My "health goth" gear all ready to go. Lauren Oster

I've always hated plastering on a smile and working out with other people, despite knowing how effective it can be. But my attitude changed after I tried a "Monster Cycle" class.

October 14, 2015

Working out doesn’t have to be a nightmare—but if you’re lucky, it can be.

Let me explain: Group fitness and perkiness tend to go hand-in-hand. Many gyms play inspirational pop music, and commemorative race tees are often neon-bright. And as much as I appreciate the benefits of exercise, the pep and positivity that surround it have always felt saccharine to me. I am not the sort of person who visualizes myself opening like a flower as I stretch before a workout, and under no circumstances do I salute the sun. I am also not particularly motivated by Taylor Swift songs, or so-called spiritual spin instructors.

Truth be told, I sort of hate plastering on a smile and working out with other people, despite knowing how effective it can be.

That's why I much prefer the snark of tools like Zombies, Run!, an app that turns your daily jog into an adrenaline-charged escape from the undead (even though all real horror buffs know classic zombies are shamblers; you could outrun them with some vigorous Prancercise). Because that feels honest: running really is horrifying sometimes.

It's also why I snapped to attention when the term “health goth” started clawing its way into the mainstream. Goth culture’s darkly elegant fashion, dolorous music, and mythical imagery had been touchstones for me when I was a teen; if “health goth” caught on, would I be able to wear my Siouxsie and the Banshees tees to the gym without getting side-eye? Might I find a Power Pilates class where I’d be instructed to climb H.P. Lovecraft’s Mountains of Madness? Well, yes and no; “health goth” can be anything from an aesthetic to an actual fitness brand, depending on whom you ask. I have no allegiance to either of those groups, really. For me it seemed like, finally, I might find my fitness tribe.

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Photo: The Monster Cycle

Enter The Monster Cycle, a New York City spin and yoga studio discovered by my like-minded friend Dave. Neither of us is a fan of most group classes, but Dave discovered Monster by way of instructor Erika Neola, creator of #gothrunners. (Her motto: “Fitness can be goth, you just need the right outfit”). Her "witch on the run” aesthetic appealed to me, as did the studio’s. So I signed up for an evening class of Erika’s, pulled out and donned the black gear I usually sprinkle among separate outfits so as not to unnerve the elderly folks in my apartment building’s exercise room, and strolled out into the night.

A magnificent mural of B-movie monsters from a classic fairground dark ride crawls up the southern wall of Monster Cycle’s foyer, and a neon pentagram chandelier holds court in front of the reception desk. “Do you like it?” asked Michael Macneal, one of the studio’s owners, as he gestured at the wall. “We had it done for our anniversary a little while ago. I always dreamed of having my own haunted house.”

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Photo: Lauren Oster

I did like it—and the balaclavas with a third bloodshot eye sold in the back of the studio, the spin bike hanging from the ceiling customized with designer  Zana Bayne’s S&M-inspired leatherwork, and the neon pink eyes watching over the basement changing rooms.

The gym can be a creepy place anyway, after all—why not acknowledge that and have fun with it? Down in the black-walled classroom, I climbed on my bike and clicked into my pedals, the lights dropped, and we were off.

Erika kicked the class into gear with The Prodigy’s “Get Your Fight On,” a snarling electronic track that bled into a song I remembered from one of their ‘90s albums—both of which are more angry than they are gloomy, but they did remind me of an era in which I wore ripped fishnet tights without irony. She then led us into Jack White’s “Lazaretto” and its accompanying spooky video, confirming my long-held suspicion that Jack White actually is Count Dracula.

Track after track made me feel like I had to fight my way out of a horror movie, and I loved every minute.

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Photo: Lauren Oster

And then at the end of the class something funny happened. The last track faded out and the lights flicked on, and I realized my classmates weren't actually goths; the only person in head-to-toe black was me. The grinning, sweating, perky men and women climbing off the bikes around me looked an awful lot like the exercise-obsessed men and women I've always loved to hate. This lead to a series of revelations:

One: Worrying where you fit in is as silly as it was in high school. At the end of the night, if you will, my fitness tribe is the people who show up to have fun (black eyeliner and white pancake makeup or no), to support each other, and to work.

Two: Perhaps I actually can like working up a sweat—as long as there's some imagination involved, anyway.

And finally, three: I'm going to need a third-eye balaclava to wear to my next class.

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