As an instructor certified to teach Spinning, a trademarked exercise-bike program that competes with SoulCycle, I have my doubts about some aspects of the cycling techniques: When I took an early morning class from an enthusiastic instructor named Kathleen in the new D.C. studio last week, she cued a lot of motions that Spin considers "contraindicated," or not recommended, including weightlifting on the bike, pedaling without any resistance, and bouncing (signaled by chants of "bounce, bounce, bounce!," just one example of night club-esque rhetoric used during the ride). Fitness experts have questioned the effectiveness and safety of other aspects of SoulCycle in the past.
But to me, the most interesting aspect of the program isn't the "Cycle"—it's the "Soul." This is both a totally obvious and kind of curious choice for a brand name: Obvious in the sense that "soul" has become a fairly generic placeholder for ideas like "self," "spirituality," and "personhood"; and curious in the sense that "the soul" is actually a highly contested metaphysical concept, written about by figures from Aristotle to Aquinas to Descartes. In a bizarre way, "SoulCycle" is a roughly good representation of Cartesian dualism, which is the idea that existence is made up of two kinds of stuff: the mind, which is the basis of the cognition (the "Soul"), and the material body (the "Cycle").
This metaphor is less intended as fodder for adjunct philosophy professors (although, you're welcome) and more meant to illustrate the paradox of SoulCycle: It simultaneously offers a totally substance-less theory of spirituality and invokes complex ideas of personhood, suggesting one way that contemporary spirituality manifests among a very, very limited set of Americans.
On one level, the classes are designed to create a sense of self through exercise. The physical act of riding is a ritual; classes are structured around a certain pattern of exercises which repeat SoulCyclers can get comfortable with. Performative badassery is explicitly encouraged; the strongly hyped front row of bikes is ostensibly reserved for the most experienced riders, and "if you want to do your own thing," you are instructed not to claim one of those bikes. Being able to keep up with the beat, stand up and down quickly while pedaling, and put the maximum amount of weight on the bike are all set out as goals for riders. Pushing yourself is a big part of the program's rhetoric of self-care, including phrases like "you deserve it." The merchandise, all trendy shades of yellow, white, and black and bedecked in skulls and crossbones, is also designed around a particular identity. Pouring out gallons of sweat while wearing this muscle tank signals that you're part of the SoulCycle circle and value certain things, like toughness, discipline, and self-control.