You pay a regular tithe to support the community. In public, you wear symbols that identify you as one of the faithful. When you gather with other adherents, it’s often in small, close rooms. Breathing gets heavy; bodies sweat. If anyone speaks, it is to moan, or occasionally to shout in triumph.
Exercise classes often function just as much like a church as they do like a gym: They gather people into a community, and give them a ritual to perform. The comfort of clipping your shoes into a beloved SoulCycle bike or landing the first blow on your favorite heavy bag at a boxing gym is not so far off from the reassurance of arriving at temple on a Friday. You know who will be leading the evening; you can anticipate the general contours of its energy. You know you will recognize familiar faces among the participating crowd.
As more Americans have moved away from organized religion (a 2015 Pew Center study found that 23 percent of the adult population identified as “religiously unaffiliated,” up from 16 percent in 2007) they have also moved toward new forms of community building, as well as new ways to seek mental clarity and spiritual experiences. The gym is a popular avenue for this kind of searching, in part because it mimics the form of traditional religious services.
First of all, it creates community for us: a place where we can congregate to actively socialize. “I think I’ve figured out what [people are] really drawn to, and that’s the community aspect of it,” says Sam Rypinski, who owns an LA gym called Everybody, which aims to be diverse and inclusive. “We’re living in dark times; we’re very segregated and separated from each other. We’re cut off by technology. We don’t connect with our bodies; we don’t connect with each other. So if there’s a space that encourages that on any level, people are so happy to be there.”
As Rypinski notes, beyond helping us meet like-minded people, exercise helps us ground ourselves in our bodies the same way that religious ritual can (with movements like crossing ourselves, or bowing and kneeling). Many middle- and upper-class people spend most of their days ignoring their physical selves in favor of mentally tasking work; exercise helps one become reembodied.
But it also creates space apart from those busy brains. Exercise offers the opportunity to unplug from the flow of external data, as well as the chatter of our own relentless minds. Exertion is one of the easiest ways to short that particular circuit, and so gym and studio classes trend toward intensity, a grueling insistence that leaves no room to form thoughts more complicated than do not stop.
And then, at some point, a little bit of alchemy happens. Exhaustion combines with the well-worn familiarity of routine to form the zone that athletes often speak of. The zone is when it all starts flowing. It’s a psychic space in which you feel at once deeply within and also somehow outside of yourself. In this way, exercise routines can be a relatively straightforward path to something that resembles a religious ecstatic state.
Sometimes classes create this state in order to facilitate a specific spiritual practice. Modern yoga and its concept of “moving meditation” is an early 20th-century creation, an amalgamation of Western physical-fitness culture and centuries-old Indian religious traditions. It’s designed to use “the zone” as an introduction to the mental clarity that is sought through meditation.
Starting in the physical realm can be helpful for people who are intimidated or turned off by the idea of religion or spirituality: “There’s nothing more immediate, there’s nothing more present-moment than your physical sensations,” says Caleb Aschkynazo, who has been teaching yoga in Los Angeles for 30 years. “There’s nothing less religious, there’s nothing less conceptual.” Yoga and related practices can teach you to listen to yourself, first and foremost—which, Aschkynazo points out, puts you onto the path of tuning out “the endless cacophony of noise—not only in your head, but [that] we’re surrounded with.”
Moving meditation has helped birth a generation of studios that focus on exercise as a means to general “well-being”—promoting mental and spiritual (as well as, obviously, physical) health.
SoulCycle, for instance, paints its room with mantras that immediately subsume new riders into a collective “we” that “aspires to inspire” by way of activities like “find[ing] freedom in our sprints.” Even more than solo exercise, these classes mimic the structure of religious ritual by creating specific pockets of community. They assign times to arrive, instructors to revere as gurus, and routines to perform on command.
The explicit promise that exercise has a spiritual component seems to elevate it to a higher purpose: Instead of focusing solely on the health and attractiveness of the body, it suggests that fitness is a gateway to a much larger and more lasting state of happiness and fulfillment, much like religious practice.
“There’s this saying, and it’s not my personal saying, but it starts: Who do you think you are?” Angela Davis, a Los Angeles–based SoulCycle instructor beloved by Oprah, tells me. “Your thoughts become your words; your words become your actions; your actions become your habits; your habits become your character; your character becomes your destiny; your destiny becomes your legacy. But it all starts with who do you think you are.”
(The quote she cites has a rich and slightly convoluted history: The internet has it coming out of the mouths of everyone from Mahatma Ghandi to Margaret Thatcher. This exploration of its history suggests that it may not have a single author, but has been a popular sentiment in the culture since at least the 1800s.)
