The Existentialism of RPM

I find myself, usually around three times a week, joining the group fitness class otherwise known as ‘RPM’, which I’m told stands for ‘revolutions (or rotations) per minute’, and involves a stationary bike along with an instructor, 7 musical tracks and around 30 other people.

I attend my University gym and have been going to these classes for more than a year now. The choice of exercising via a static machine is not at all preferential, but when you are in the concrete jungle that is Sydney Australia and you have no car to venture yourself out into greener pastures, the gym becomes the logical choice. Although I used to be a road cyclist and miss exercising out in nature, I have chosen to somewhat value my life and avoid the risk of cycling on the hustle of the city roads. So, instead, I opt for the group fitness class that most closely aligns to my exercise preference, and for which also meets my individualistic requirement of minimal interaction with other people.

It is a curious thing that after 12 months of the same class at the same gym, and the fact that I am an existentialist who cannot help but see the world through an existential lens, I have  come to the realization that there are parallels between the class and life itself. Given that the RPM classes I attend include seven tracks, I thought it might be fitting to talk about the same number of existential musings about RPM.

Advancing whilst standing still

First of all, in all RPM classes, the bikes are static. Although in theory one class of RPM covers around 25 kilometers of ground, we as people in the class never physically go anywhere. We stay stationary on our bikes despite the fact we rotate our legs and develop in both mind and bodily fitness for 45 minutes per session. The interesting thing for me in this realization is that this is no different to how we as human beings have always been. We live on a floating rock in space that never ventures anywhere but around the sun. Year-in and year-out the earth returns to the (almost) exact position it started from. Despite the (excuse my puns) ‘cyclical’ nature of our ‘spinning’ rock, we as humans tend to think of ourselves as advancing as a species, as though there is some destination, other than death, that we will eventually arrive at.

In the context of RPM, new tracks are released which means that both the music and the workout changes, such as whether you race, climb or have high resistance on your bike, but the instructors themselves also change, as do the people who attend the class. Over time, the bikes are also changed and updated, as is the building that houses the class. The RPM class evolves, but the act of RPM itself stays in-tact. This is the same for most human practices. Since the origins of man we have kept, for example, the practices of family, work/ business/ trade, politics, sport and cooking in-tact, yet what we have done is change the technological scenery of the world through the ongoing process of human behaviour and our evolution. We advance in one regard, such as in our minds, bodies and through our technology, but we are still forever bounded to our physical realities and the situation of our human condition.

Promotion of a duality that is always in unity 

The reason I exercise is not for a love of, or a desire in, having an amazing body. The reason I do it is to balance mental torture with physical torture. That and the fact that exercising to the point of exhaustion is really good for quietening down your inner monologue, as you concentrate primarily on not throwing up. However, there are certain comments that the instructors often make in class which would have everyone believe that our minds are separate to our bodies, or that being in-class is somehow separate to not being in class. Instructors will say things like “Your body can do it, don’t let your mind tell you that you can’t!”, or “Work hard in here so that you can be better out there!”

When they say such things I always think where does my mind end and my body begin, and what constitutes being ‘in-here’ versus being ‘out there’? All that separates the two is a wall and a belief in duality. Such a belief, however, is rampant in all aspects of human life. In fact, it is the yin-and-yang symbol that reflects the implicit unity in all forms of duality that tend to govern our lives. For example, we believe in internal versus external motivation, mind versus body, in versus out, up versus down, big versus small, sleep versus wake – the list goes on and on.

It is curious that dualism is promoted in the RPM class even though, all around the room, implicit unity is at play. I cannot exercise in that class without a bike. Me and the bike may look separate to one another, but we each give each other meaning in the context of an RPM class. The instructors themselves cannot preach their perceived duality without the presence of us gym-goers in the room to hear them speak. We cannot sweat and get a good workout without physical movement – sweat that emerges from under our skin to eventually evaporate in the air. All life unfolds via a dance between the unity of two seemingly dualistic states.

Abstraction repeated

When you sign up to a gym, you agree to terms and conditions that not many people read. However, such Ts and Cs never account for the abstract rules that we as gym goers seemingly make in unspoken silence. As an example, there are certain days and times that I prefer to go to RPM class because the instructor on those days is better. There are other regular riders like myself who also attend the same classes. Combined, us regulars all tend to do the same thing every time: choose the same bike.

This was never in the rules of attending the class, nor were we ever assigned a particular bike to ride. Yet without fail we each re-choose the same bike each time, even though all the bikes in the room are the same, minus the small wear-and-tear variations between the most used and the least used bikes. The same is true for the instructor, but not in their use of bike. Being up the front of the class means they always have to choose the same bike and the same position, but there are certain practices they repeat in which no one told them they had to. They repeat their phrases, bike set-up routines, and lead us in between-track stretches at predictable intervals. No one ever told any of us do the things we do in the RPM room, but we do them, without fail, each time we enter the room.

