Why So Many Workout Classes Feel Spiritual Now


At seven in the morning, a group of stationary cyclists pedal furiously to the uptempo electro beat of a Britney Spears remix. The song is “Till the World Ends”, a strange title considering that cyclists are there to find something resembling salvation. “The way you do something is the way you do everything,” calls the energetic class leader, readjusting her helmet. “Shit yeah! responds a member somewhere at the back of the room.

Lights are dimmed to near-darkness, save for a few grapefruit-scented candles in the corners of SoulCycle’s intimate studio. You are locked in darkness – a muted support system that allows you, as an individual, to shine. Working individually but in the reassuring presence of others, members can focus on themselves. There is an element of freedom despite being crushed like sardines, a deliberately manufactured closeness. Julie Rice, who along with Elizabeth Cutler quit after selling SoulCycle to Equinox in 2016, explained:

“When people are done complaining about ‘Can you believe they’re going to charge $27 and I’m going to have to sit this close to someone? What actually happened was that the lights were dark and people could all feel the music at the same time, and you could almost feel someone breathing next to you. Your foot was in tune with their foot, and all of a sudden it became connected, and it became tribal, and it was dark, and there were candles. The music was amazing and an instructor tells you that you could be more than you thought. . . There’s something about moving meditation with other people who support you, who give you space, who aren’t there to compete with you, who are there to uplift you so they can be. too.

The combination of music and movement contributes strongly to this altered state, in the same way that EDM concerts inspire euphoric emotions. Such strong emotions can trigger a spiritual connection with something outside of ourselves; we submit to seeing the world as something good, beautiful and powerful. And when we’re deeply grounded in something, like when we’re dancing wildly at a party, the absorbing activity puts us in a state of trance-like “flow.” We turn off that nagging voice in our head (with all its to-do lists) and redirect our attention to repetitive rhythmic movements. Hence the term “getting lost” in an activity: when you’re so engrossed in pedaling, there’s no room for intrusive, ruminating thoughts.

The self, as you are used to it, melts away. A “we” takes over. And suddenly you feel nothing but love and connection with your fellow traveler. You look around the room and you think, “We’re all going through this journey together.”

Pedaling in unison takes a mighty force, even in its digital counterpart, Peloton. But according to researchers at the University of Oxford, it’s the mood-enhancing endorphins and serotonin (higher in nature) from exercise that may be responsible for some of these feel-good feelings. In experiments where strangers were made to row together, they found that moderately intense group exercise creates more significant social benefits than lower intensity exercise. “It may be that experiencing natural exercise-induced effects with others leads to a sort of ‘social high’ that facilitates group bonding, friendship, and cooperative behavior,” the co wrote. – author of the study.

Of course, a big part of SoulCycle’s success is also in its talent. (Before Peloton influencers struck brand endorsement deals, there were star SoulCycle instructors, often known only by their first names, like Oprah.) The brand doesn’t hire the average fitness instructor. He recruits charismatic artists. Dancers, cheerleaders, actors, models, Broadway veterans and professional athletes audition in what Rice once called “American Idol on a bike.” The company is looking for charismatic showpeople brimming with star presence – the same kind of people who can lead a congregation. Fitness pastors, you might say. SoulCycle promotes talent as the main attraction, some of which would earn up to $1,500 per class. And they make sure to live up to the hype.

Instructors say they “strengthen the muscles of faith,” providing a kind of emotional catharsis to those in need of healing. As one teacher explained, “I bring them to a point where they’re so tired that emotionally they’re so much more vulnerable. They no longer rely on their physical strength; they must go further. That’s when the experience becomes more than a workout. The instructors motivate, but they also present a slice of vulnerability to connect with devotees. “Sorry I’m late, my four-year-old was sick,” an instructor told a class. “If you thought I looked too young to have a kid, I also have a six-year-old, a ten-year-old, and a divorce.”

Many SoulCycle instructors develop strong bonds with loyal customers, who sometimes rely on them during times of crisis – a divorce, a breakup, the closing of Barneys. Fans report that they’ll text their fitness mentor when they’re going through a tough time or stop by after class for advice on sensitive matters. This attachment is not unlike the reliance on self-help books, which some scholars believe fill the gaps once filled by organized religion or more tight-knit communities of women.

“It is possible that the emphasis on friendship in women’s lives has diminished as more and more of us enter the paid labor market, as the division of labor has become more specialized, and as families have become smaller and more isolated,” sociologist Wendy Simonds writes in Women and caring culture. “All of these trends may have helped to professionalize the giving and receiving of advice, at least among the wealthy and middle classes.” What was once a mainstay of female friendships – telling someone to dump their silly boyfriend – has now been outsourced to “professionals” as a commodified service. A psychologist or a Peloton instructor has replaced a once ordinary exchange because we are all too busy or too far away to be there for each other.

Fitness brands may have created new ministers, but people need more than just a priest. They need a congregation. People need people. And with these people, they need to feel something. SoulCycle emphasizes “community” as much as its impressive talent, and Peloton advertises training “together” in your living room. As the beloved indoor cycling brand posted on Facebook in 2020, “From sun up to sun down, you’ll never ride alone.”

So exercise classes are group therapy, high vacation services, and social time at a country club, all rolled into one. They are, as the “seekers” of the sixties sought, an experiential spirituality. Where once humanity rocked Sinai for explosive commandments or joined in joyous revelry with religious healers, we are now getting a spiritual boost through group cardio. There are even wellness festivals now where 10,000 or more people (80% of them college-educated women) join in mass yoga like a Zen revival tent. Women express a need for intense tribal gatherings. And Beyoncé only goes on tour so often.

(Photo: Courtesy of Henry Holt and company)

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Excerpt from THE GOSPEL OF WELLNESS: Gyms, Gurus, Goop, and the False Promise of Self-Care by Rina Raphael. Published by Henry Holt and Company. Copyright © 2022 by Rina Raphael. All rights reserved.


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