If you’ve ever attended a yoga class, chances are you’ve twisted into some variation of Happy Baby or Ananda Balasana. To assume the position, practitioners lay on their backs and cradle their feet in their hands. Out of all the contortions asana yoga offers, it’s the most ridiculous to see in the mirror, an awkward knee-splaying that results in an emphatic framing of the groin. I’ve always liked Happy Baby, mostly because it is fun, but also because it is invigorating to look like a complete goofball, limbs akimbo and distinctly kid-like, in a semi-public space. Happy Baby serves up a moment of deliberate infantilization, which makes its popularity in contemporary American yoga routines unsurprising. Fitness classes are, increasingly, spaces people seek out to feel cared for and mothered.
The connection between exercise and the search for the calm of feeling very young is exceedingly clear at Manhattan’s Woom Center, a cozy space on Bowery offering a variety of fitness classes and sound baths. The café attached to the space looks like the ideal place to plan a trip to Burning Man, with glass jars of unlabeled herbs, a pillow on the couch heralding “good vibes,” and a laconic barista offering dairy-free, adaptogen-sprinkled “Mylks” to leggings-clad class attendees chattering about shamanism. It’s a whole studio devoted to the feeling of Happy Baby. The practice space is a windowless cocoon, with spare, white walls. Classes have videos projected onto these walls that resemble a vintage Microsoft screensaver, the swirling images of blossoming flowers and cell division synced up to ambient instrumentals. The images cast warm light, and students can drape woolly blankets over themselves during the resting periods. At the beginning of the class I attended, students were asked to blindfold themselves for a guided meditation, with breathing work and inspirational words murmured. (Each blindfold says, helpfully, “Look Inside.”) The yoga class is not so different from a standard asana class, with lunges and Downward Dogs, but the instruction is geared toward play rather than exertion or achievement. Near the end, we were gently encouraged to throw our legs above our heads in a supported chin stand, cheered on by our teacher as we tumbled onto luxe mats and giggled like kindergartners.
Fitness classes fixated on pacifying frazzled attendees by encouraging them to act like toddlers—napping, crawling—have popped up in recent years. In the U.K., the fitness chain David Lloyd Clubs introduced a group fitness class called “Napercise” in 2017. It claimed the 45-minute class, in which attendees simply lie on the floor, is “scientifically designed to reinvigorate the mind, improve moods and even burn the odd calorie.” In New York, fitness instructor Christopher Harrison offers a “Cocooning” class at his AntiGravity Fitness Lab, in which attendees crawl into specially designed hammocks and take restorative snoozes. Crawling around like a 2-year-old has become a mini-fitness trend, with group classes offered around the United States and a “Crawl on the Mall” event gathering enthusiasts in Washington, D.C., for an outdoor recreational four-limbed race. Chiropractor Justin Klein, who organizes the event, told CNN that crawling is “like resetting the central loop in the nervous system to bring all of the parts involved in coordination, movement and reflexive stability into synchronization.” Health.com, citing an expert from the Mayo Clinic, called crawling “the ultimate total-body exercise.” While its calorie-burning abilities haven’t been widely studied, the way crawling has infiltrated adult workouts is another reminder of how frequently group fitness practices can mimic schoolyard play.
The trend of products and services that offer a babying effect is not limited to fitness. There’s a push in consumer technology toward soothing gadgets, including a rocking bed and a vibrating sleep robot. Silicon Valley companies like Yelp and Seamless, as writer Jesse Barron pointed out in 2016, often adopt a parental tone, asking if customers have eaten and assuring them that assistance is at their fingertips. When companies talk down to their customers, it can come across as condescending rather than comforting. (I don’t need Seamless to assure me about incoming “deliciousness”; I just want the food to appear.) Being treated like a child can be a bristling thing for an adult, especially when the parental figure in the situation is a corporation using cutesy messaging to woo millennials. But in the fitness world, maternalism is something people actively seek out, happily signing up for classes that will penalize them for skipping or showing up late and choosing instructors whose methods of mollifying or disciplining inspire them to do the grunt work of getting in shape.
Part of the allure of group fitness classes, for me, is that it’s an hour or so in which I will be told, clearly, what to do. The appeal of SoulCycle and Barry’s Bootcamp is the instructor’s peppy parental authority, the sensation of yielding to a sympathetic leader who knows the right course of action. Their demands are reasonable, and there is no doubt the physical chores they coax out of participants are for their own good, the cardio equivalent of eating one’s vegetables. The music chosen in fitness classes frequently conjures the feeling of being young; they are either tranquil beats for candlelit Ashtanga classes or the giddy, pulsing pop and dance favored by energetic barre and high-intensity interval training instructors. The tenor of instruction varies, just as mothering styles do, from strict to lenient.
Have you ever had the pleasure of looking at a group fitness class through a window? From Zumba to CrossFit, they all look immensely silly, a mix between drill and dance. The routine at Woom probably looked absurd. As I settled into a child’s pose toward the end of class, the teacher pressed on my back, deepening the stretch. In almost any other situation, someone I don’t know sidling up and touching me would feel invasive, yet I welcomed the adjustment. It was intimate and distinctly motherly, a gentle nudge that made me feel closer to limber, and younger than I have in years. I’d still need to be convinced to sign up for a crawling class, but there’s something refreshing about an exercise that openly embraces the babyish nature of gathering in a group to move in unison. Some classes push students, while others coddle, but they are all led by someone who appears to know best.