“What draws someone into SoulCycle is that desire to be better,” she says. Davis feels that the work her students do on their bikes is spiritual, in that “people correlate spirituality with faith. And really, [SoulCycle is] about faith in yourself. The definition of faith is: the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of the unseen. So if you haven’t seen this higher expression of yourself ... but you have faith and you believe that it’s there, that’s the key.”
Davis’s definition of faith comes from the Bible: Hebrews, chapter 11, verse one. But she isn’t interested in preaching a specifically Christian theology in her classes: Instead, she says she wants to create a moment that facilitates people literally embodying the highest self they envision—the one who isn’t afraid to take on challenges and break new ground. The idea is that if they can find this self on the bike, they can also find it when they’re out in the world.
This conflation of the work of our bodies with the work of our lives can feel insidiously prosperity gospel–ish. The idea that better, harder, faster, and more are all concepts that are inextricably linked can certainly be motivating, but it can also be dangerous and damaging to equate them entirely. This doesn’t just happen in SoulCycle: It’s also present in CrossFit’s relentless, maximalist ethos, as well as more subtly in things like barre programs and kickboxing classes. Across platforms, a single promise resonates: Your body will get smaller, your world will get bigger, and your life will get better, but only through rigorous, sweaty work.
This rhetoric fails to account for those who can’t regularly pay for gym memberships, or one-off fees of $35 for 45 minutes of exercise, not to mention people with disabilities that preclude participation in one-size-fits-all programs. And the marketing and culture of group classes and expensive gyms often subtly discourages people who are overweight or not white from attending.
The deification of “better, harder, faster, more” can also be damaging to so-called “healthy” bodies, ones which are relatively fit and free of injury. The fetishization of never-ending accomplishment, which thrives by one-upping itself, can create a perpetually striving mindset that’s very good for selling class packages, but very bad for finding any kind of actual mental peace. And so the same drive that brings someone into an exercise class, and keeps them attending even when they’re tired and it’s tough, can become a liability when the challenge facing them is that they need to take a week off.
Instructors struggle with the imperative to push their students against their desire to keep them healthy—especially when that push comes directly from the students themselves. Caleb Aschkynazo used to call out yogis he thought were pushing themselves too far, but he’s stopped doing it, in part because he was so dispirited by how infrequently they were receptive to that message.
Angela Davis stresses accountability as a metric for her students, because “Accountability is you accounting to your own ability,” she explains. As far as she’s concerned, you don’t have to be a star spinner per se: “It’s just about us all showing up willing to do our best.”
But how can we know what our best is if we’re aiming to embody something we’ve never before attained? And how can we achieve it safely, without injuring ourselves in a bout of amateur enthusiasm? Sometimes the spirit is willing but the flesh is new to this.
Having teachers who are willing to insist on slowing students down is particularly critical because the obsession with harder, and the equation of harder and better, isn’t just coming from within, or out of the mouths of instructors. We live in a culture that fetishizes intensity as a path to purity, and considers purity a form of desirable perfection. We cannot necessarily trust ourselves to know when to stop.
Difficult acts ritually performed are one way to achieve what feels like a spiritual experience, but they are not the only one. And when our bodies rebel against that difficulty—when muscles spasm, or joints start to wear from continual stress and overwork—is when the gym-as-church thing starts to break down. There is spirituality to be found in slowing down, in stopping; it’s just that there’s not as much profit, and so there aren’t as many examples for us of how it might be done.
Perhaps it feels more natural to strive for spiritual fulfillment through rituals that are packaged alongside other things American culture already worships: overwork and consumerism. The Protestant work ethic and the hunger for consumption can combine to create an irresistible drive toward measurable accomplishment. Earnestly engaging with the spiritual can feel woo-woo and self-indulgent; striving to live your best life is not just allowed, but actively encouraged. Infusing spirituality with the flavor of success might make it more palatable to some.
And if there’s spirituality to be found, too, in slowing down, that doesn’t seem to be the path many are choosing. Boutique exercise remains a growth industry, especially as it works hand-in-glove with the relentlessly consumable aesthetic cult of lifestyle and personal branding. We look good in sleek exercise gear, and we feel virtuous after the work of a workout. It’s easy to believe that our bodies reflect our lives and our lives reflect our bodies. It’s easy to believe the damaging myths about how our bodies and our lives are “supposed” to look and function. It’s so, so tempting to characterize painful work as cleansing fire.
Like every religion, fitness has changed and saved lives and it has ruined some, too. But that’s not fun to think about, and it has no bearing on what it feels like when you’re in it, when you’re surrendering yourself to the straightforward imperative of the work. In that moment, your world narrows to your shoulders, your hamstrings, your lungs and your heart. For a breath, the world seems brutally, beautifully simple.
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