The Washington Sports Club in Bethesda — you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.
Well, actually, no — the staff seemed entirely nice and professional. But entering a dimly lit workout studio on the bottom floor, piped with background music, I remembered the Mos Eisley cantina, where Obi-Wan flashed some sweet lightsaber skills in slicing off the arm of a drunk Aqualish who was harassing young Luke Skywalker.
I had come here to learn some Jedi skills of my own — by participating in Awaken Your Inner Force, a 45-minute mix of cardio and strength exercises using weights, gliders and, of course, lightsabers. (Not real lightsabers, which as everyone knows are plasma weapons powered by rare crystals and built by individual Jedi knights, so they’re hard to come by. These were plastic. But still.) The purpose of the session, according to the official flier, was to “build power, strength and, of course, force.”
About a dozen or so of we Padawans showed up. I was expecting some real Star Wars geeks, maybe in full costume, but instead they just looked like people who work out at the gym. Thank God I kept my Darth Vader mask inside my bag.
Filling in for Yoda was the super-fit, insanely energetic and perma-smiling Libby Linden Rubin, whose title of “master trainer and instructor” sounded suitably Jedi Council-ish. (Also, doesn’t “Bethesda” kind of rhyme with “Dagobah,” even a little?) I imagined she’d have us all spar against each other with our lightsabers, climb up rope ladders, maybe even try some Force jumps. And when the soundtrack came on — a sort of jazzed-up version of the Darth Maul theme from “Duel of the Fates” in Episode I — I felt pumped up, ready for the Force to flow through me.
About 10 minutes into the workout, I was still waiting for the Force to kick in. Lunges and stretches and twists and bends — the stuff of a tough but traditional workout, nothing terribly Star Warsy — left me sweating, aching and nearly defeated. By 15 minutes in, I felt a great disturbance in my body, as if millions of seldom-used muscles cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. Master Libby may have noticed my pain, so she shifted direction. “Pick up your lightsabers!”
I had some familiarity with this particular model. It was the same one that my 8-year-old son plays with at home, an elegant weapon for a more civilized age. Flick it forward, and the plastic blade shoots out. (Green-bladed, I noted, like Luke’s second one.) Push a button on the bottom of the handle, and a light flickers on. I started scoping out the others, wondering with whom I’d get paired.
But there was no combat, alas. Instead, we used the lightsaber as a workout tool, balancing with it stretched out in front of us, lunging from one side to another, or sweeping it forward with both hands and behind our shoulders like a baseball bat, all while tip-toeing on gliders to have us float across the hardwood even more quickly and recklessly. On occasion we’d look toward the full-wall mirror and thrust the blade forward with one arm, the other extended behind, even though, of course, lightsaber fighting is usually two-handed. (This felt more D’Artagnan than Count Dooku, really.)
Arms stretched forward, grasping the lightsaber with both hands, we did squats. Imagine a stripper pole workout, but with lightsabers. My quads were ready to give in to the Dark Side.
Half an hour in, I needed Jedi mind tricks to keep going. This isn’t the workout you’re looking for. You can go about your business. But Master Libby was unrelenting. “Pick up the pace!” A small Yoda figurine lurked behind her, and I thought of Luke’s training in the swamps of Dagobah. “Luminous beings are we!” Master Yoda told young Skywalker, poking at his tired arms. “Not this crude matter!”
I felt pretty much like crude matter, sore and uncoordinated. The other students expertly contorted their legs in whatever direction Master Libby requested, held impossible poses for as long as needed. As I stumbled through it, I wished for the anonymity of my Vader mask. The musclebound dude next to me seemed remarkably agile for a guy his size. It was impressive. Most impressive. Someone had trained him well. Only during the jumping jacks interlude — “Jedi jacks,” Master Libby called them — did I feel vaguely capable.
The music shifted, and suddenly the “Rocky” theme song blared through the speakers. What? Then Master Libby threw us to the ground and made us do glider push-ups. “Wax on, wax off!” she shouted, motioning for us to sweep our arms around before each rep. If nothing else, this pop-culture mashup helped me take my mind off my pain as I pondered who would win a fight between Luke Skywalker, Rocky Balboa and Mr. Miyagi. (I’m going with Rocky.)
Master Libby brought our heart rates down with some final stretching and then, mercifully, it was over. I felt some satisfaction. I did it. (Remember, there is no try.) Only when we were picking up our things did I learn that most of the participants were longtime students of the master. That seemed a little unfair, but also comforting.
Clearly, I was too old to begin the training.
The Washington Sports Club in Bethesda, 6828 Wisconsin Ave., is holding “Awaken Your Inner Force” workouts weekly, on Tuesdays at noon, through Jan. 12. Selected Sports Club locations in Boston, New York and Philadelphia are featuring it as well. The sessions are free for members and non-members. For more information, go to mysportsclubs.com.
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