It would be easy to brush off fitness guru Taryn Toomey's The Class as another hippie trend, but you'd miss the magic. She sprinkled crushed crystals underneath the studio floors, which she says is designed to draw out energy.
You'd also miss stargazing at celeb devotees like Naomi Watts, Jennifer Aniston and supermodel Christy Turlington Burns.
Within minutes, the music swells, the mirrors in the 85-degree heated room begin to fog and sweaty ponytails come undone as participants perform 5 grueling, uninterrupted minutes of squat jumps while Toomey unleashes occasional expletive-laced insights.
"We're really using the physical body as a metaphor to deal with what's out there," said Toomey, a former fashion executive for Ralph Lauren and Dior, who opened a luxe studio in Tribeca in January.
The goal of her 75-minute class is to train the mind to create new ways to respond — rather than react in the moment — to challenging external triggers. Other spiritual workouts gaining popularity around the U.S. include the intenSati Method, Qoya and Equinox's Headstrong. Yoga and tai chi have drawn from these principles for years, but a new crop of workouts includes more cardio and strength-training moves as many fitness buffs seek more than a six-pack from their workouts.
Toomey leaves a moment at the end of each song to stop the physical movement and encourage participants to reflect. "How are you feeling, not what are you thinking?" she asks the class.
Headstrong uses high-intensity interval training and changing stimuli to challenge the body and brain. The first three sections of the class focus on stretching, agility and intensity; the class ends with a 15-minute guided meditation.
Qoya founder Rochelle Schieck incorporates lots of free movement into her women-only workout that refers to "movement as medicine." It's the least physically challenging of the bunch and is good for beginners, but it has a powerful emotional takeaway.
Each Qoya class has a theme. If the theme is freedom, participants are given a moment to reflect on what it feels like when they don't feel free. Then they express those emotions through free-form dance. Schieck says there's immense value in acknowledging uncomfortable emotions like fear or anger and "letting people embrace their wholeness instead of pretending I always feel free."
Part of the class includes a few minutes of shaking, which is designed to shake fear and discomfort out of the body to calm the nervous system. The class ends with a fun, choreographed dance that might include kickboxing moves to "Eye of the Tiger."
Both Toomey and Schieck followed a similar journey in creating their workouts. Yoga wasn't enough for Toomey, who longed for more fire and cardio. Schieck was a yoga instructor but also felt something was missing. She also took pole dancing classes and loved its physicality, but kept getting injured.
"Women kept saying as I was just developing it, 'I've been waiting my whole life for this,'" said Schieck, who has trained some 300 Qoya teachers.
Nadine Abramcyk, a 38-year-old small business owner and mother of two, attends one or two of Toomey's classes a week, calling it her "personal therapy."
The change was so dramatic, her husband started going.
"I had a very cathartic experience with it. ... It really isn't about the physical for me. It's really about the mental combined with the physical. It's so multidimensional in that way and does something that regular exercise can't."
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela is an associate professor of history at The New School who is researching feminism and group fitness. She spent years working out at the gym, "but as a feminist, I was so disappointed in the culture and the language ... there was this dominant language, 'This is for your bikini body, what did you eat last night, how many inches did you lose ladies?' It just fell short in many ways of the much broader, deeper potential of what exercise can mean to women."
Petrzela started teaching the high-energy cardio and strength intenSati Method, which includes vocal affirmations. "When you're sweating, your heart is pumping (and) there is science that shows you're open or particularly susceptible to your mind-set," she said.
IntenSati, created by Patricia Moreno, starts with an affirmation reminder that you can choose how you react to things. The class includes squats, lunges, side roundhouse kicks and punches while chanting something like "I am strong."
"I felt I finally had the words to express something I'd been feeling but didn't have an outlet to," said Petrzela.