This is a guest blog post by Jessi Kneeland. Jessi is a TedX speaker, women’s empowerment coach and personal trainer. And, according to her Instagram account, has a passion for body-love, feminism, weight lifting, nakedness, fitness and relentless transparency.
As you will see in the post below, Jessi was in NYC for a short time and trained with us while she was in town. This was originally written as an email to Jessi’s extensive following detailing her experience at The Fort. All the words appear here in unedited form, however the photos and captions were added by us to keep with our usual blog style.
You may have seen me gushing about this amazing place on Instagram, where I was blowing up my feed with lifting videos. (I honestly couldn’t help myself.) So what is this new happy place? It’s called The Fort.
Technically The Fort is an underground gym that runs small-group-coaching classes for badasses, but it’s also something else. It’s something I didn’t know my life was missing. Something I didn’t even know existed. Something… magical.
I couldn’t wait to train there every day. I couldn’t wait to see what workout was written on the board. I couldn’t wait to tell them I wouldn’t do the stupidly miserable high-heart-rate-bullshit THAW (aka “Test of Heart And Will”) that they do at the end of every session.
But then I also couldn’t wait to find a reason to do it anyway.
Trying to explain exactly why this place brought me so much joy is honestly a bit overwhelming. It makes me emotional. It’s owned and run by two friends of mine who are phenomenal trainers and humans, Kyle Fields and Dan Trink, so I am undoubtedly biased. But to me, this is the happiest place in the world.
You and I might disagree about what makes a place happy- for example, your happy place might involve laying on a beach drinking muy thais, while mine involves workshopping a backsquat. To each their own. But this place feels good for the fitness industry, good for NYC, and good for humanity in general- and I’d like to try to explain why.
5 Reasons why The Fort is the Happiest Place in the World:
They perfectly toe the line of empowerment and challenge.
You know how important feeling empowered is to me, right? It’s pretty much all I talk about. To me, feeling empowered means you feel equipped to adequately meet all of life’s needs. That doesn’t mean you necessarily have all the skills required to overcome any challenge that comes your way, but rather that you know you have the capacity to learn any skill required.
I believe that in order to feel empowered, you must understand that the most important “talents” aren’t things you’re born with. They’re the talent to improve, or more specifically, the skills of growth, courage, the ability to learn and expand, and hard work. All of these skills can be improved with practice, and must be cultivated in order to be easily accessible when you need them. I encourage all my clients to become more resilient and confident by learning to view all of life’s challenges as opportunities to sharpen those skills.
The thing is, sometimes life throws you a challenge which is way above and beyond your current ability level to handle it and use it for growth. This can be very disempowering, and frankly just depressing. The big challenges (like major health issues, the death of a loved one, big break-ups, or losing your job) can all send you hurtling down a slippery slope of feeling completely ill-equipped and inadequate to the task of handling it. And in those moments– those big, terrifying, devastating moments– you need to be able to fall back on the knowledge that you’ve overcome hard shit before; that you know how to push through and overcome hard shit.
The antidote to mental breakdown in these moments is deep visceral knowing that you’re a person who successfully, regularly overcomes challenges. Not once, a long time ago. But like… yesterday. And the day before. You are a person who regularly pushes herself past the point of comfort and security. You are a person who regularly proves to herself that she’s capable of more than she ever realized. You are a person who trusts in her ability to learn new skills, improve, rise to the challenge, and bounce back.
Not all physical training offers you a place to practice that. A lot of fitness is way too easy, never pushing you past your comfort zone or teaching you how to be-scared-and-keep-going-
Make this a habit, and when life throws you the Big Scary Things, you will have a foundation of deep inner knowing to fall back on. I am a person who overcomes. I am a person with a deep well of courage, strength, and grit. I am a person who will take this challenge and use it to make something better and more beautiful.
The energy of people doing what they believe in and adore, with 100% of their heart and soul, makes everyone better.
