Is New Philadelphia … a Fit Philadelphia?

Philly used to be a safe haven for the fitness-averse. But now that everybody’s a yogi or an ultra-marathoner or a freaking Tough Mudder, slackers (like me) have nowhere to hide.

Illustration by Tim Parker

Illustration by Tim Parker

It started out innocently enough. Most plans conceived on yoga mats do.

After a grueling sequence, the instructor paused to offer a gentler, modified pose for pregnant students. Now, I wasn’t technically pregnant, but on that particular Sunday I was experiencing considerable morning sickness and bloating. Hungover, with child — the symptoms are similar. And, whatever, yoga teaches compassion. Look it up.

But then a funny thing happened. Not only was I excused from twisting myself into a God-awful bind, but we “expecting” practitioners also got a pass on my least favorite inversion, the shoulder stand. And were provided cozy leg bolsters during meditation. And I received sweet, knowing nods from the Queen Village women who, just the week before, were looking down their noses at my not-so-fierce Warrior 1.

I was no longer a slacker yogi. I was a glowing, intuitive yogi who was listening to her body during this special time.

I enjoyed my newfound Zen for a couple of months, but nothing gold can stay. My bagel bump is very real, but it’s not quite second-trimester material.

It’s not that I have a problem with working out or eating right. It’s just that as a native Philadelphian, I don’t have much experience with it. Stubborn and proud, this city has always felt like a safe haven from trends, especially those of the healthy variety.

When I was working in New York, I was acutely aware that I was an outlier, a carb-worshipping curiosity in a sea of Pilates devotees with subscription lunch services. The last time I was in Los Angeles, it took me an hour to find a place that served both real butter and real toast. Even without my glasses on, I knew that Miami’s beach looked different from Mayfair’s (a.k.a. Wildwood).

But all of that was fine, because as soon as I got home, everything would be okay again. In Philadelphia, as long as I washed my hair and put on real pants, I was ahead of the self-care curve. If I walked to work once in a while and winked at the gym on the way home? That was definitely enough to claim an interest in “working out” on my profile. (Judge not unless you actually enjoy camping, fellow filthy liars.)

Until recently, that is. I first suspected a change when TastyKake splashed “gluten-free” across my breakfast cookies. Suddenly, there were yoga mats whacking me in the face on the El. Was this really happening in Philly?

It seemed the entire city had conspired to play an awful trick on me. And an elaborate practical joke was easier to believe than my hometown’s kale conversion.

A quick reality-checking trip to the Great Northeast proved the unthinkable: This wasn’t just a Rittenhouse illusion. Green juice had arrived on Cottman Avenue. Green juice had to be reckoned with.

Philadelphia might not be trendy, but it is heartbreakingly real. And it seems this whole “healthy lifestyle” thing is — unfortunately for those of us who think breakfast cookies are a thing — here to stay.

IF I’M TRYING to keep up in a suddenly fit Philly, yoga probably isn’t the answer — not for me, at least. Even before faking a pregnancy to get extra water breaks, I wasn’t exactly what you’d call a dedicated student. My favorite pose remains savasana, the “final rest” in which you lie on your back, close your eyes, and pretend to meditate while listening to elevator music. This is what my post-yoga meditation sounds like:

This feels amazing. I should have just stayed in bed this morning.

And then had breakfast. Perhaps a second breakfast. The hobbits really had it all figured out. Is it too late to be a hobbit?

Maybe if I got cuter yoga clothes I’d feel more motivated.

Little Ms. Front Row certainly seems motivated. Who does her hair for yoga class? It does look great, though. I wonder if she uses a round brush?

Who am I kidding — I will never have hair that bouncy. Maybe she’ll let me touch it. Just once. Even a sniff would be enough for me.

Okay, I’m starving. How long is this troll of an instructor going to make us lie here? Bite me, lady.

If you’re keeping track at home, that’s six of the Seven Deadly Sins in the span of one Enya song: sloth, gluttony, greed, envy, lust and wrath. The only one missing, perhaps tellingly? Pride.