We do similar things in society more broadly. We act in certain ways depending on the context of the situation. As an example, if I were to go to a supermarket and lie down in the aisle, you would probably look at me as though I were crazy. But who was it that told you that you only walk down the aisles of a supermarket, not lie down in them? How do you know it’s impolite to put grocery items into someone else’s shopping basket? Are you even aware that you act as a creature of habit based on socially formed and abstracted rules of behaviour? Such abstraction reminds me of this great experiment involving monkeys, which you can watch on YouTubeRPM_1

Pain. Play. Work. Joy. 

The 7 track playlist for each RPM class has its own cycle of repetition, similar to the earth’s seasons and, coincidentally, aligned to our stages of life. Tracks 1 and 2 are warm-up tracks, which we can look at in reference to being infants and children. Track 3 is the first demanding track, similar to being a chaotic teenager, with track 4 (young adulthood) a somewhat speed-based track which serves as a reprieve before the next hard track 5, symbolized by adulthood. Interestingly, after track 5 is when most people in the class ‘slack off’ – either from fatigue or because the end is in sight and they have worked hard enough already. Track 6 is another speed-reprieve track (retirement), with track 7 being the monster track where you get rid of all the energy you still have in your tank – a symbol of being elderly and eventually running out of steam.

Although the tracks serve as analogous for our stages of life, they also remind you that you feel different things in each stage, and that the euphoria you get at the end of the class, perhaps a symbol for death itself, was worth all the pain spent working throughout the 7 tracks. You realise as well that when you are focused on the here and now, the 7 tracks also become somewhat fun, and it isn’t hard to realise that the class, much like life, is playful. This is where the music of each RPM class comes into effect. We like music because of its harmony and its unfolding changes, and we react in-line to such change in the RPM class. The chorus is used for different movements on the bike just as the verses are used for other movements. We get to experience the movement and fleeting moment of life whilst the song plays and changes, reminding us that the only constant in life is love for life itself in the present moment. Everything unfolds in a constant state of flux – a game of hide and seek, which both repeats itself and eventually ends.

The Melody and its Refrain

I have often thought about why I choose group fitness over just working out by myself in the gym on a bike. The main reason, and benefit, of going to an RPM class is the instructor – especially if you have a good one. The instructor sets the pace and tone for the workout, and it is up to you to decide whether or not you try and match their pace. I often find that when there is a good instructor, I naturally work harder. This realization is not exactly new or revelatory, as great ‘leaders’ have always inspired others, but it is interesting in terms of being a participant in a sea of 30 other people.

As someone who teaches themselves, part of me knows the value of having engaged students in a classroom setting. When students are engaged, work hard, and respond to your instruction, you cannot help but feel inspired to be a better teacher or, at least, be the teacher they think you are capable of being.  There’s nothing more I hate to see, in a teaching context, than people who pay no attention to the person at the front of the room who is trying to energize the life in the room. Why show up for the very reason of being lead through a session if you yourself are not going to give 100% effort in said session?

The same is true for most activities we do in life that we actually do not want to do. I always get the impression in my teaching that most university students want the degree, not the learning that comes with it. Similar in RPM, I go to the class because I know I will get a good workout from certain instructors, and I know how difficult it is to the be person in charge of a room full of people. I go to class for myself, but there is an act of giving your presence to someone who has given their time for yours in return. The teacher-student, or instructor-participant, relationship is not as transactional as it may seem on face value. There is a somewhat silent process of giving your time and energy to those who are doing the same for you, and the benefit is that you as individuals both get a better experience out of it when you give yourself, so to speak, to one another.

Familiar strangers

Like most interactions in life, we tend to engage in activities that involve strangers – people who we do not yet know. It is a curious thing that regular RPM riders in my class seldom talk to one another, and if any of us talk to the instructor, it is only ever in the context of the class itself, or it is in the form of small talk. Most of our human relationships unfold via a seemingly inauthentic and transactional manner. Combined with the previously mentioned abstracted rules of behaviour, we end up being familiar strangers to one another.

There would be people in your life for whom you know their faces but not their name or life story. For example, people in your workplace who you do not directly work with, your local barista, even your landlord can all be nameless faces you have known for a lengthy period of time. In reality, our lives end up being defined, largely, by our stranger-based interactions. This serves as a reminder on two fronts: firstly, that our own lives are not possible to be lived without other people in the world – people for whom we may not know or see. Secondly, the odds of two strangers meeting at any one point in time is in itself a mathematical anomaly. Such interaction between strangers invites the possibility for an authentic connection – the thing we supposedly are always looking for as human beings, and for which situations for connection present themselves to us on the daily.

Passengers working as crew

The last of the existential musings I want to make is what the RPM class overall represents. We are passengers on a bike who have to work hard to make the bike have any meaning, and for ourselves to grow.  The same is true in the fact that whatever gives fuel to this thing called life is not something we are in control of, yet we are irrevocably wrapped up in its unfolding. In order for life to have meaning and for us to answer questions of meaning, we have to work – both in a physical and mental sense.Without work, we get nowhere spiritually speaking, which is the ultimate goal for both our physical and mental growth – to elevate consciousness. We end up realizing that we are, much like the riding of a stationary, un-moving bike, merely passengers who are required to work as though crew. Although our minds and desires might reach for the future, or an ‘ideal’ destination, it is only ever in the physical, the real, and the ‘right now’ in which we ultimately live.

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