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BODYWORK

Release your inner spy and get that heart pumping

September 20, 2004|Jeannine Stein | Times Staff Writer

Who among us hasn't seen a James Bond film, watched an episode of "Alias" or read a Robert Ludlum novel and not imagined effortlessly whomping the bad guy before making a quick escape by rappelling down the side of a building?

Yet even as we entertained such thoughts, we realized that we probably wouldn't have to run from a fireball in the course of a day.

Nevertheless, a taste of the spy life might be all a person needs, especially if that's what it takes to shake up a decent but stagnant exercise routine. That's what Sascha Ferguson thought when she started Spy School for men and women at her Absolution studio in West Hollywood. The assortment of technique classes essential for the 21st century secret agent includes rock climbing (for scaling boulders or skyscrapers), trapeze (for hanging from the draperies or a balcony), pole dancing (for seducing the enemy) and self-defense for, of course, self-defense. To enter the spy realm takes some bucks: An introduction package of three SpyGirl or SpyGuy classes is $175, and a series of 12 is $1,500.

"I've always been an athlete, but I'm bored by the gym," explains Ferguson, 36, a former entertainment industry executive turned Pilates instructor. That's what led her originally to expand the offerings at her 5,000-square-foot Pilates and workout studio to include rock climbing, belly dancing and the popular self-defense program IMPACT Personal Safety.

In the course of learning these skills herself, something occurred to Ferguson: "I was always fascinated with James Bond. Everyone else wanted to be a Bond girl, but I wanted to be Bond. I loved the excitement and the gadgets and the fact that spies never lost their cool. Realistically, I didn't want to be in the CIA, but I wanted to know how to do those things, and I noticed my clients felt the same way."

Clients at her studio would sometimes remark about the last espionage-tinged film they'd seen -- something along the lines of: "Did you see the girls in that movie? Boy, they could kick some butt."

That sparked an idea to offer the classes as faux spy training, collecting expert instructors in various fields. Cirque du Soleil alum Aloysia Gavre, for example, teaches trapeze. And while there's a wink toward acknowledging one's inner La Femme Nikita, there's also some serious exercise going on.

Spy student Evelyn Iocolano's fitness resume includes seven years of pre-college gymnastics, followed by a regular health club routine of cardio and weights. "That gets old," says the 37-year-old L.A. resident who heads a children's charity. "This is a really nice alternative, so routines don't become stagnant." She also confesses to her own spy fantasy: "I want to be Jennifer Garner!" she says, referring to the actress who plays stylish agent Sydney Bristow on "Alias."

So far Iocolano has done Pilates, learned how to box, gone through the self-defense program, and belly danced. "It's incredibly empowering when you realize what you can really do," she says. "I never thought that physically challenging yourself can strengthen you emotionally. But I've learned how to say 'no' a little more easily, and I've learned how to create boundaries. It helps you stand a little taller."

Melody Lin came to Absolution several months ago with a quest to add definition to her slim frame. A 26-year-old from Cerritos who teaches writing at USC, she had had years of Pilates training but wanted more variety in her workouts that would add muscle without bulking her up.

After a few months, Lin started seeing more definition in her arms and legs, courtesy of outdoor hiking that includes strength training. "It's creative," she says. "I think that's lacking in a lot of gyms. It's inventive, and it's totally like living a fantasy. The concept of SpyGirl makes you feel really confident and sexy and beautiful. When you're doing the belly dancing, the sexiness comes straight out of you."

Lin isn't finished yet. She wants to try a trapeze workout after seeing something about it on an episode of "Sex and the City." "I saw that it helped the character face her fears, and that's kind of what I was thinking about."

Perhaps workouts that include physical and mental challenges, plus elements of fun, bring one that much closer to becoming that cool, confident, fit spy that dwells in our psyches.

Mastering a complex skill, such as rock climbing, "has tremendous motivation value," says Mark Anshel, a professor of physical education and sports psychology at Middle Tennessee State University and author of "Sport Psychology: From Theory to Practice." "And you start enjoying the activity itself, rather than just for a specific outcome. One of the things we deal with as human beings is overcoming barriers, and that can be extremely exhilarating."

"If you're having a good time," Ferguson says, "then you're going to look forward to it and you're going to see results." She pauses. "I started to notice that people always thought they'd have more time one day to do things. Our philosophy is to do it right now."

Spoken like a true spy.

Absolution is at 8535 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 657-7878 or www .absolutionla.com. An introductory package of three SpyGirl or SpyGuy classes is $175; a series of 12 classes is $1,500.

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