When I walk around the enclave known as Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn, N.Y., I can’t help but notice a trend—a trend that has no doubt accompanied the rapid whirlwind of gentrification that’s transforming every block in my neighborhood.
Bed-Stuy, which was once a “fitness desert,” is now turning into a boutique fitness haven. It seems like every year a new yoga studio, a new HIIT gym, or CrossFit box is opening its doors to create its own community. But out of all of the spaces I have passed on my walks, one studio brand has stuck out to me the most. It’s called The Fit In, a boutique Pilates and functional training experience that has locations on Halsey Street and Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X Boulevards.
The moment I walked into the Halsey location, I was immediately drawn in by the vibe, the music, the people. There were mostly women of color inside, either smiling or grimacing as they slid up and down reformer machines. I’d always associated Pilates with ballerinas exercising to piano music—an environment with a stiffer atmosphere. But here I was watching the instructor, a black woman with a green fro-hawk bantering with her students as Afrobeats played in the background. She made me feel at ease.
I would soon find out this instructor, Ife Obi, calls herself the “Grace Jones of fitness,” I guessed for her bold style and dark brown complexion. I soon found out that she’s the reason why The Fit In is now one of the most popular studios for women of color in Bed-Stuy. She’s the one who understands what this community needs because she is Brooklyn, born and bred.
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Ife, 37, is the founder of The Fit In Bed Stuy as well as its chief marketing officer. The Nigerian-American hails from East New York, a Brooklyn neighborhood that touches the edge of Bed-Stuy, and grew up there in the ‘80s, when her hood was known for high homicide rates and drug deals. Back then, she didn’t know anything about physical fitness. There were no spaces to exercise, let alone play.
“You didn’t leave your gate let alone leave your block just for safety reasons,” Ife explained. “So there wasn’t a lot of riding the bikes in the neighborhood and all that cool stuff because it’s just too dangerous, you know? So there was no going to the playground. That’s where all the drug deals happened. So we didn’t really have those types of movement options.”
In some ways, Ife’s temperament reflected the strife around her block. She was angsty. A rebel. Even though she didn’t exercise, she found movement in her fists.
“I needed an outlet for all this kind of anger,” said Ife. “I was fighting a lot when I was younger. I was fighting, cutting school.”
During her senior year at Brooklyn Tech, she was expelled. Her strict parents kicked her out of the house. So there was Ife, a 17-year-old young woman, 5 feet 8 inches tall at a “cute 200 pounds,” as she likes to say. She’d grown up on the food that her family could afford; the quick, cheap eats from the local food marts that had very, very limited options.
“There was no ‘organic’ or anything like that,” said Ife. “You bought all the bad food; you bought meat that you had to cook through thoroughly to make sure that you got all the germs out. So there was nothing with nutrients that we were really consuming.”
The teen was soon living in her own modest apartment, sipping on Red Bulls and eating pretzels for her meals—trying to stretch a quarter until it screamed. But even though she didn’t have a lot of money, Ife knew she had to make a change for her health.
“So I started going to the local gym, and it was like $75 dollars for a year,” she recalled. “You know kind of bare-bones. They had a little track inside, a couple of machines; it was one of those gyms where, you know, you see the dudes working out in like their Timbs and their jeans. A typical old school gym. But I was like, ‘Imma be this chick just up in there.’
“I was working out, like, twice a day; maybe two hours each time, barely eating,” she added. “It became almost like a game to me of working out until I passed out almost. So it was unhealthy. I went from one extreme to another extreme. There was no inspiration or no one to look towards for, what is healthy living, what is healthy eating, what is a healthy fitness routine? And particularly for me: What does that mean for me? Because it might mean something different for somebody else.”
It would take Ife years to figure that out, along with her money. But after going back to school, getting her marketing degree and accepting a corporate job, she started making the means to get some answers. At the office, she started interacting with a different demographic—mostly white people—who trained for things like the Brooklyn Half Marathon and drank green juices. From them, she learned more about nutrition and healthy eating. Then one day, someone told her she should start running. She did. After three years of competing in 10Ks and 5Ks, she was so injured, her doctor told her she had to build muscle.
At first, she tried the Barre Method—a form of exercise that involves ballet-like movements, and she loved it. She even began teaching at a studio herself. But as one of the few black instructors in the city, Ife felt out of place. What’s more, Ife couldn’t manage to stay injury-free. She got into HIIT classes—or high-intensity interval training—involving things like kettlebells and bodyweight exercises. One day, she herniated a disc while doing a burpee. She felt a shooting pain down and throughout her back. Her physical therapist then suggested Pilates to strengthen her core.
“And I was like ‘What? I’ve got a six-pack. What are you talking about? Strengthening my core? My core is strong,’” she said. “And they’re like, ‘No. You’ll see.’ And eventually, I fell in love with it because it helped me understand movement and helped me understand the things I needed to do in order to keep doing the things that I loved.
