Thursday, July 23, 2015

My Month of Hell

Day 1
Coach Brad is a magnificent, roaring Clydesdale of a man, standing 6-and-a-half feet tall, with blond hair, a golden complexion, and deep-set blue eyes. He speaks in a core-shaking baritone. His head looks like it ought to be atop a pedestal in the antiquities wing of the Met, where it could be quietly admired. His facial features are so architectural that I scribble in my notebook, “Looks part Klingon.” Then Coach Brad slaps his hands together and booms: “Excellent! You should all be taking notes, like this guy!” I haven’t a clue what he’s been talking about for the past five minutes to our timid group of misshapen nerds, but have jotted down odd words like “burpee,” “snatch,” and “jumping squat.”

Each level of the Black Box, an open-floor-plan CrossFit gym in the Chelsea neighborhood in Manhattan, is divided into four “pods.” Some CrossFitters from other gyms around the city criticize the Black Box for its factory-like atmosphere, where classes of different skill levels, with about 20 students each, stream in and out with blazing efficiency all day long, nearly every hour from about 5 a.m. until 8 at night.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, about a half dozen of us are in the southwest pod of the second floor for Elements Class 1, our introduction to CrossFit. All around us there’s a psychotic whir of jump ropes slicing through the air, well-bred young women in yoga pants and ponytails swooping like orangutans along wooden rings suspended from the ceiling, and scores of people crawling guerrilla-style along the floor. The whole thing has a sort of Taylor Swift-meets-jihad feel.

Three days ago, when I set out to report on doing a month of CrossFit, I was put in touch with Craig Convissar, a 30-year-old attorney and one of CrossFit’s biggest cheerleaders. We met at one of the Black Box’s monthly LGBT workout classes that he helps organize. He’s a self-appointed liaison between LGBT CrossFitters and the gym through a Facebook group called Black Box: Guerrilla Queer WOD (it has 229 members). He’s also active in a citywide LGBT CrossFit community called OUTWOD. “WOD” is CrossFit jargon for “Workout of the Day” and is pronounced “wad.”

“I’ve definitely gotten stronger, and my cardiovascular endurance has gotten way better,” Convissar says. “I know I’m a much better athlete than I thought I was.” He’s been doing CrossFit for almost two years, and before that took trampoline classes and had been a member of a gym geared toward the musical theater community.

“I look at it this way: I have a share in the Pines with nine other boys. Most of them look better than me when they take their shirts off, but I know that in a physical fitness competition I could crush any of them,” he says, which I find bizarre because it looks like he could club a seal with his biceps and deflect bullets with the pecs stretching out his crossfit south brooklyn T-shirt.

He also has huge, bloody calluses on his hands. When I ask another CrossFitter, Steve, about his own scabby calluses, he says, “I guess I haven’t found any lifting gloves that I really like yet,” which I later learn is probably a lie. No one in CrossFit wears lifting gloves, because massive, disgusting, bloody hands are a sort of hanky code among members — a way to spot your own in society, as well as a badge of honor.

CrossFit gyms, in further parlance, are called “boxes.” They are pared-down, bare-bones facilities that reflect the gritty CrossFit philosophy, which mixes Olympic weight lifting, calisthenics, and gymnastics with that eye-rolling paleo diet (what the cavemen would have eaten!) — heavy on meat and veggies and forbidding sugars, grains, and dairy.

After the gay workout, a guy named Jake invites a bunch of us to his rooftop around the corner for drinks. “If you’re on the paleo diet, you can only drink wine and tequila,” he explains.

Jake is one of the few not excessively cheerful people in CrossFit.

“I hate New York,” he says. He’s leaning against the ledge, watching airplanes fly northward along the West Side of Manhattan while his fellow CrossFitters gather in circles to talk about CrossFit. He has a hobby of memorizing flight paths and can identify aircraft from the ground, saying things like, “That’s a US Airways Embraer 190, probably the 3 o’clock from Reagan to LaGuardia.”