BEFORE SIGNING ON to any new endeavor — whether it be a workout regimen, a job or a book club — I like to ask myself, “In what situation would these people eat me?” (I know; you probably don’t do this. I perform this little thought experiment because in the absence of grit or anything resembling survival skills, it has served me well both growing up in the Northeast and working at my day job in the fashion industry.)

This is how I ended up with a yoga class card in the first place. Very few yogis would eat their fellow man under any circumstances. As a writer with the competitive streak of a stoned sloth, I find this appealing.

Runners would likely only eat me if they were really hungry and their lives depended on it. I’m comfortable enough with this crowd, and if I looked at all dignified while running, I might sign up for a 5K. But I jog like Phoebe from Friends, with all of the arm-flailing but none of the charm. Next, please.

I can’t decide about the Tough Mudder and Color Run kids. My suspicion is that they’re a fun-loving and/or well-medicated bunch that’s too busy snapping selfies to cause much harm. And yet, if it made for good Instagram fodder? I have no doubt they’d devour me faster than they could ironically hashtag their latest whimsical conquest. Moving on, before I’m the unwitting star of an insufferable Yelp review.

I knew CrossFit would be a disaster, but I’ve seen those abs, and I’m only human. Just a half hour in, though, I could already sense it: These people would hunt me for sport just to feel a feeling — any feeling — before returning to their PR jobs. CrossFit is not a safe place for peaceful sloths.

BASKETBALL DEFINITELY doesn’t pass my cannibal test — especially in Philadelphia gyms. All the same, after playing for so long, I can’t deny that it feels comfortable. Like Catholicism, even after years of not practicing, even after all the pain it has inflicted, basketball is second nature to someone who spent her childhood at Fox Chase Rec.

It’s not that I was ever particularly good at basketball. I was simply very tall at a very young age in a very, very basketball-obsessed neighborhood. Recruited from the back of the First Holy Communion line, I was placed in the paint and told to put my hands up.

Here’s the thing about basketball: Even if you’re not terribly talented or passionate, if you’re obedient and don’t mind breaking a sweat, you’ll do okay (see also: newsrooms, bedrooms). Especially if you can find a big enough St. Hubert girl to hide behind.

Thirteen years after hanging up my uniform, I dug out my ankle braces and jumped into a pickup game. And it felt great. Wonderful, actually. To be running that fast again, to be jumping that high again, to be having that much no-questions-asked, just-because fun again … The feel of the leather, the squeak of the sneakers, the crispness of the evening air on the sweaty walk home: It was perfect. I couldn’t remember why I had ever stopped, how I had let so many years pass without giving basketball another chance.

And then the next morning happened. If you go from phoning-it-in yoga to full-court basketball without so much as stretching, you will not be able to rise from a chair unassisted the following day. Not from any chair. Not for any reason.

Screw basketball.

THE LAST TIME I set foot in the South Street liquor store was right around my 30th birthday. I was treating myself to some celebratory “Suck It, 20s” champagne — lower middle shelf for this fancy lady, thank you very much — when I noticed a group of younger guys checking me out.

Admittedly, it felt good. I might have been slacking on my exercise routine, but my Lululemon yoga pants were still serving me well.

One of them approached, and I prepared an “I’m flattered, really, but you’re a little young for me” line.

“Excuse me, miss, I was wondering … ”

“Aw, thank you, but — ”

“We were just wondering, if we gave you money, could you … buy us a couple bottles?”

“Excuse me?”

“You can even keep the change.”

As it turns out, if you’re wearing yoga pants to the liquor store, they’re just sweatpants. And if you’re wearing sweatpants to the liquor store, well, you have to forgive underage bros for thinking you’d buy them vodka for a couple bucks.

Was it the yoga epiphany I was looking for? No. Did I suddenly see the light at the end of the savasana tunnel? Not quite. But it did get me back on the mat, lunging and sun-saluting with my fellow fit — and aspiring-to-be-fit — Philadelphians.

Namaste, boys. Namaste.

Originally published in the April 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.