04/22/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

When It Comes to Exercise, Go Native, Not Neurotic!

This morning, I took my first exercise class in roughly a decade. My beloved childhood friend, bless her heart, suggested we try it. Even in the winter, I still trek through Central Park almost every day, but the weather conditions have been particularly challenging lately.

The profile of tiny, firm buttocks gracing the cover of the class brochure promised a worthwhile time investment. The class was described as a blend of disciplines, including ballet and yoga. Images of finely whittled torsos leaping across the floor in grand jetes came to mind. The place was close by, and offered lots of attractive amenities, so I thought, why not, I might learn something new.

I dropped the kids off at school and made my way through several blocks of headwinds to the exercise studio. This walk would turn out to be the most effective part of the excursion. But before I continue, I should mention that I generally stay out of gyms and exercise classes for the following reasons:

1. Fresh air is essential. I place a premium on fresh air, especially when it's high in negative ions; where I live, that means in winter, fall, and spring. I urge everyone, city dwellers especially, to get outdoors. Maximize your daily intake of clean air with long walks, jogs, bike rides, ice-skating, skiing, yoga, martial arts, team sports, or whatever else gets you breathing deeply outdoors. Bathe your cells and revitalize your body. Otherwise, you will become sluggish, weak, and prone to the mutations of free-radical damage from stagnation and acidity. The fresh air factor is gravely overlooked in the "gym rat" culture.

2. There are far better alternatives. I've got my feet and my bike. Sometimes, I can even get to a tennis court or a mountain or a beach. At home, when the mood strikes, I can move all the furniture and dance my heart out. Yes, daily exercise is important, but we don't always need to be told what leg to lift when and how many times! I've studied yoga and dance for years, but not as ends unto themselves, in order to take classes from here to eternity, but so I can learn how to use my body. You have a body. Master it. Good instructors can accelerate your learning curve and teach proper alignment. But then take what you know and own your moves!

3. Gyms are hotbeds of self-loathing. Gym-goers constantly compare themselves to each other and either hate or worship what they see in the mirror. I often forget how vulnerable people are to this competitive reflex, because in the detox lifestyle it tends to dissolve. But the moment I step into a gym--BAM!--I'm reminded of all the bad feelings that keep everyone pounding away on the machines. Gyms and exercise classes are unhealthy for self-esteem.

4. Gyms are depressing. The stale air, fluorescent lighting, and atmosphere of strain and fatigue make gyms depressing places to be. The people often look terrible: the puffiness and dark circles around their eyes, the deep lines in their faces, and the unnatural bulges of their bodies indicate struggling livers and kidneys. In short, their blood chemistry is way out of whack, and no amount of exercise classes or expensive creams will change that.

5. Gyms reflect the caged mentality of our culture. While I have wonderful clients who inspire me every day, I need only visit a gym to remember that masses of people are still stuck in the caged mentality, like so many hamsters on wheels. Women especially are chronically disappointed with the results, yet resigned to spending hours of their lives in exercise classes in hopes of eventually feeling better about their bodies--or just maintaining the status quo. They don't know what else to do.

6. The music is bad. What more do I have to say?

But today I went to this exercise class with an open mind, hoping to engage my strength and flexibility. Alas, this class didn't offer anything remotely like what I was hoping for. For all its popularity among a certain set of well-heeled New Yorkers, there was nothing modern or evolved about it. The moves were not even intuitive; they made the body more tense, more in need of correction! It was an unnecessary stress all around.

I thought back to the figure on the brochure. Then I looked around the room at the women, who appeared to be regulars. Now I don't mean this in a catty way, just as an observation in light of the advertising: not one of the thirty women there had a good figure. Really. Not even the teacher.

So here are all these women looking for sleek, fit bodies, trying desperately to fight the clock. They are gathered for an hour of agony with their impacted intestines and corresponding gas pressure and water retention. They are sucking in their cores and lifting their legs in awkward, repeated motions. Afterward, they'll go for a ladies lunch over grilled hormone (I mean "chicken") salads and decaf cappuccinos. They'll sign up for more classes and rush to make it on time, grabbing a protein bar on the way.

What they will not get from this class or the lifestyle that goes with it is that set of buttocks advertised on the brochure, or the wonderful innocence of sometimes forgetting you have a body when you feel truly good in your skin.

Here's the thing. That figure on the brochure, were it not so obviously photoshopped, could only belong to one who lives in active harmony with the natural world like a "native." No member of the "civilized" race over age thirteen looks like that. Yet people are still beating themselves up mentally and physically in search of that body and a better life experience.

Tomorrow, I'll bundle up and head out into my little wilderness of Central Park. I'll be grateful for the crisp air. I'll bathe my cells in the renewing, oxygenated atmosphere and feel infinitely better--and freer--than I did in that class. For years after moving from California to New York, I used to wish away the months of brutal cold. But now I embrace the Arctic air as a cornerstone of my winter health regime.

If you really want to look and feel your best, think twice before hitting the gym or signing up for another class. Do everything in your power to renew your blood chemistry. Do your body a favor: get outside and go native, not neurotic!