Trusting Yourself Enough to Break

Taryn Toomey’s “The Class” is an intense dive into physical and spiritual catharis—an exploration of self on the edge of what’s tolerable.

Michael Safranski

Editor’s note: Mindfulness is a fast-growing field. As new interpretations of mindfulness appear, Mindful will help explore those with you.

“Tune in to yourself,” says Taryn Toomey, the latest étoile du jour to light up the fitness world, addressing a women’s retreat in upstate New York last summer. “Know there’s a part of you that really wants the suffering and part of you that really wants the awakening.

“Know who’s running the show.”

Therein lies the essence of the Taryn Toomey phenomenon—suffering and awakening, hurting and healing. Toomey is the birthmother of The Class, a body-depleting, mind-bending workout that defies both definition and category. Physically demanding and emotionally exhausting, it is, to its throngs of acolytes who sweat regularly in her signature TriBeCa gym, spiritually and psychically cathartic. 

The hallmark of The Class is a series of repetitive motions devoid of rep count; there is no telling when the torture will end, an approach that plunges you entirely into the moment.

The hallmark of The Class is a series of repetitive motions devoid of rep count; there is no telling when the torture will end, an approach that plunges you entirely into the moment. Meshing high-intensity calisthenics with impassioned, confessional, almost feral exhortations, Toomey doesn’t simply want you to feel the burn—she wants you to experience it as an existential crisis.

“There’s a very specific way we train our teachers, of how we open the room,” says Toomey. “There’s an arc of the class, it’s how we build trust. There’s the physical, the emotional, the energetic. Then there is the spiritual. And we let you into that door through the body.” 

The Class didn’t so much start one day as it evolved. From doing sports as a teenager, to practicing yoga, to running, Toomey says it was marinating within her for a long time. “Things were getting activated in me,” she says. She started doing her impassioned, improvisational workouts with a friend in the gym in the basement of the building where she used to live. Other friends joined, and then this one told that one, and eventually Toomey took her show to the Dance Factory. Then came men and women from around Manhattan who had heard about this thing, this fitness class that wasn’t just about strength or cardio, but also about spirit and soul—not in that bullshit way that some classes try to invoke your animal spirit, but in a very real way that holds your hand as you step into your own darkness, and guides you toward the light, also your own. It’s a thing, a class, a workout, a mindfuck so powerful and popular, that Taryn Toomey has opened three outposts, in LA, Vancouver, and the Hamptons; hosts a monthly  “spiritual residency” in Miami; and offers multi-day “Retreatments” to places like Martha’s Vineyard and the Dominican Republic.

Toomey has also collaborated with Lululemon on a clothing line, has recently started offering specialized classes at Equinox and Pure Yoga, and has put her name on a palette of muted pastel nail polish and bath salts. She designs her own high-end line of crystal gemstone jewelry, and even sells hats and capes that mimic her signature look. Indeed, what ignited as her own drive to exercise more mindfully—that is, to move her body in a way that freed her mind so as to open her heart—is erupting into a kind of empire of Toomey-inspired everything. 

Following Toomey on social media is so profound it could turn your day around, maybe your life. “To those who inspired it but will never read it,” she posts as encouragement to journal. In another she writes, “One of the most expensive things you could ever do is pay attention to the wrong people.” 

And yet. There she is, on a motor boat on Lake Como. At the Savoy Hotel in London. Lounging in Marrakesh. She’s even getting a bikini wax! Clearly the Ralph Lauren account exec turned spiritual crusader likes nice stuff, and who doesn’t? But as she crosses that border from creator into celebrity, is her ever-increasing price tag ($5,000-a-week “Retreatments,” travel not included) putting this work out of reach?  

Jennifer Wolff: In my first class you chanted about the birth experience, among other things. In fact, you didn’t seem to be teaching or leading a class as much as acting out the kind of cataclysmic epiphany many students come to The Class to experience. By the end you were on your knees pounding your fists into the floor, your hair stuck to your cheeks, your eyes somewhat crazed, and saying “Fuck this” and “Fuck that.” What was that? 

Taryn Toomey: Sometimes I feel like I’m on the battlefield out there. I’m not just teaching. I say what comes through me. I’ve given birth twice, and I remember feeling, “I can’t do this anymore. This is so intense. When is this going to end?” And then boom, you start pushing and a baby comes out and you have a love that you never knew possible. I don’t often talk about the birth experience, but that’s where I was that day. So for me, the reason I can teach and do what I do is because I’ve had a lot of shit go down and been in a lot of pain for a long time, and I’m teaching from the depths of a lot of things. People look at me and are like, “What is this girl doing?” I still do this with a very soft, humble, scared heart. I’m still trying to heal myself. 

