports Club/LA. But Robbie was genuinely concerned about my lopsidedness. He hypothesized that I was lopsided not due to some physical deformity, but because I hold tension in my right shoulder. Which came as no big surprise, since anyone who can get through a day in Boston without being swallowed up by the Big Dig holds tension in their right shoulder. We also hold tension in our left shoulder, both arms and legs, our ankles, our nose, and our hair. I mean, that's why we work out, right? To get rid of our tension.

But at the Sports Club/LA, what's anyone got to be tense about? They can afford the $1,620 yearly membership rate (not to mention the $475 initiation fee and the $155 haircut at the on-site Salon Fontana). Their schedules can accommodate a weekday afternoon in the REV Studio, or an aqua-boxing class in the pool. In his familiar Medford accent, Robbie explained it all. “We re-create the L.A. urban country-club lifestyle,” he said.

“Do you have discount rates for the lopsided?” I asked, more or less seriously.

Robbie spent the next 20 minutes taking me through a series of exercises to even out my asymmetrical shoulders. The most peculiar of these took place in the Flexibility/Balance Loft (Boston translation: “upstairs”) where I enjoyed a “killer” view of the Hancock Tower while tugging and shrugging on a freestanding spider web thing, made from heavy-duty bungee cords, called a StretchMate. After I finished stretchmating, we revisited the mirror.

“How do your shoulders look now?” Robbie asked.

“Lopsided,” I said.

“Exactly,” he replied. “But not nearly as much.”

By the time I was handed a plush, white robe and slippers for my Gentleman's Facial, I felt my shoulder achieve near perfect alignment. Yes, when you're a Sports Club/LA guy, you get a Gentleman's Facial, because you are, like, perfectly comfortable in your masculinity — especially as you lounge on a heated mattress while Alexandra of Greece dims the lights and tickles your temples with her moisturizing paintbrush. And when you're done with your skin beautifying treatment, feeling all moist and gentlemanly, you also treat yourself to a foot massage for which you have voluntarily signed up, barely recalling that you're the same guy who was too uptight even to take off your sneakers in the BodyMind Studio. Next, you get to enter not just a steam room, but a Steam Studio, and take a shower in a private stall with a smoked-glass door that creates a silhouette of your body for anybody passing by. “Okay, this is a little weird,” you think, but by this time you're less self-conscious and unquestionably less lopsided than you were when you came in.

At some point, though, perhaps after strolling across the hall to feast on West Coast oysters and California chardonnay at the restaurant blu (Boston translation: “Blue”), you remember something that happened at your no-frills neighborhood gym not long ago. It was that time you requested a pad for the squat bar, and Vinny the manager said, “Ahh, some jerk keeps rippin' 'em off,” and he threw you a ratty towel to use instead.

Sure, it annoyed you at the time, but now, on reflection, his solution makes perfect sense. It was self-sufficient, unpretentious, real. These are the qualities you like about Boston, it occurs to you, as you exit the most dramatic, spectacular gym you've ever seen in your LIFE. And as you cut through the Common to the T station, rummaging in your bag for the novel you'll read on the Red Line, you're verbally abused by a lady wearing a colander on her head and pushing a shopping cart full of Heralds. Your right shoulder begins a familiar tension-filled ascent. But lopsidedness just seems to go with the territory, you realize.

You'd be lying if you said you didn't enjoy your glimpse into the West Coast ways of privileged self-indulgence. But you'd also be lying if you thought you were perfectly comfortable with the whole thing.

L.A. It's a great place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there.