“CrossFit is designed for someone who doesn’t have a life outside of CrossFit,” Jake says. “All these guys have really drunk the Kool-Aid.”

Steve, who does CrossFit six days a week on top of swimming and boxing classes at two other gyms, pipes up from several feet away. “They actually didn’t drink Kool-Aid at Jonestown,” he says, referring to the 1978 mass cultic suicide of more than 900 people. “It was actually Flavor Aid.”

Day 2
As part of our warm-up, we move back and forth across the pod several times, first like a crab, then like a bear, then like Frankenstein. Everyone looks completely stupid. It seems to me an exercise in humiliation designed to crush the ego and subjugate.

I spot Craig in the pod next door and flash him a big, dumb grin while waving exaggeratedly, but he only looks at me wide-eyed and gives a cryptic nod before darting away. It is sort of like the most popular girl in school being spotted by that differently abled girl she was nice to that one time. (...)

A CrossFit gym opens somewhere on earth every few hours. In the 1990s, a personal trainer in Southern California named Greg Glassman kept getting kicked out of gyms for his unorthodox training philosophy. In 1995, he started his own operation in Santa Cruz, and in 2000, he founded CrossFit Inc. In 2009 there were around 1,000 CrossFit-affiliated gyms in the world; six years later that number is approaching 13,000 (for comparison, in 2014, the global number of Starbucks stores was 21,000). CrossFit claims between 2 million and 4 million members, with more than 100,000 “level 1 certificate holders” (trainers), according to Russell Berger, a spokesperson for CrossFit.

There is no board of directors at CrossFit Inc. Glassman owns 100% of the company and has been known to pop into affiliates across the country unannounced. CrossFit ruthlessly pursues legal action not only against non-affiliated gyms for brand infringement, but against researchers who question the safety and effectiveness of the workout. The company has also been accused of retaliating for negative press coverage. Glassman has been quoted saying things like, “We’re changing the world. We’re doing all the right things for all the right people for all the right reasons,” and “The strength and value of CrossFit lies entirely within our total dominance of other athletes, and this is a truth that cannot be divined through debate, only competition.” In a recent interview with CBS News, a correspondent remarked that the way he talks about CrossFit sounds like preparation for war.

“Yeah, why not?” he said. “Getting ready for war, getting ready for [an] earthquake, getting ready for mugging, getting ready for the horrible news that you have leukemia. What awaits us all is [a] challenge, that’s for sure.”

I phone Daniel Shaw, a psychoanalyst in Manhattan and volunteer for the International Cultic Studies Association. He moderates a support group once a month for cult survivors, sees several former cult members in his private practice, and wrote the book Traumatic Narcissism: Relational Systems of Subjugation. He is also a former member of Siddha Yoga, which, in a 1994 New Yorkerarticle, was exposed for widespread abuse and cultishness.

“At the head of [any cult] is a person whose narcissism has led them to believe they are superior to others and therefore entitled in ways that other people are not to control people,” Shaw explains. “What they basically are saying is, because of my superiority, I and only I can give you what you need to fix you and make you better, to make you be what you’re supposed to be, and you need me.”

“In a cult, there is a mission,” he continues, “whether it’s world peace or spiritual enlightenment or whatever. Religions often have a mission — say, to build a community of the faithful who support each other and do good work. Well, if you look at the church [as being that], they are fulfilling their vision. When you look at a cult who say they’re creating world peace, they’re not creating world peace. They are, however, creating a very wealthy and powerful leader. That’s the difference.”

Contrary to popular belief, says Shaw, even everyday, healthy people are susceptible to getting involved in cults. “Everybody can be at some point in their life vulnerable to be lonely or frustrated or despairing or discouraged, and cults make tremendous promises,” he says. “They’re great advertisers. They offer solutions. They are friendly and they have communities.”

by Chadwick Moore, Out |  Read more:
Image: Luke Austin-Paglialonga