What do you think it is about The Class that is such a revelation for people? 

I have a true belief that there is not one human better than another and I am there with everyone. The thing I always do first is gain the trust of the room. And I do that by letting people know that they don’t have to do any of it. I’ll say, “You can just stand and place your hands over your heart and breathe.” I give people permission not to do it, and then usually they are able to do it a bit more. It’s gaining trust of the psyche from one’s own self. If you tell someone they have to do something, usually they will resist. That’s what I find in my own self. So there’s a buildup of movements slowly that’s attached to breath awareness. We don’t go in there and be like, “Everybody lose your shit!” There’s sound involved [the music volume gets higher as movement intensifies, then lower during breaks of stillness] so people can express themselves without feeling like they’re having some sort of panic attack. It’s one of the built-in safety nets, so at the end of a big exercise, like the burpees, you can express yourself and then land in stillness. The hands are on the body. You recover the heart. You feel the soles of your feet on the floor.

Your exercises are simple. No weights. No bands. Very old school, not unlike Jack LaLanne: jumping jacks, flapping arms, leg lifts. And those damned burpees. But you don’t count. We never know when it’s going to end. 

The intention is that it’s basic. There is no choreography. You close your eyes and go. You watch your mind as opposed to your mind having to do something. It’s actually a form of self-study. And when stuff comes up, it’s probably a pretty good sign that you’re on the edge of something that is really transformative. So what do you do? You breathe. You notice that you’re in the throes of something. Instead of knowing when it’s over, you practice your ability to tolerate feeling, to tolerate intensity, and you stay right there with yourself.

Most articles about The Class describe screaming and crying. After three classes I heard some screaming and witnessed some tears, but it was nothing like what people are saying. 

I know. One person cries and the media makes it like everyone is sobbing. Sure, sometimes people cry a bit. Sometimes it hits you. There are times when I’ve gone to my other teachers’ classes and they have broken me. It happens. But it can’t be like, “Cry!” If people come expecting to cry, they’re not going to cry.

Have you seen any transformation in your regular students?

This question makes me very uncomfortable. It’s like every single thing in my body starts to flare up and I don’t want to share any of it. But, yeah, people have told me that it’s changed their whole life. Students have been able to create completely new career paths for themselves, or leave painful or toxic relationships, or grieve the loss of things from years ago. They’ve broken patterns within themselves. They’ve completely changed their physical body. But I don’t take ownership for any of it because they’re the ones that are doing it. I’m just kind of channeling their experience based on the energy they bring to the room. It’s like I’m here to be of service. 

Do you ever discuss your own trauma? The trauma that led you to this place? To The Class?

With people in my inner circle, behind the scenes. If you pull the hood back, it’s intense. But I’ve never fallen victim to it. And I say  to the people who have hurt me, “Thank you.” Because they have required me to heal. I have a lot of stuff to process from the past. I think I’m clearing a lot of it, and I feel grateful that I am able to do what I am doing.

People refer to you as the new fitness guru, sometimes even a celebrity fitness guru. Is that what you are?

That makes me laugh, too. I have friends who call themselves gurus. With all due respect, I don’t consider myself one. And to call me a celebrity fitness guru, that just makes me want to roll over. It makes me crazy because those celebrities who work out, they’re that way because they work their faces off for their own bodies. Nobody is putting them on a machine and doing the work for them.

You now have four studios. How do you keep the intention of this work from becoming diluted?

It’s a fine balance. I’ve really had to have some hard conversations with myself, especially lately. One of the hard things would be if I lost my ability to teach and my community for some big dollar sign. That would be my worst nightmare.

Do you consider yourself a luxury brand?  

I’d say yes. I love beautiful things. I’m also thrifty. I’ve done everything on a budget. And we’ve said no to a lot of pretty big deals because they didn’t feel right. We actually could have been a lot further in terms of opening studios and putting a lot more gas in the tank. We’re trying to be mindful as we move forward. So it’s like a double-edged sword: I like luxury, but I want this work to be accessible to all. 

Even your Retreatments? Those are pretty expensive.

The retreats evolved in the same way The Class happened, which was a mash-up of all the things that I loved and needed. 

I had not traveled much, but I wanted to. I wanted to be able to bring my kids. I like really good food. I like really good music. I like friends coming together. I like to move my body. I like to meditate. I like yoga in the afternoon. Why don’t I get a whole bunch of people together and do it? So it’s great because all of these things are now enmeshed. I have basically designed my life around the way I want to live. It wasn’t this big idea of “Let’s make it really luxury.” It was “I want to get out of the city in the summer and out of the cold in the winter.” 