Seriously. You can feel it when people are half-assing something. You can tell when people are in it for the money, or have made compromises that cause their hearts to become a little less excited. These guys are full-assing it, and it shows; you can feel it when you walk in the door. Being around people who are doing exactly what they want to be doing is truly enlivening and inspiring to everyone around them. It’s an addictively positive energy that erases resistance, creates a sense of unity, and just makes us all better.
The power of the “other.”
(This is actually the name of a cool book I just read, which explores the importance of relationships, connections, and the power of someone else’s presence and energy on our personal growth and development. Highly recommended.)
In every class I took at The Fort I was amazed by how wonderful it feels to be coached by someone else. I’ve always passionately hated being told what to do, and since I’m highly self-motivated I never felt any desire to train with other people. But these guys made it easy to set aside my ego and just soak up the goodness. Everything comes back to how they toe the line between empowerment and challenge, even emotionally. Some moments I received compassionate understanding and encouragement, while other moments they made it clear that giving up would be unacceptable. This, my friends, is coaching at it’s finest. It’s where a coach’s (considerable) expertise is actually transferrable, due to their ability to connect with actual humans. That is a shockingly rare skill, especially in the fitness world.
Plus, since you’re training in a small group with other people, when you inevitably arrive at a threshold of “I can’t– fuck this,” you look around at the people who have been training their asses off with you, and you keep going out of respect for them and their effort. In this way, out of respect and love rather than shame or fear, you all hold each other accountable for showing up fully and giving your all. This is the best possible use of “the other.” This is how humans were meant to help raise each other up.
This is a huge one for me. If I feel judged or unsafe in any way, I go into fight-or-flight mode- I shrink down and focus on just getting through the experience. This is not fun or fulfilling for me, and it sucks for the people around me too. This is why I habitually seek out people and places and things that make me feel safe to fully be my big expansive self. I can handle challenges, but I aim to fill my life with stuff that makes it easy to practice being full, authentic, vulnerable, and expansive.
The Fort is lacking the usual judgement and ego of most gym spaces. You get the feeling that they are learning from you just as much as you are learning from them, despite the combined 20+ years of experience they have. This humility and curiosity make it a safe place to not know the “right” answer, safe to try, and safe to fail. It’s even safe to unabashedly celebrate yourself and your success. (Women, you know how difficult this can be.)
Most importantly though, this emotional safety makes it ok to let go of your attachments, old identities, and the old stories you’ve been clinging to about yourself. Which means it’s the perfect environment within which to transform and discover your true potential.
Most fitness stuff is all about looking better. Even the so called body-positive classes, gyms, and instructors I see tend to all operate under the assumption that you’ll love your body more when you’ve finally hit your aesthetic goals. I’ve cringed in spin classes where the instructor called out “come on, burn off last night’s wine!” and I once took a yoga class where the teacher crooned “make sure to squeeze your thighs here- nobody wants to see your saddlebags!” I hate this so much. I reject it with every fiber of my being, and the fact that many of these teachers and classes consider themselves body-positive makes it even worse somehow.
Do I love how my body looks naked? Absolutely, and I don’t pretend to hide that. But I train for pleasure and joy and mental clarity and connection to my body and for everything I talked about in #1. I train to practice courage and resilience and self-trust. I train to be a person who overcomes challenges. I do NOT train to burn off the calories I eat, or to get rid of my saddle bags. As simple as this might seem, I can’t tell you how freakin difficult it is to find a movement space that doesn’t automatically assume that I’m there to lose fat and “fix my flaws.”
I actually don’t think The Fort ever thought about being “body positive,” but trust me they are. There is no judgement about where you are today, no assumption about your goals, no mirrors, no elliptical machines, no advertisements for fat-loss supplements, and no tv’s or magazines. There is nothing to help you tune your body out, or punish it for being bad. It’s all about tuning in to improve performance and mental toughness, making it one of the only truly body-positive gyms I’ve ever encountered. (Although looking hot AF is admittedly a by-product of training with this intention.)
Also I could be projecting, but it feels like there is a fundamental belief at The Fort that if you were lucky enough to be born into a human body, then you have both a right and a responsibility to push it and see what it can do. Which is some shit I can’t help but love. <3