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Bringing fitness to an astral plane

BODYWORK

January 19, 2004|Jeannine Stein | Times Staff Writer

As the group cycling class settles into a warm-up, the instructor delivers his motivational spiel. But this one's a little different from the usual let's-have-fun-with-fitness speech.

"This weekend," says class leader Darryl Gaines, legs pumping at a speedy clip, "Mars and Pluto are going to move in the sky, which means that we have a lot of power available right in front of us, so let's use it. We're going to ride with that tonight."

It has to be the quintessential Los Angeles experience -- astrology mixed with exercise in something called Astro Rev. The physical realm meets the astral plane; the human body joins with the heavenly bodies. It seems painfully gimmicky, a surefire way to get the trend-conscious to sweat. But for 42-year-old Gaines, the combination is just a new way to approach fitness.

"The idea really is," he says, "that it's a newscast. We talk about what's going on for all of us. We look at specific aspects in the sky for the week, and not only do we talk about how it affects us physically, but also spiritually. We stick with planets that rule energy, and we capture the theme of the class based on that energy."

Exercise-wise, this isn't that different from other indoor cycling classes, which use specially designed stationary bicycles to simulate road races. As popular as group cycling has remained since its debut 17 years ago (most large gyms offer classes), participation has decreased 10% in the last four years, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Assn. It's not a huge decline, but it's enough to make clubs realize they're going to have to get creative to keep up the interest, especially among those who have been in the saddle a long time. Hence the spawning of variations such as group cycling for singles, cycling combined with strength training and yoga and classes with live DJs.

The spin that Gaines put on was just what the new Sports Club/LA facility was looking for. According to fitness manager Jennifer Zerling, the club's emphasis on mind-body workouts (realized in the calming, Zen-inspired design and emphasis on yoga and Pilates) made it a perfect match.

"It's taking your mind out of class and associating with something totally different," she says. "You lose yourself a little bit, and you're relating to the astrological aspects of life. It's a new dimension in the fitness industry."

As the Astro Rev class warms up, the teacher pushes it further. "Let me hear the wheels!" yells Gaines, who boasts a muscled physique, a bald head and an expansive grin that takes up half his face. A whirring white noise of 10 riders fills the room before the pounding dance music drowns it out. "Yes! How's everybody doing? We're going to move this week!"

It is part exercise class, part revival meeting and part chart reading, with Gaines rallying his students by shouting, "Go! Go! Feel the freedom!" and "With Mercury and Saturn present, it's all about speed and climbing. We're going to new heights tonight, so let's do it together!"

The men and women whoop and holler back at Gaines, who directs them to speed up, slow down, stand up, rock back and forth and increase and decrease resistance. Students are addressed by name: "C'mon, Sam!" he shouts, focusing his attention on a young man in shorts. Gaines extends his arm, moving his fingers as if to draw even more energy out of the cyclist. One student would say later, "It's like he can see inside me. He connects with me."

Fitness has been an interest throughout Gaines' life, astrology a significant part for the last 17 years, ever since he had a reading done that "gave me a real understanding of self." His conversations are peppered with allusions to the charts and the signs of the famous, including Richard Nixon, Aretha Franklin and Ingmar Bergman.

Gaines was working as a bicycle messenger in New York in 1989, wheeling across the Brooklyn Bridge, when he had an epiphany: Combine astrology and cycling, the cycles of the planets and stars, the cycles of life, the cycles of ... cycles.

But it took a while for everything to gel.

Gaines upgraded to a job in sales and marketing at Showtime in the mid-1990s but quit to head west in 1998 and follow his dream. He started teaching cycling at Crunch in 1999 before starting Astro Rev at Sports Club's Beverly Hills location, and he believes he's the only one doing this combination. He still bikes everywhere, doesn't own a car and seems to have boundless energy. This evening class was his fourth that day.

"I love the vibe and energy he brings to the class," says Alyson Richards, a Santa Monica advertising executive who's been taking Gaines' class since he began teaching at Sports Club. She admits that the "astro" part of the class wasn't exactly a draw. "I normally don't follow astrology," she says, "and I thought it was very L.A. But you can use your filter to determine what you like and don't like about it."

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