That said, behind the scenes, we’re working to layer in some additional retreats with other teachers that are more accessible, and price points that are lower. So we are going to, as we move forward, make sure that there are ways for this work to be accessible to all, because that’s the end goal.

Will we see Taryn Toomey for Target?

No, not necessarily. I’m not saying ‘pooh-pooh’ on Target, nor am I going to say no. But we’re moving slowly because of the questions of teachers and how to rescale it. We’ll do a few more studios in the right markets. We’re considering some digital platforms.

Right when I’m like, “Am I going crazy?” That’s when…it’s a little bit of, that’s where the “magic” lives.

Your class is so out there it’s hard to know if it’s complete magic or complete BS. 

Yeah, I said something like that to someone recently. I said, “Sometimes I feel completely insane. I feel like I’m bodying right up against the edge of madness, and that’s where all of the genius lives.” She was like, “Yeah, you’re right.” It’s like what you just said. I was kind of laughing about it because that’s what I feel like sometimes. I feel like right when I’m like, “Am I going crazy?” That’s when…it’s a little bit of, that’s where the “magic” lives.

Inside the Class

Our writer throws herself into Taryn Toomey’s “The Class” and comes out the other side—intact.

Taryn Toomey steps in so close to my face I think she’s going to kiss me. And though generally not into women, I am fairly certain in that instant that I will kiss her back, until I realize that this is how she greets people, up in their grill, under their skin. 

“Does anything hurt?” she asks after not kissing me.  

“Yes,” I tell her. “Everything.”

“Perfect,” she replies. “We’ll take care of that.” 

I don’t know what she means, or what she is—sort of beautiful, sort of plain, absolutely radiant, her blonde streaked hair tumbled just so atop her head, her skin aglow with the slightest brush of the expensive highlighter she sells in the gift shop outside of her Bridgehampton pop-up. To get to her, to The Class, I had to maneuver between fancy women in big sunglasses and expensive workout gear driving Mercedes and Range Rovers, fighting for a space in the crowded dirt lot. But once inside, lifted by the sweet smell of palo santo—and by the Chanel products in the bathroom—I find peace on the Toomey-insignia’d yoga mat that will define my space among some 40 others during the next hour of sweat and, so I am told, tears. 

Toomey doesn’t demand focus or discipline. She asks for something else entirely: surrender.

Toomey starts us off with Mumford & Sons’ “Si Tu Veux”—beat-driven, foreign, imploring—and we begin to move as she whisper-talks into her little mic. I can’t make out what she is saying, only that her voice is not coming into my head but through it. She urges me, all of us, from the inside, through a round of jumping jacks that never seems to end until it does. Then we stand, hands over heart, until we begin again, this time with squats, and a song that seems to speak for Toomey, Avicii’s “Wake Me Up”:

Feeling my way through the darkness
guided by a beating heart
I can’t tell where the journey will end
but I know where to start… 

I feel weak, unable to keep up. It’s been a while since I set foot in a gym or onto a mat. My body creaks. I am angry that it won’t move how I want it to, how I bend my waist into my squats, how my hands won’t clap above my head during the jacks. And don’t talk to me about the goddamned burpees, of which I’ve done, maybe, one.  

“Stay in your body,” Toomey says. “Don’t let anyone fucking tell you how to live. How to be. Who you are.” She looks at me through the crowd, and I look down. Ashamed. It’s like she’s reading the script inside of my head. I. Can. Not. Do. This. I feel her stare, and look back up. She nods, as though telegraphing, Yes, you can. If you want to. You can. 

As the frenzy of the class builds, Toomey riffs like a preacher on the precepts of pain, of time, of overcoming self-imposed limitations. Yet she doesn’t demand focus or discipline. She asks for something else entirely: surrender. 

As the exercises grow more intense, so does the music get louder. The yelps and grunts that explode from the crowd lay down a baseline rhythm for the room, a deep-throated mantra in which soon enough I lose myself, too. Because the more I move, the deeper Toomey’s raspy voice penetrates my brain, the looser my limbs become, the stronger. And then my revelation: I am frightened not of my weakness but of my strength. I’m frightened not of what my body can’t do, but by what I have never let it do: be powerful. 

Meanwhile, Toomey begins to twist into her own unique contortions, as though gripped in an exorcism. Then, she comes down and brings us with her. We stand, hand to heart, feet to floor. “All you need is right under your hand,” she whispers. “It’s all you need. Not the cars or the clothes or the stuff.” I gaze toward her shop with the $800 gemstone pendants and the $100 beauty serums, and I wonder with all that’s being offered, for a price, is my heart truly enough?