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Eyes Shut, Ears Open, Mind Puzzled Spinning may be the latest craze, but one skeptical practitioner finds it flaky

Aside from the downy soft physique, I've discovered there are
other drawbacks to being roughly as out of shape as Meatloaf.
Among them is a reflexive need to test-drive the newest exercise
contraption in the faint hope that it will do what the
Stairmaster, treadmill and Nordic Track before it could not:
lure me to the gym with any semblance of consistency. So it was
hardly a volitional act that led me to experience the
cardiovascular dernier cri, a spinning class, at my Manhattan gym.

Not long after I began pedaling my "spinner"--a permutation of a
stationary bike that looks as if it should be available only
through the Home Shopping Network--I couldn't help wondering
whether I had finally made a fitness match. With a higher seat
and lower handlebars than an exercise bike and a front wheel
weighing 38 pounds, the machine is easy to master, gentle on the
knees and, unlike every other contrivance at the gym, unadorned
with a computer console to remind me just how many agonizing
minutes remain before I can stop. Also, my fellow spinsters were
a refreshing mix of young and old, male and female, bodies by
Jake and bodies by Hostess.

My enthusiasm wilted into skepticism when the lights went off,
New Age music started to pipe through the speakers and the deus
ex machina began to speak. "Close your eyes, take a deep breath
and try to see the rhythm," the voice implored. Given my
inability to so much as hear the rhythm, I smelled trouble.
"Imagine you're enveloped by a big puffy cloud and you're biking
down a dirt road on a dry, hot day. There's a cool, blue lake up
ahead. Can you see it?"

I could not. In fact, when I opened my eyes, I saw nothing but a
soundproof room and 12 other poor saps pedaling frantically
alongside me. What I also failed to see were any other
classmates with whom to exchange a cynical glance. Eyes closed,
they were slavishly following the commands from the
microphone-enhanced voice of our instructor. As sweat clustered
on my face, I continued pedaling, trying to locate the
spirituality muscles I seldom exercise.

"Spinning is like yoga on wheels," says Hala Khouri, a certified
instructor who teaches four classes a week in Manhattan and on
Long Island. "What makes it so much different from, say, step
aerobics, is that it's very centering. You just clear your mind
and focus your energy. Also, it's a great exercise because
people of all levels of fitness can do it at once. I can lead
the class, but it's your responsibility to challenge yourself."

With its emphasis on individual goals and the connection between
mind and body, spinning is the quintessential '90s exercise, yet
it has been around for more than a decade. Johnny Goldberg, a
41-year-old South African emigre who lives in Los Angeles, and
is now known as Johnny G, invented spinning as a personal
training exercise in 1987, using a modified stationary bike as a
spinner. His creation soon became a cultish fitness alternative,
mostly among Californians. Word of the "ultimate workout"
spread, and three years ago Johnny G signed a licensing deal
with Schwinn to manufacture spinners.

How popular has spinning become? Tracey Harvey, national direct
sales manager for Schwinn, estimates that in 1998, the company
will sell more than 20,000 spinners to gyms and health clubs in
all 50 states. The machines range in price from $700 to $850.
Even at my old gym in southern Indiana, a spartan sweatbox never
accused of being in the recreational vanguard, an entire room is
now cordoned off for SPINNING, as the sign reads.

In the course of my maiden 45-minute voyage, the pedaling
exercises ranged from a tortuous, torturous 12-minute climb to
an intense sprint to a series of "jumps" on which we had to
stand on the pedals rather than sit in the saddle. All the
while, thematic music, such as Peter Gabriel's Red Rain ("Can
you feel it on your back?") and Sheryl Crow's Every Day Is a
Winding Road ("But we're gonna make it to the end anyway!"),
blared in the background. After the session, the guy on the bike
next to mine exclaimed, "Was that some great karma or what?"
Unsure how to respond, I nodded meekly.

Even if you're like me and bristle at this Zen for Dummies
aspect--the "Yanni factor," I call it--there's no question that
spinning makes for an excruciating workout. By the end of the
class, I was slathered in sweat, was feeling a soreness in my
thighs and butt that would stay with me for days, and, most
important, had liberated myself from some 700 unwanted calories.
I'm not counting myself among the successfully proselytized
spinners quite yet, but on my way out of the gym I did sign up
for six more classes. With a bit more practice, maybe I'll be
able to catch a glimpse of the rhythm.

COLOR PHOTO: NEAL PRESTON/OUTLINE [Man exercising on spinner bicycle]

"Imagine you're enveloped by a puffy cloud, and you're biking
down a dirt road."