" . . . The due proportion of mind and body is the fairest and loveliest of all sights to him who has the seeing eye."
--The Dialogues of Plato
Last New Year's Day, when David Esser opened his Gym for the Mind in Topanga, 100 people showed up. Some were taken with the hardware--large pro-style leg press, hack slide, cable crossover and weightlifting rowing machine. Some were dazzled by the library--full of history and literature, science and philosophy.
Many, frankly, were confused.
"The body builders said 'no thanks' to the books," Esser said, laughing. "Intellectuals said 'no way' to the exercise."
But Esser, 42, wanted to follow the wisdom of the Greeks. Believing mind and body to be inseparable, he decked his new gym with books, planted vegetables outside and made plans to add a chess club. His concept: Mental stimulation helps people stick with physical workouts.
Having worked eight years on his concept, Esser braced himself for skeptics by paraphrasing 19th-Century psychologist and philosopher William James: "If something is known to be impossible, we act as if it's sheer foolishness to attempt it."
Optimistic and, members say, inspired, Esser kept his doors open by working graveyard shifts at the Sherman Oaks Newsstand, his pre-gym employer. He and a former partner, Mark Andrews, embellished his rented storefront on Topanga Canyon Boulevard, adding purple and turquoise paint, a window display and bigger signs to draw in passers-by.
The current sign, which appeared once the chess sets arrived, reads: "A chess club with a gym for body and mind-building."
Earlier this summer, Harry Deutsch, an Illinois State University philosophy professor summering in Topanga, was intrigued enough to stop. What did he find?
"Exactly what the sign said. It looked bizarre. All those chessboards in one room, the book-filled gym--very Crazy California."
At first he joined because "it's the only gym within 15 minutes of where I live." Now he plays chess on alternate visits.
Esser said membership (now at 45) has picked up in the last couple of months. "Just in time. I was thinking I'd have to fold." He attributes the growth to warmer weather, the finished chess club, new gym mirrors and two of the locals themselves, one a Barbarian, the other a chess master.
David Paul--pro body builder, Cannon Films star ("The Barbarians," 1987), holder of the world record for the reverse grip bench-press (550 pounds), and the upcoming lead (with twin brother Peter) in a CBS Movie of the Week--has been dropping by the gym weekly since June. He lends support, works out a bit and talks Nietzsche and nutrition with the boss.
Evidence of Paul's valued place among gym members hangs on one wall of Esser's weight room--opposite a brick fireplace, above a patched-together carpet and an old-time water cooler. It is a photo collage featuring studio shots ("To Dave" from "The Barbarians") and color candids of Paul's workouts in Esser's gym.
The impact of the real-life Barbarian on other members is equally clear. On one recent day, in stifling, fly-slapping heat, several boys crowded together to peek through a screen door as Paul, in stone-washed, low-cut overalls with attached woven suspenders and headband, calmly performed his leg lifts.
Massive in the style of an oak tree or an oil barrel, Paul is also, he said, "super into the mind." He praised Esser's mind-body emphasis, the equipment and atmosphere: "Positive, supportive. Good for people coming off accidents or just getting into training."
Just as enthusiastic but from a different vantage point is the serious, bespectacled Ben Nethercot, a U.S. Chess Federation Life Master who gives free lessons to Esser and club members and will soon help run regular chess tournaments there.
Physical conditioning, Nethercot said, is critical for chess players who "burn as much energy in tournaments as ball players do in nine innings. The competitive desire in any sport takes mental toughness."
In their praise for the value of mind workouts, Paul and Nethercot do not reflect the views of many L.A. fitness professionals. To Jeff Everson, editor-in-chief of the Woodland Hills-based magazine Muscle and Fitness, "the mind component is badly overrated. For the average person to stay with a workout, it should be enough to look in the mirror. If you need much more motivation, find something else to do."
None Like It
Chris Duffy, 1987 Mr. Los Angeles and manager of Gold's Gym in Northridge, estimates that of about 20 serious body building gyms in Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley, none offer any mental stimulation. "Most competitive body builders have such short attention spans they can't even watch a whole TV show," he said. "Playing chess makes no sense for them."