The Stationary Bike of the Soul

SoulCycle, a company that offers specialized exercise classes, is one example of how a limited set of Americans might find new expressions of spirituality. 

Justin Jensen/Flickr

There's a whole neighborhood of the Internet dedicated to SoulCycle—worshipping it, trashing it, treating it as performance art. The typically 45-minute-long stationary-bike classes combine hard pedaling, weightlifting, house music, candles, and inspirational phrases: "Athlete. Legend. Warrior. Renegade. Rockstar. SoulCycle," reads one of the mantras on the studios' walls and merchandise. Classes are priced at $30 to $34 a pop and only happen at special SoulCycle studios in New York, New England, California, and, as of a couple of weeks ago, Washington, D.C.

Unwittingly or not, the fitness program is a pretty strong caricature of a particularly snark-inducing cultural stereotype: the coastal elite who has the time and money to upgrade him or herself to an exercise "warrior" rather than a humble "bike rider." Participants aren't just buying a better butt—they're buying the moral superiority that ostensibly comes with "working out" one's soul.

Yet, for all the eye-rolling trend pieces that have been penned about SoulCycle, its disciples have pedaled on. The company has plans to open 25 to 30 new studios in the United States and London in the next year or so, and they're even planning to venture into the middle of the country—or at least Chicago, a company spokeswoman said. Across the country, classes allegedly get 10,000 riders per day and 20,000 per week.

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.

Then again, that's not much different from other cult-like exercise programs, or even branding in general—the most successful companies create a sense that their product is part of a lifestyle, like the choosy moms who choose Jif. The twist with SoulCycle is what it calls the "mind/body experience."

"We wanted an experience that was more than just a physical exercise," wrote Elizabeth Cutler, the company's co-founder and co-CEO in an email. She and her co-founder, Julie Rice, chose the word "soul" because they "wanted people to find joy, strength, and inspiration through fitness. It was a nod to the deep intangible we found in the room."

Emma Green/The Atlantic

Spiritual-ish language like "the deep intangible" shows up throughout SoulCycle's marketing. To take the class, I had to sign a waiver agreeing to respect SoulCycle's "etiquette" so as to "preserve the SoulCycle sanctuary." The rules of the ride were painted on the wall of the locker room; among other things, they stated that "Talking during class is a major distraction for the spiritual folks around you" and "We ride close together so that we can feel each other's energy. That being said your neighbor does not want to feed off your odor." (This was filed under etiquette guideline #3, "laundry.")

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.