“[I learned] the parts of the body and the alignment cues and all that stuff that I needed to focus on in addition to all of this heavy lifting and fast movement that I’m doing. And you know, so many people in this country—in this world—they’re addicted to painkillers a lot of times because they have injuries like what I had. I want to be able to share this with other people because Pilates and fitness, in general, is preventative health.”
According to recent data from Blue Cross Blue Shield, Americans spend trillions of dollars on health care every year. In 2017 alone, people under the age of 65 spent $25 million for knee and hip replacements. When Ife decided to become a Pilates instructor, it was about changing these harmful trends—and to represent.
It wasn’t long before Ife realized that she was, once again, one of the few black Pilates teachers working around Manhattan. Even worse, she was mainly servicing people in upper-class communities that were not accommodating to people of color.
“We’re always made to feel ostracized and uncared for even down to simple things,” she said. “Like, most Pilates studios in cities don’t have a towel for you. And I’m like, ‘We run hot because we’re tropical.’ So as soon as we start moving we tend to sweat. But you just feel like everybody’s looking at you when that happens.
“Or with our hair: We’ve got to keep our hair, you know, oiled. So we’re lying on these mats. Yeah, we’re going to leave an oil spot on the mats because our hair needs to be juiced up so that it’s not all dry and brittle. But again, we feel like people are looking at it and so we’re made to feel so different.”
High studio prices were also discouraging people of her community from participating in her classes and potentially improving their health for the better.
“You know what? I [was] tired of working in these studios in the city and hoping people come to us at their prices,” Ife recalled. “I’m like, ‘Why can’t we just create this in our own communities?’”
And just like that, in March 2018, Ife decided to start her own pop-up studio in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn—and it quickly became a mainstay in the neighborhood. Why?
Reason number 1: “I focus on my pricing to be accessible. Having variations and price discount opportunities, scholarships, just giving different people who have different incomes access to wellness,” she said.
And reason number 2: Ife has recruited knowledgeable women of color to teach her classes, like Ruby Canton, who teaches the HIIT classes at The Fit In. The moment she found the studio, she was all in.
“I saw a sponsorship on the Internet and I was like, ‘Look at all these beautiful black women here. Let me email them right now because I want to work there.’ That’s legit how,” said Ruby. “I was like, ‘You guys are beautiful and then I emailed Ife right away and I was like, ‘I want to work for you.’ That was it.”
And when you have black and brown women teaching classes, you attract a whole community of black and brown women who’ve been searching for a place that they could call their fitness home. For example, Fit In member Tanya St. Julian says that she’s really found her spot.
“It’s my happy place, my sisters, my homie-scromies, my pranksters,” she said. “There aren’t a lot of good safe places for people to just, like, be themselves and not have to worry about risk. And this is a good place to do that.
“If this was not black-owned—if I felt like we didn’t center the experiences of women of color I wouldn’t come here,” Tanya continued. “I’d stick with my black-ass trainer and go to Crunch where I was going to black-ass classes. I only left those black instructors who are awesome to come here to a place that centers women of color and wellness.”
Of course, after talking to all of these women, I just had to get a taste of the community itself. I went to Ruby’s class and got my butt handed to me as we did more pushups than my triceps could handle. But as my heart beat out of my chest I was still able to laugh. The PM crew was always cracking jokes.
When the class ended, everyone stuck around to talk to each other about their lives, about what their next adventures were. It was different than any other studio that I’d been to, where the women hit the showers and go home. When I talked to Lisa Howell, another woman who took the class, she confirmed that everyone at The Fit In is really tight. They’ll even go to other studios to support Fit In instructors who work at other places.
“Ruby is one of the instructors here but she teaches elsewhere,” said Lisa. “And so about a month ago, about 10 [or] 15 of us signed up to go to her shadow-boxing class where she teaches over in Dumbo. So we went and she beat us up for a solid hour of boxing. It was brutal. And then we went and had dinner and ate and just talked and had a great time.”
I was amazed to observe how Ife’s journey—with all its highs and lows—gave birth to a space where many people, regardless of gender, skin color, sexual orientation and financial situation, could participate and make steps towards a healthier version of themselves. In many ways, Ife is the person she needed back when she was hurt, trying to figure out what was right for her body.
“I remember my first Pilates trainers and I’m like, ‘Wow I’m now that trainer for a bunch of amazing human beings,’” said Ife. “So to be able to be that person for so many people in my community, the people I really wanted to reach out to, that’s something I’m where I’m like, ‘Yeah this is this is my minute and I need to do more of it.’”
And when she said that, I could easily see her community growing bigger, stronger. I think that’s because anyone can fit into The Fit In. Because this community is a reflection of Ife’s bold energy. You can feel free to embrace yourself and improve your health—rocking your green fro-hawk and all.
To hear an audio version of this piece, click here.