The Stationary Bike of the Soul

There even seemed to be hints of self-awareness in this—calling to sign up was one of my favorite parts of the experience, because afterwards I got an email saying:


Emma Green/The Atlantic

But even though I asked for one of the more spiritual instructors, the class itself didn't involve a lot of overt religious or spiritual language. The room was dark, lit only by candles and Flashdance-style backlighting; there were mantras on the wall (e.g., "We are unnaturally obsessed with our bikes," along with references to "cardio parties"). Kathleen, the instructor, was unquestionably motivational. As someone who has struggled with sitting on a bike in front of a room full of sweaty people and being unerringly cheerful for hour-long stretches, I bow to Kathleen's varsity-level facial expressions and surprisingly varied shouts of encouragement. Her primary philosophical offering to the class concerned "positive thinking." "I've had a shit show of a week," she confessed to the room. "But if you start thinking more positively, amazing things will happen to you."

Like references to the riders' "energy" and the "sanctuary" of the bike room, "positive thinking" is a spiritual-ish concept. It implies a relationship between a person's intentions and events in the universe: Through a little rearrangement of the will, you can shift the happenings of the world around you. But if anything, this seems like Spirituality Lite—enough to satisfy those who want to feel a vague sense of well-being, but not so much as to alienate anyone of any particular faith.

SoulCycle is selling ambient spirituality in a time when more Americans than ever are religiously unaffiliated.

That's the most interesting quality of SoulCycle's spiritual-ish-ness: It's extremely effective at creating the sense impression of meaning, but it's not actually that robust. This seems to be intentional: As Cutler wrote in an email, "SoulCycle is so much more than a physical experience. Our riders tell us, they come for their bodies but they stay for their minds." There are probably lots of reasons why SoulCycle can successfully charge $3,500 for a 50-class package called the "SuperSoul," including the program's popularity with celebrities, the company's chic aesthetic, and the carefully cultivated sense that participants will get a distinctively butt-kicking work-out.

But they're also selling ambient spirituality in a time when more Americans than ever are religiously unaffiliated. According to a 2012 Pew report, it's most common for people in the Northwest and West to say they're "nothing in particular" when it comes to religion; these are the regions where SoulCycle has all of its studios. People under 50 are also most likely to say they don't identify with a particular faith; although the spokeswoman I talked with wouldn't identify a target demographic for the company, it's no accident that the company's first customers were mostly young moms. When I took the class in D.C., I was surrounded by women who looked college-aged (the studio is located close to George Washington University's campus). 

It seems unlikely that SoulCycle primarily serves as spirit-restoration therapy for lost souls who have left the church; a lot of people probably go for the biking and stay for the infectious enthusiasm. But it's telling that the company can up-sell a certain class of customers on a sense of meaningfulness that they might not be getting from religious worship. The muscle memory of religiosity is strong in American culture; even the lightest dusting of traditional language and old ideas can create a latent sense of spiritual satisfaction. It's the most mindless version of being "spiritual but not religious," and that's perfectly fine, as long as you know what you're buying. 

As I headed out of my SoulCycle class and into work, a guy on the street who evidently refills soda machines handed me a Diet Coke. If you start thinking more positively, amazing things really will happen.

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also writes about religion and culture.

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