Last week, I took a fitness class that began with the instructor asking me to turn around, face the back of the class, and grab each ear lobe with opposite hands. “. . . Wait, what??” I’ve been to tons of unique fitness classes with different formats, and several studio and group classes at my local Equinox in San Francisco, but I knew immediately that HeadStrong was not going to be like the rest.
HeadStrong is the newest addition to the Equinox group fitness lineup — debuting nationally this month at gyms across the country — created by esteemed psychologist Michael Gervais, PhD, and Equinox trainer and triathlete Kai Karlstrom. Before we get into why it exists (and why it’s so powerful), let me walk you through this class so you know what the experience is like.
First off, the class really taps into the senses. “We wanted to create a class that is a full sensory immersion,” said Gervais. “We have lighting that changes hue to reflect the current stage of the class.” In true Equinox fashion, scent (re: eucalyptus towels) is included as well. “We integrate scent according to the class section as well — a more stimulating aroma during the active parts, and a calming aroma for the regeneration piece.”
Same goes for music. You’re not listening to the expected high-power, electronic dance music that is typical of an intense fitness class. HeadStrong is set to some seriously bizarre songs, the kind of playlist you’d hear on a SciFi movie soundtrack or video game. I’m not kidding . . . some of the songs were from The Matrix, others from Cirque du Soleil. Although strange at first, the playlist is carefully curated to stimulate the mind and mirror the format of the class, which is broken up into four parts over 60 minutes: Focus, Adapt, Willpower, and Reboot.
And each section is intended to “mirror the way our brains learned to think.” Think of it this way: in terms of college courses, if “standing on one leg, rubbing your belly, and patting your head” was the 101 class in this field, HeadStrong is a 400 level.
Here’s how that looks . . . and to really immerse yourself in the experience, scroll to the bottom for the class’s playlist!
- Focus: This section recalibrates the way we learned — as infants — to get ourselves from ground to standing. This part of the class is set to mellower, transient electronic music. It started with small movements on the ground, getting in touch with different parts of our bodies (re: earlobe grabbing), and building onto moves little by little, until we were fully standing. Think the entire infantile process of learning to roll over, stand, and walk, in a few minutes time. Not something you’ve done recently, right?
- Adapt: The next section adds in a piece of equipment to allow your brain to make new connections. The class is kicked up a notch in intensity, the music quickens and intensifies, and your heart rate is up. Just when you get into a comfortable pattern of movement, the instructor switches it up, keeping you on your toes, literally and figuratively. Have you ever come into a frogger position (knees bent, feet and hands on the floor), holding onto a SandBell on the floor, and then scattered around a studio, moving quickly, weaving between classmates? Me either.
- Willpower: The goal of this section is to use hard work to stimulate new cell growth in the brain (neurogenesis). Think planks forever without being told how long you’re holding them, etc. The music is still fast and the energy high.
- Reboot: This is like a combo of Savasana and meditation; the music calms, and the instructor brought around lavender oil for us to inhale. You’ll do targeted recovery using breath and a guided body scan, with relaxed mental focus. Or, if you’re like me, you’ll have a nice lavender-scented nap while your nice instructor guides some peaceful meditation.
Like I said, this class is unlike anything you’ve ever taken at a gym or studio. It’s a bit of cardio, strength training, and regeneration, but more than anything, it’s a mental exercise. The post-class feeling is the best of both worlds; renewed, centered, and calm like you just left yoga, but energized and alert with an endorphin rush from a great sweat sesh.
“Taking this class will help people take control of their lives,” said Gervais. “It asks you to be in the present moment, do things a little differently, and change the story of what you may think your limitations are.” That is especially true after completing a two-minute plank. My limitations have certainly been changed.
Every part of the class feels like uncharted territory, and the whole point of this foreign, unfamiliar setup is to wake up your brain, or as Gervais puts it, to “train the brain by training the body.” HeadStrong is Equinox’s answer to innovation, their fusion of mental and physical training. More and more studies have been showing the benefits of “MAP training” or Mental and Physical training, including treating depression — and you can now experience this at a gym.
They wanted to “find a way to train the brain just like we train any other organ — through movement.” And it makes sense. Gervais reminded us that “mindful movement can drive optimal brain health.”
The creation of the class was careful and research-intensive: “We did a ton of research on developmental kinesiology, neuroplasticity, and the neurobiology of meditation,” said Gervais. His favorite study of the bunch focused on physical sensation, which made the “earlobe grabbing” make a lot more sense. “Focusing on physical sensation, such as the body scan we do in the final section of class, improves your ability to filter and prioritize the flow of information.”
If you’re a multitasker, you’re going to love this class. As Gervais put it, you’re getting “mindful movement while still giving the body some of the recovery it needs,” which means you’re getting the most efficient, healthful use of your 60 minutes of gym time. If you’re in need of a mental or emotional boost, even better. Science says a class like this can help fight anxiety, stress, and even depression. No matter your reason for coming to class, the creators of HeadStrong want to help you “have the tools you need to take on any challenge — inside or outside the gym.”