For one Wilton-based exercise centre and class space, Saturday mornings mean one thing: members getting together for a cup of coffee before working together on movement and flexibility. The endgame? Building up to the task of executing a handstand. Mike McGrath-Bryan talks with Café Move co-owner Robbie O’Driscoll about a pressure-free alternative for New Years’ fitness kicks.
It’s 9am on a fresh Saturday morning at Doughcloyne Industrial Estate, just up Sarsfield Road, and nestled among the warehouses, retail units and even a children’s amusement complex, lies an exercise and fitness centre unlike any other. Café Move is being opened as we come in the door, and at first glance, as wooden pallets create a small corridor to a fully-stocked coffee bar that’s being readied for the day, slinging tea and speciality coffees as well as protein supplements, the idea sets in. Opened three years ago by owner-operators Robbie O’Driscoll and Karen Lunnon, Café Move styles itself not necessarily as a gym, but as a ‘movement centre’, prioritising exercise and wellbeing in comparatively unorthodox ways, especially for the current climate. Weight equipment is noticeable by its absence, and brass rings for gymnastics and acrobatic use hang from the rafters on both floors. The whole air of the place seems to be the polar opposite of the iron temples that seem to be springing up all over the city as of late.
At the forefront of the centre’s drive for accessibility is a simple yet starkly ‘different’ idea: a class simply entitled “Coffee and Handstands”. Doing largely what it says on the tin, the class allows for participants to file in early for a cuppa and some chats with the facility’s staff and fellow exercisers for about an hour, before getting down to the brass tacks of stretches, collaborative warmups and exercises combining gymnastics with resistance training. For O’Driscoll, it’s about bringing a lifetime of movement and fitness experience to a welcoming, inclusive space. “The whole concept comes from the point that exercise and socialising ought to be brought together, for the full package of developing a person. There has to be a bit of craic, in regards to exercise. It needs to be a constant, week in, week out, and if you’re doing it by yourself all the time, it’s going to suck. But if you’re in the company of good people, and the theme of the class is that it’s playful on the weekend, I think it ticks all the boxes regarding staying social, staying healthy, staying strong. And it’s a draw to have that chance to bring people together, to have the chats, a bit of interaction and discourse before we get things moving.”
It’s one of those questions that seems so simple for an interviewer that it becomes difficult by overthinking: how does one teach somebody a handstand? Even the mention of the word ‘handstand’ likely conjures up one’s own childhood images of small gymnastic feats among friends while out playing, gangly legs kicking up awkwardly into wobbly displays of athleticism that ranked alongside cartwheels and forward rolls as serious achievements for the day. The process of reverting to that mindset, and tapping into exercisers’ inner children, is what sets the class apart from any other offering in Cork gyms at present. And it’s making a difference, says O’Driscoll. “In this environment, there’ll be a general warmup, so everyone can benefit from strengthening and mobilising the fingers, wrists, hands, shoulders, core. So, nothing is outside the capacity of anybody. Anybody can join the class, we have an age bracket here from early twenties up to sixty. And as the class progresses, we split into groups, who is able for what, and then there’s individual practice. And it’s taught in a way that involves a partner or a group, so that everyone achieves their handstand, achieves their goal. You have that sense of camaraderie, it has that playfulness to it… There’s one person that sticks to mind to me, Martha, she showed up here a year-and-a-half ago with a shoulder injury, she was an avid Taekwondo player. She turned sixty recently and is now kicking up into a handstand, coming from a place of no gymnastics training, arriving with an injury and developing that practice is something.”
The centre’s regular custom has been slowly increasing in number over the past three years, as its reputation has spread among people looking for something different from a fitness experience. But even for such an eclectic group of people, this morning ranging from athletes to former quantum physicists, the idea of building from absolute zero to a handstand might be strange for different reasons. The idea, however, has been received well, according to O’Driscoll, acting for some as a goal, and for others, a gateway to more movement. “Let’s say somebody hasn’t been referred to us, they see a post (online). ‘Coffee and handstands, what’s that about?’. So, they’re quite apprehensive, they’re expecting something a bit hipster-y. They expect, ‘hey, man, peace, high five, wanna mocha-chocha-latte’, and I can see how we’d fall into that mix, with pallets around the place and coffee. But we meet them on a one-to-one level. People who have been recommended to us are all quite enthusiastic about arriving on, they’ve heard great things about us. People outside the centre, in (the fitness space in the city) look upon us as being quite airy-fairy, that’s one term we hear a lot. Maybe they’re the regular gym-goer and they see us with coffee and hanging upside-down, and it seems like an airy-fairy approach, not understanding that when we get into it, there’s some serious training, there’s a lot of sports-science, exercise-science, and I’ve travelled the world collecting these exercises to bring them to a public domain.”
