After a few committed months of hot yoga at a studio in New York, Christina Rice had found her niche. So when the studio announced that it was offering teacher training, she signed right up.
It was only when she arrived with her mat that she noticed something striking.
There were 54 other women and men in the 10-week course, and not one of them looked like her. She was the lone African American in the class.
“I did bond with some of the other students,” says Rice. “But I did feel very isolated at times. There were no teachers of color. I didn’t have another woman who looked like me, who understood my struggles, my insecurities.”
Boutique workout studios — specialized, exercise-specific gyms — are exploding in gentrifying urban areas. They include not only hot yoga but also CrossFit, which is everywhere; Barry’s Bootcamp (in Los Angeles, Nashville and Washington, along with other major cities); SoulCycle (nearly 20 markets); or Orangetheory (hundreds of studios nationwide).
They are the modern answer to the sprawling, soulless gym, which insists on financial commitment but doesn’t really care whether you actually work out. In the boutique world, you make reservations. You’re greeted with smiles. You’re served an ice-cold glass of the “spin class is self-care” Kool-Aid.
According to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, the industry trade group, more than 18 million people now claim membership in a boutique studio (though with the studios’ class-by-class reservation model, “allegiance” might be a better term). In a relatively short period — CrossFit had been around for decades but truly caught fire around 2012; Barry’s Bootcamp began expanding in 2011 — they have claimed half as many exercisers as traditional gyms.
In Washington, a single 50-minute Barry’s Bootcamp class is $34. Spinning studio Flywheel charges $30. Solidcore, a Pilates-like workout, can run as much as $37, or about half the cost of a monthly membership in most urban gyms.
And like Rice, other fitness junkies have begun to notice who isn’t coming. Sweat through a class in one of these studios and it’s very possible that you’ll see it, too: many, many lithe young white bodies and very few people of color. Or older or heavier exercisers.
“There hasn’t been a time in our collective history where people have been as integrated as they are now,” adds Jessamyn Stanley, a North Carolina-based yoga teacher and author. And yet, pick a class, any class, she says. “Is this reallllly everybody, or just everybody that can afford to go?”
She’s often the only fat woman in the room as well, she says. And if you’re looking for a mature crowd, you’ll have to keep looking, too: By the health club association’s reckoning, the average age of studio exercisers is 30.
“The messaging,” says Stanley, “is essentially: You’re allowed in this space if you are white, slender, able-bodied and less than 45, cis-gender and heterosexual. And if you’re not, then you’re not welcome.”
Some have made efforts to foster diversity. In an email, SoulCycle chief executive Melanie Whelan described her company’s effort to maintain a team of instructors that give “riders a range of genders, races, backgrounds and personalities to identify with.” The company also maintains an inclusivity and diversity council and offers underserved youths in some markets 12-week scholarships to take classes and learn nutrition. Barry’s Bootcamp declined a request for comment, while Flywheel did not respond to a request.
Rice completed her training and began teaching yoga. Before long she began to notice that black women, both friends and strangers, were asking about her classes.
Women have insecurities about their bodies, she says, and fitness culture can exacerbate them. In these spaces, “you’re just very conscious that there are people smaller than you, that move more fluidly than you. Sometimes you feel that eyeballs are on you.”
Her students, she says, “want to feel safe, and they want to feel supported.”
She started OmNoire, focusing on wellness for women of color, last year.
Leticia Long, who is African American and Hispanic, owns Wired Cycling, a studio offering cycling and TRX in Washington. Her daughter, she says, loves Barry’s.
Long has taken pains to ensure that her classes don’t feel as exclusive as others. She charges about $15 for a spin class and hires people of color to work in her studio.