It’s all in contrast to the current gym and fitness scene in the city, to say the least. There’s no disputing the rise in gym culture over the past few years, as people take to the benches and attend circuit training to get fit, boost their self-confidence, and get an all-important endorphin rush, the latter being an increasing point of discussion within the overall mental-health discourse. But with a number of new gyms opening up around the city, O’Driscoll is emphatic about creating an inclusive space, where the kind of gatekeeping that can sometimes happen in regular gyms, and the intimidation inherent for some people to working with fitness equipment, becomes a non-issue. “When we first opened, one of the first installments was a café, put right in the centre, creating a social atmosphere for a physical lifestyle and culture, was the idea. Not to say you’re a gym-goer, but that it’s more a lifestyle, you meet people you already know, like the ‘Cheers’ of the gym world. There’s no obligation to exercise in one format here, no dogmatic view. I teach the content I teach, I keep it as broad as I can, without restrictions on the members to not explore their own approach. We shake hands and meet each other, and that was the idea. In this setting, also, it’s more attractive to those who aren’t drawn into the gym scene. I wanted to offer an alternative.”
It’s January, and the natural course of events dictates that people venture trepidatiously into gyms at hotels and other locations around the city, prompted into action by the dawning of a new calendar year, and the traditional cocktails of well-meaning New Years’ resolutions and a seeming carnival of advertising that negatively reinforces peoples’ perceptions of themselves. Playing on insecurities by leading advertising campaigns with unreasonably attractive models and vaguely aspirational sloganeering, the intimidation factor is both a draw for facilities and an eventual turn-off. For O’Driscoll, the inclusive atmosphere at Café Move is aimed at helping trainees avoid that cycle, and play to their own strengths. “We don’t offer fat loss, and we accept anybody in whatever way they show up. We’re more interested in physical ability and whatever that is to the individual. Wherever they’re coming from, wherever they’d like to go, we’d like to be part of the assistance, and offer an environment where they’re not under pressure to adhere to a particular aesthetic, because that’s absurd to me. I believe weight loss, etc. is a by-product of tweaking of one’s lifestyle to improve their physical ability and their quality of life. Nor is it driven by what they ‘ought to’, or ‘should’. Because those negative motivations burn out quite quickly, I’d prefer it to be something that gives them an improved experience of life. ‘Now I can go hillwalking, now I can play with my kids, now I can have fun with my own body.’ Whatever that is to them, I’d like to be part of. And that perpetuates itself, being around others, without the sense of judgement.”
As the interview progresses, our seat at the space’s coffee bar allows us the opportunity to meet the attendees as they come in the front door, and get settled in for a chat before the proceedings. Martha Lynch, of whom O’Driscoll was speaking in reference to transformation stories to emerge from the facility, is softly-spoken, but effusive in her praise for the facility and what it’s done for her wellbeing. After demonstrating a handstand technique hard-won by training and exercise, she’s quick to reiterate. “It’s improved my fitness, my core, my balance, strength… everything. My energy… it’s great fun. We end up laughing halfway through the class most of the time, and it’s just great fun, and the coffee’s brilliant (laughs). It doesn’t matter what level you’re at, Robbie adjusts everything so you can participate in class and do your bit. I’m trying now to learn to do a pull-up, haven’t gotten near it but there’s variations all the way up, and it’s just getting your bit and working your way up. No machines, and you’re talking to people all the time.”
It’s hard not to look at the current slew of gym openings around the city and county as something of a bubble, if one is being entirely cynical. Time will tell how new facilities might fare in the long-term, and if the ongoing surge of casual interest in personal fitness becomes a permanent fixture in punters’ routines. O’Driscoll and Lunnon have put three years and a lot of very personal touches into Café Move, right down to portraits of their parents alongside various heroes of theirs in the changing facilities. There’s a vision at play here, and O’Driscoll’s mission statement speaks to this. “I’ve often thought of the movement centre, ‘Café Move’, a ‘movement café’, as being a social requirement, in city centres and all major suburbs, as maybe the new age community centre. We’re quite aware that sedentary living, fast food and high technology has us not moving a whole lot, and quite highly stressed. It’s nothing new to say that movement is a requirement, socialising is a requirement. So how I see it in the future is almost like a household name, in a sense: ‘I’m off to Café Move’, or however you want to refer to it, the movement centre, because it is a requirement. They may not be ‘sports’ people, but they do need to move, do need to be around other people, and I see the place like you would, in a day, go to the pub, you go to Café Move. I’d like for it to be a household name for taking care of yourself.”
‘Coffee and Handstands’ happens every Saturday morning from 9am to midday at Café Move, Unit 3, Doughcloyne Industrial Estate, Sarsfield Road, Wilton. For more information, check their social media pages.